An eyewitness account of the rise of the Internet, for millennials

Why does everyone my age, the people who raised the millennial generation, now look to criticize the kids for being exactly as they were raised to be?

I hate it. My generation needs to take some responsibility for its choices, just one of which was the transformation of our society to a fearful, bubble-wrapped, constant-parental-supervision, hyper-PC world. Dodge ball is banned and yet school shootings skyrocket? Schools like jails? Crazy assloads of homework? Teaching to tests? At what point do we stand up and fess up to the kids: “We inherited a pretty good world, then got fearful and greedy, and screwed it up for you. We are sorry. We will stop giving you so much shit.”

Maybe, if we stop giving them shit now, they’ll pick out better nursing homes for us when the time comes. That, you realize, is the endgame. The vengeance of the elder is the calm understanding that the youth will one day experience arthritis, that one day Immodium will be more their recreational drug than ketamine. The vengeance of the youth is to make the elderly pray that their arthritic days end sooner. This cycle poisons us all. The kids need us: they need our support, our love, our examples, our wisdom, and our friendship. They need for us to share. And we need them: we need their liveliness, their change, their new outlooks, their ability to program the remote without wanting to throw it, their help with the physical tasks at which we are now semi-competent, and their friendship. We need for them to share. I can think of no more toxic way to spend my final years than in a gated community filled only with other old goats, who really buy into this ‘honored citizen’ and ‘senior citizen’ stuff, who leave miserly tips for harried waitresses they berate, and who do their best to hide from all youth, watching old Hallmark and INSP TV shows all day that reassure them how The World Ought To Be.

That world is gone. Be as nostalgic as you wish, but live in the now.

In the now, I just watched a video wherein teenagers attempted to use a typical twenty-year-old Windows 95 computer. I found their impressions fascinating. They did not intuitively grasp its basic functions, though some were very interested in the history. It occurred to me that many young folks, never having known a world without the Internet, do not apprehend how recent a phenomenon is this hyper-reliance on easy-to-use Internet. My generation’s harmful reflex is to ridicule them for this, which shows me that my contemporaries have lived this long without learning much. The proper response is not to make fun of the kids, and we ought to have developed enough wisdom to grasp this. If you’d like them to learn–if you would like some empathy and understanding from them–take time to teach them. Then let them teach you how their experience differs.

Speaking of which:

This comes from my own point of view as I lived it, now aged fifty-two, born in 1963, high school class of 1981, Bachelor of Arts 1986. When I was young, I reflected at how ancient I would be in the fabled year 2000: 37, practically a museum piece. I didn’t own my first computer until 1987, and it was a forgotten machine called the Atari ST. Of course, to use any form of Internet, one needs some form of computer, so it is essential to discuss the rise of the personal computer.

1980 (36 years ago): after striking a deal with Microsoft to bundle DOS (which in turn M$ buys off a fellow in the U-District who turns out to be like the guy who traded a winning lottery ticket for a caramel macchiato latte) with the product, IBM markets the IBM PC. At first, it costs about as much as a year’s public university dorm housing, or about 10% of an annual survival wage (at that time, one could almost eke by on minimum wage). The PC immediately wins, spawning a host of imitators (“clones”). Not much of anyone is on the Internet, which does exist in its ur-form, but is not for mere mortals.

1981 (35 years ago): That fall, I entered college at a major university which was as technologically current as any such institution. Very few students had personal computers, and none of them connected to the university’s systems, which were monsters that required entire rooms. PCs (to include all personal computers, including Apples and many long-deceased brands) cost several thousand dollars each, in an era where the minimum wage was around $3/hour. The university had computers for registration and other recordkeeping, as did large businesses. For computer science classes, there were ‘computer labs’ so people could practice fun stuff like Fortran programming. (Ask your engineer uncle about Fortran.)

1986: more students had PCs, but the Internet was still in its Arpanet ur-form, which had been around since 1969. This was a distributed network meant to operate by passing information through many possible paths to get from one point to another, rather than having to use This Dedicated Wire (which might be cut by an earthquake or the incineration of St. Louis, etc.). It wasn’t for us. I spent five years in college, as a history major, and wrote an inch-thick stack of papers. I typed and retyped every single one on an electric typewriter, typically three times: first draft, refinement and edits, final version.

