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Connecting Backwards through Time

Juxtapose the magic of a successful ping from the middle of West Africa's outback with the buzzing of an old serial modem making a connection. Add in the frenetic flashing of the lights on the cable modem, and the amazement of connecting to the internet over a device that fits in your pocket. Here's my take on how it's all worked out:

Earlier this afternoon I bought a GSM (mobile broadband) modem and was able to get onto the Internet for the first time from a moving car traveling through the wilds of Western Senegal, West Africa. I was stunned at how far we've come: outside the vehicle windows were a barren land with neither trees nor water, but I had five bars of connectivity, and was able to download email. Juxtapose that moment — a successful ping from the middle of nowhere — with a few lazy afternoons poking around old BBS technology and serial modems (RS-232!) and I'm thinking about just how different connectivity is after just a few decades, and how lucky I've been to have been alive for most of it. As I've experienced it, here is how the stages have played out:

2009 — Mobile Broadband: You can now buy a USB dongle that works like a cellphone, and allows you to connect your laptop through your mobile internet provider from wherever you have a cell phone signal. The GSM modem installs like a simple USB TTY device (that is, a serial device), and simply relays the data packets through your cell phone company to the internet. Your phone already has this modem built in, and your smart phone can access the internet the same way. On the downside, most of the development community has gone app-crazy, insisting you must purchase and install an individual application for just about everything you do. Mostly vanished, from these users' point of view, is the Internet as a soup of free and easily mixed information. In its place is an interface consisting of dozens of individual walled gardens, one paid app at a time: What a philosophical step backward. But communication has changed too: Lots of people are "done" with email these days, having long since drowned in it at the office and gotten bored of it back home. Mail takes too much time, so the bulk of communication takes place on sites like Facebook (a sentence at a time), or Twitter (140 characters at a time). No wonder nobody seems to have much to say, can't develop complex thoughts, or exchange much of anything other than banalities (witness the famous "Twitter Shitters"). Even this web page is probably too long. Only the stalwarts still publish a blog these days, as the rest of the world has decided it's easier to just Tweet and Retweet stuff, 140 characters at a time.

2003—present Wireless Broadband: Much like broadband wired internet, the sudden proliferation of wireless access points, and easily configured hardware that permitted you to use them, made it easier to connect from coffee shops, libraries, friends' houses, and more. It also introduced a new attack vector for baddies who could hack your wireless router and snoop. Turns out, despite its phenomenal utility, wireless routing is also a somewhat complex thing that requires knowledgeable and concious configuration, something many homes and small offices failed to provide.

2000 — 2009 Broadband Internet: You could now access the internet from your home far faster than previously, through (A)DSL broadband modems or through a cable modem, depending on which was cheaper and more convenient in your neighborhood. The faster connection speed led to more and better information! Just kidding! It led to heavier, slower, and more complicated web pages, cumbersome flash menus, bigger graphics, and similar. No one really knew how to reduce the file size of their digital cameras anymore, so they would send you 10MB photos of their kids, when 75KB would have conveyed the same image. Faster speeds also did away with software-on-a-CD, and led to expectations of being able to download and install software that would have been impossible to install over dial-up. Gone was the Linux distro on DVD; now you got an install CD and access to a repository containing the rest. Faster speeds also made graphics-heavy web forums easier and more fun, and put one of many nails in the coffin of Usenet text forums. Web searching technology was improving during this period, and there was a newcomer on the scene: Google, who offered nothing but search, at the beginning. Increasing connectivity meant users were more exposed than ever to viruses, trojan horses, and other malware, and sophisticated exploits allowed Windows XP machines to "XPerience" life as part of a bot net, sending out more of the same, blasting out spam or pump-and-dump stock offers. The "always on" phase however also permitted a break from the chain of desktop office software, as increasingly, you could use sophisticated online alternatives. Many people discovered the joy of managing a blog, but then decided soon after either they (a) had nothing of value to say, or (b) didn't want to take the time to write anything worth reading.

1995 — 2000 Dial Up Internet: America Online, later dubbed AOL, best represented this phase, but before even that the first ISPs were appearing, offering internet access over dial up connections using Point-to-Point protocol (PPP). Internet usage was mostly limited to text and simple web pages. Connect, download your mail into a mail client using the POP3 protocol, hoping to God some friend with a faster connection didn't send you something that would take ages to download (this kind of mail turd was often a Powerpoint presentation of some sort). Given wimpy connections, a lot of effort went into keeping web pages on the light side — 45 KB per page was a good target, and in the absence of context and banner ads, this wasn't too hard to do. You can now easily download that much information in Javascript now. Most bricks-and-mortar companies were still figuring out what to do with a website like once they'd purchased it. Web forums hadn't really been developed yet (there were some exceptions, like Utne's infamous Café running software called Motet); but Usenet had millions and millions of participants (destroying it, as many would assert, changing its character from a small group of technically savvy and intellectually curious to a sprawling melee of casual connectors). Web search engines were getting a foothold on helping web surfers find information, like Altavista and Yahoo! And Gopher, WAIS, Archie, Veronica, and friends were already ancient history. The age of Web 2.0 software had not yet arrived, but many tech-minded folks built web pages (not "blogs"), where they coul provide information or express themselves. Lots of people learned to enjoy chatting as well, using competing-but-not-compatible products from Yahoo, MSN, ICQ, and others. I have a strange nostalgia for this period, inexplicable because I updated to a cable modem the very instant I had one available: the draw is perhaps the fact that the beeping and buzzing of that 56K modem were the sound of a new world opening up to me.

