“Eh? You kids and your fancy neuro-digital uplinks. Goshdarnit, back in my day we used our fingers to get on the web. We pounded keys and squeezed mice. Animal rights be damned, we liked it! And when the power went out, we’d boot up the old wood-burning 286 in the closet!”
That’s me, talking to one of my grandkids in 2134. I’m a firm believer in science’s ability to increase our life spans, and I miss a few aspects of “the good old days” of computer technology (which for me is the late-’80s, early-’90s). The Internet has really managed to screw up one or two things for us.
On-line communications have been around for a long time, but being on-line used to be optional. Today, a computer without an Internet connection is like a car without wheels; maybe it’s fun to listen to the stereo or make out in the backseat, but it just doesn’t go anywhere (welcome to the worst analogy ever printed in this paper). But we still got on-line back in the old days. We logged on to “bulletin board systems,” a.k.a. BBSs, one slow user at a time.
It worked like this: A user would log on, browse (though we didn’t use the word “browse” back then) through the various discussion boards, and post messages and replies to conversations. We had a little bit of e-mail too, but it wasn’t a big deal. The “sysops” let you stay on for only a half-hour or so, because nobody else could log on until you logged off. It was a world of pure, 1,200-bits-per-second ASCII text without graphics. The words would scroll across the screen, just like staring at a dot-matrix printer. Today, a system like this seems as quaint and kitschy as a functioning telegraph machine, and I’m sure I’m remembering it the same way my parents think about black-and-white television.
The BBS world defied stereotypes—once I started to meet the “BBS community” in “RL” (real life), I found out that none of these people were nerds (except me). They were mostly just smarter-than-average college students. It took so much work and so much patience to get on-line that most users wound up being interesting people with interesting things to say. At least half of them were female, too. On a BBS, a woman could count on logging on and being appreciated purely for what she had to say.
I still haven’t found an on-line community as engaging as the Lower Lights BBS. And I don’t mean the 60-plus users Lower Lights of the mid-’90s; I mean the Lower Lights that could host four users at a time, tops. Once more people started logging on, Lower Lights turned into a huge dating community, a herald of the million-user-madness that the Internet would introduce.
The Internet has messed up a few things on the technical side, too. Viruses are out of control. Back in the day, a person had to really try hard to get a virus on his system. They didn’t just “appear” unless a user was really reckless. Researchers have found a way to write a new virus that can infect Outlook Express without the user even opening an infected message! Let’s be clear: ActiveX viruses are an epidemic.
Another technological screw-up is the modern state of software. Getting a software patch or upgrade used to be a pain in the ass. It either meant mailing a floppy or logging on to a BBS, which was unfeasible for most users due to long-distance numbers, beating 100-plus callers into a BBS that could only handle 10 at a time, and the necessary technical expertise. But this worked out in the user’s favor; because redistributing drivers was mostly out of the question, hardware manufacturers had to work their butts off to get it right the first time.
Now the Internet is a plum excuse for releasing half-finished software. Need to make that third-quarter deadline but the software is still in a late beta stage? That’s OK, just ship the software, gather e-mail addresses and let users know when the patch is finished. But the patches are starting to balloon in size—getting a fix for WordPerfect takes an 80-megabyte download. On a broadband DSL connection, this could take about an hour. For a typical user, whose modem isn’t really much faster than the telegraph-style 2,400bps modems of yesteryear, we’re talking nearly a day!
Despite these problems, I still wouldn’t give up the 21st century computer world for the old one. While the drivers and patches may take a lot of effort to download, some of the software is truly fabulous. And I don’t care what anyone says about bloatware—I’ll take my 650-megabyte, crash-proof Windows 2000 over MS-DOS any day of the week. Decent on-line communities can still be found here and there, through IRC and a few website bulletin boards. It’s not quite the same, but perhaps that’s just because I’m a bitter, jaded young man.
On an unrelated note, I’m going to attempt to push this column in a slightly new direction. As computers themselves become more ubiquitous, they are also becoming less of an issue That is, the computers themselves are less interesting than the way digital technology is shaping our lives.
I think there could be a niche for a computer-advice column. Send any questions you might have, related in any way to computers and technology—be it technical, practical or even philosophical—to firstname.lastname@example.org. If I don’t know the answer, you can bet I’ll browse the web to find it until carpal tunnel sets in. And if this doesn’t pan out, maybe I’ll try becoming a sex-advice columnist instead.