By 1986 (30 years ago), a fair number of (the limited number of) computer users dialed into BBSes (bulletin board systems) in order to argue with strangers over common interests. It was like logging onto a web forum, but one had to dial in with a modem and phone line. Modems–little e-telephones which bore some resemblance to a DSL modem or cable modem in shape, size, and function–sounded bizarre when making the connection, like a bunch of springs boinging against a background of phone static. Maybe like a didgeridu played while tipsy. Of course, BBSes were never used as porn repositories or to share pirated software. That’s why we do not get the expression ‘l33t’ from ‘elite,’ which was not the term for a pirate BBS, because of course we would never indulge in warez (which was not the slang term for cracked pirated software). If the BBS was long distance, one paid through the nose in long distance charges.

1988 (28 years ago): PC ownership has moved well past IBM, which is showing an astonishing refusal to face facts. The Mac is the desktop publishing weapon of choice, but big companies still use ‘minicomputers’ (which could easily take up a whole room) or mainframes, a.k.a. Big Iron. IBM is cannibalizing its Big Iron business, trying to dictate to the PC industry, and the PC industry is listening to IBM about as much as you listen to your drunk uncle’s political and career guidance.

In 1988, I began a job selling computers, a foot soldier in the trenches of the IBM-Microsoft wars. M$ won, but it hadn’t yet decided to try and control the Internet. People who used modems to dial BBSes are now buying faster ones and signing up for Internet accounts; they still have to dial up. An always-on Internet connection, like your modern DSL or cable modem or fiber, is as affordable to average people as a yacht. Wireless is unknown. Windows is available, but it: runs on top of DOS, is buggy and cranky, and mostly sucks. This gives us a foretaste of what we can expect from M$ once IBM is crushed.

What did we even do with computers before we could dial up to the Internet and search? We wrote. We created art. We programmed applications, shareware, and so on. We compiled the code we wrote. We balanced checkbooks. We kept business books. We played games, oh god, how we played games. We used spreadsheets to automate calculations, letting do the heavy arithmetical lifting. We created databases to store large amounts of information, user interfaces to enable the research of the database, and report formats to present the research results. We drafted plans for building and bridges. We could look at the library’s card catalog, a voluminous wall of pigeonhole drawers we used to find books, and realize it would one day go away. So would the microfiche. There truly is much one can do with a computer that is not connected to a broadband network, and we did all of it.

1992 (24 years ago): The web will soon exist, and one will be able to browse it, but only with a text-based web browser. The dawn of the graphical user interface (which is how we elders describe the interactive front end of your Windows 10 or Mac OS whatever) is nearly at hand, ready to pave the way for unlimited porn. Windows is beginning to suck less. By this time, the PC has begun displacing both minis and big iron. Most people still get online with a modem, dialing in over a landline. Cell phones are uncommon and pretty spendy, and the idea of doing the Internet over your cellphone would have seemed like technological magic had anyone mentioned it. Laptops were big but not uncommon. Color inkjets were coming along.

1996 (20 years ago): a lot of PC office networks now ran on a thing called “Novell.” All you really need to know about Novell is that it was incomprehensible to normal people. By this time America Online–which had become one of the main ways people connected online (others were quaintnesses called CompuServe, Genie, etc.)–had unleashed its computer-illiterate, text-speaking “r u m or f?” and “ur a looser” hordes upon the Internet. That may have marked a transition point: until then, the Internet was sort of like a club that had unspoken rules and traditions, to which not everyone was willing to do the work to belong. It was rapidly becoming a free-for-all devoid of all standards (in other words, it was assuming a far more American character). For a while there, people like me got to enjoy a certain snobbish self-satisfaction, though I’m not sure how much good it did, since the AOL outlook took over. It was like one’s favorite pizzeria one day became a Chuck-E-Cheese’s–in mid-meal.

By 1996, the graphic web browser was king. The battle was between Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. The release of Windows 95, which you laughed at when you saw the video of the teens, marked a major turning point in making mainstream computing more stable and easier to work with. As you might expect from M$, it was doing everything it could to require the world to use IE, and the world refused. All that warfare against IBM, and it had learned not a single lesson about customers. There is no corporation that will not turn into a moron factory given enough time and success.