1990 — 1995 Shell Accounts: The Web didn't exist, really, though in Switzerland, Berners-Lee was developing the technology and the first pages. But the Internet was alive and well, and students and researchers alike could access through University-provided shell accounts, typically on a Unix server linked to the network. Shell accounts got you email and access to multi-player online games (MUDS), IRC Chat sessions, discussion on a much smaller Usenet forum, and lots of documents and research, most of which you acquired via FTP and Telnet sessions. None of this was graphical, really, and the Internet was still very much the playground of a somewhat technical elite, as you had to know how to navigate your way around using Telnet, FTP, and the Unix Shell. Search engines were non-existent for the most part, but you could still use technologies like WAIS, Archie, and Gopher to search for and retrieve data from other connected servers, and better university libraries made these services available to an astonished student body. Computer terminals not connected to the university backbone could tap in using PLIP and SLIP connections, as researchers in offsite offices would often lobby to acquire.

Shell accounts still exist, for the Unix hardcore: Panix in New York City offers shell accounts and Unix services to a hardcore minority that still relates best to this paradigm of computing.

1980s: Bulletin Board Systems: Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) were the mainstay of early computer networkers long before there was a computer in most houses. TCP/IP networking was still a ways off for casual consumers, but with an acoustic modem you could have your home computer dial into a BBS for the price of the phone call. Instead of expensive Unix servers, these BBS systems were often home-brewed and ran on home systems from Commodore 64s to BBC Acorns to TRS 80s and lots of PCs running DOS. What computers in this lovely, heterogenous ecosystem had in common was serial interface software that transmitted whatever came over the modem onto the screen. Boom: you were connected.

There are still BBSes available, mostly over telnet but also over dial up lines as well. Visit BBSFinder for an up-to-the-minute list of currently functioning BBS systems, rife with nostalgic folks who still find pleasure in the intimacy of a small, tech-savvy community. And there are folks actively developing BBS-type software as well for both server and client sides, like Qodem and Syncterm, two terminal software packages that recreate the BBS terminal experience for modern Linux machines.

Final Thoughts: The trend over the past decade has been for faster and more omnipresent connections. Gone are the days of connecting, then disconnecting, and doing your work offline. Gone too are the days when accessing the Internet meant parking it at your desk. Rather, smart phones will soon be responsible for the majority of connections made to the Internet. And lastly, we've gone from using the Internet for exchanging text, to exchanging video and music files, with rich, graphical interfaces and data-intensive protocols. But I think in the process we've lost something, too.

Gone, for one, is the sense of tight community that BBSes provided, when you were sharing thoughts with a pool of perhaps hundreds of users. Today's web forums are used and abused from all over the world, and the sense of intimacy is somewhat lost, in my opinion. Gone, too, are the freedom and anonymity of the early days. In the BBS era, you could connect to any bulletin board your computer could dial, and no intermediaries were necessary. Enter PPP connections and you needed an ISP to connect through. Yes, you could dial into your ISP through any number of available phone numbers, but you were now trackable through an interface. We gave that up for broadband internet, whose speed required a much more intensive investment in hardware. That edged the small ISPs out of the market and gave the market for internet connections to an oligopoly of phone and cable TV providers. Also lost in that transition was the relative obscurity and freedom of dial up internet: fewer ISPs means fewer points on which you must exert your control, and that made it easier for governments to reduce, throttle, censor, and monitor internet users and their connections.

The nature of the Internet changed as well, as we transitioned from text to graphics and beyond. On Usenet there were no banner ads, no search engine optimization, and no user profiles: you chose the user name you wanted and operated in total anonymity — by design. The commercialization of the Internet has led to a concentration of attention on the WWW, and along with it search engine optimization, Google stat-gaming, and the deprecation of neutral platforms like FTP and Email in lieu of walled gardens like Facebook and Twitter (each a service provided by only one company). That final word — company — leads to the final flaw: these companies aim to earn profits, and increasingly the best way to do so is by developing user profiles for each person that accesses them, in the name of serving them the "perfect advertisement". Thinking back to the early days of pre-advertising networking, where privacy and anonymity were still both expected and respected, it seems we have progressed technically in terms of usability, usefulness, and aesthetics, at the cost of a significant step backwards in community, privacy, and humanity. Where to from here?


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