2000 (16 years ago): by now, broadband (DSL, cable, other ‘always on’ connections) was going mainstream, and phone modems were starting to look pretty dated. By 2000, most non-Luddites had some form of Internet connectivity; all companies worthy of the name had web presences. Also, at the false millennium (1/1/2000), there was a major scare because most of the remaining big iron software didn’t support eight-digit dating, and they had thrown away the source code. Much doom-and-gloom, much foretelling of apocalypse, and in the end, not much impact. But by this time, one didn’t need to watch the TV news to know about it. By this time, quite a few people learned about it on the Internet. I would say that around 2000 was the time when the Internet became like the telephone was to my parents, and the cell phone is to my nieces and nephews: “can’t function without it.”

Also around 2000, M$ followed up the very successful Windows 98 with Windows Me. Everyone hated it. Everyone. It was the Jerry Sandusky of operating systems. At that point, we began to realize that every other M$ operating system was going to be crappy, and the savvy among us planned accordingly. We’re still doing it.

By 2000, the Internet was an integral part of collegiate life. Our next transition would be Wi-Fi everywhere, and the decline of the PC in favor of the so-called smartphone, but you were around for those. I’ll let you figure out how to teach your grandkids about it, someday after I’m long gone. And if you do it better than I did, I’ll doff my spiritual hat to you, and wherever we go, when you catch up to me, we’ll have a single-malt.

Was it strange for me, having this enormous transition happen just a decade too late to help me through college? It was, but mine is not the first generation such things have happened to. It just is. We adapt as best we can, some better than others. (My mother is 75 and simply refuses to get on the Internet, and in her case I suspect that’s a pretty good thing.) Around 2000, too, Internet-based shopping and reviewing had gone very mainstream. That’s how I got into writing, through writing book reviews at Amazon, then product reviews at a now-moribund site called Epinions. I still keep in touch with a lot of people from Eps.

So. If you are twenty-five, by the time you were old enough to think about shopping, you never knew a world without the Internet; it was just something that had always been there, like oxygen or Abe Vigoda. (Like the telephone was for me.) And yet it wasn’t always there, and we did live productive and happy lives without it. I swear.

But one can never really go back, and for as badly as my generation has hosed down the world you live in, most of it knows that much at least. Even so, when next you take a look at one of those comical videos where teens look at Windows 95 and can’t even imagine how it was ever useful, at least you will know how it played out.

One last thing: lest the fogeys sell you a bill of goods, just as you look at a Windows 95-based computer and laugh at its abacus-level technology, your parents were doing the laughing in 1990. Only then, they were laughing at the people still using their pre-DOS CP/M machines, such as the Kaypro portable with its tiny green screen and floppy disks, the size of a briefcase. Or their old Compaq Portable, size of a hardshell suitcase, better known as the “Compaq Draggable.” They chortled at the elders still using cranky electric typewriters with worn-out ribbons, and at those who bought computers but still insisted on daisywheel printers (essentially, computer-driven typewriters) over the obviously superior dot-matrix printers. (That old, greasy printer at your mechanic’s shop with the word ‘Okidata’ on it? That’s a dot-matrix printer, with its rough images and its eardrum-tearing whine.)

As for our times, we can work together. If you’ll keep helping me figure out how to connect all these stupid new cords I don’t understand, I’ll be happy to reciprocate by helping you see how your parents’ world really was, and feeding you useful bits of data about their times to help you dominate them in debates.

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4 thoughts on “An eyewitness account of the rise of the Internet, for millennials”

  1. Fantastic, as always. It brought back a lot of old memories, and helped me place things in context — a little like my 40-year-old self seeing into the future.

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  2. This brings back lots of memories. Tandy computers, dot matrix printers, my daughter starting college and falling in love with a guy from Florida in an IRQ chat room (we lived in Utah) and dropping out of college a semester later. (They celebrate their 16th anniversary this month.) I became totally hooked on the Internet when I found an Anne McCaffrey chat group and we were actually able to have a live chat with her despite her living in Ireland. That was magic for me. Ironically, my first email address was with AOL in 1996, which I still have. Now my main address through Verizon has been “seamlessly” transferred to AOL. Which of course means I can never access that email again. Talking on video with my son serving in Iraq in 2003 was also a magic moment in technology for me. Keeping up with the changes is hard sometimes, but I would never go back.

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