Involvement in Internet’s infancy invaluable

By Chris

Back in the days before the world was illuminated by the dazzling glow of the Internet and ‘Cyberspace’ was just a term thought up by an obscure science fiction writer, and there wasn’t a Web address tacked onto every commercial or billboard, and everyone and their mother didn’t have an e-mail address or two, and Netscape inventor Marc Andreesen was getting beat up by the high school bully and Active Desktops meant you were losing the fight against the roaches that scurried past your coffee mug …
Back in those days, when the Internet wasn’t cool yet, I spent a year studying in Wales. Who could have known that events during the trip would change my life and the lives of people around me.
Shortly after my arrival, I was informed that, as a foreign student, I had access to something called an e-mail account. I’d never heard of e-mail before, but since I was something of a computer nerd, I headed down to the lab to check things out. It did not take me long to recognize the potential that lay in the blinking, monochrome characters on the screen of an old VAX/VMS terminal. I was being offered rapid communication that avoided the annoying 50 cent (or 50p) stamps associated with air mail — mail that would zip across the Atlantic in seconds instead of days. All I needed was to find someone to whom I could send something.
Two weeks and a few well-placed, airborne letters later, everything was in place. My mother managed to get an account with the world’s first Freenet in Cleveland; my best-friend, Ken, got his own VAX account at Wright State University, and so on. It turned out that if you really wanted e-mail back then and did a little searching, free transatlantic, communication was only a modem away.
I suppose things weren’t too weird in the beginning. Some of my friends thought it was strange that I would rush off to the computer lab two or three times a day to check my mail. However, when I explained that it really wasn’t so different from getting regular mail, nothing seemed particularly out of sorts. I really enjoyed getting and sending mail across the ocean — keeping in touch with people on a daily instead of weekly or monthly basis. I think it kept me from going insane.
The wonderful thing about e-mail is that it is nearly instantaneous, assuming the Net isn’t too busy, which it rarely was in those days. Once we (mostly my mother, Ken and I) realized that it really only took a few seconds for a message to be delivered, it was only a short step to near real time conversations. At a certain pre-arranged time, usually after dinner for them and after lunch for me, we’d all sit down in front of our keyboards and get wired. What followed was a flurry of messages bouncing about from Swansea, Dayton and Cleveland. I’m not sure what our all-time high for one session was, but we were easily sending 20 to 30 messages each in the space of an hour. (Freenet only allowed my mother to be connected in one hour blocks.) This sheer volume of mail inspired my mother to give these sessions a name: Operation Marathon E-Mail (OMEM). Some days I would check my mail in the morning and find only a single cryptic message: OMEM 5 EST.
The speed of e-mail was fine for a while, but what we were really looking for was real time conversation, leading us to the discovery of Internet Relay Chat. IRC let us have our own private chat area inviting only those we knew to join ##OMEM. Normally you’d find [Mom], [Chris], and [Ken] talking, well typing, it up. But there were guest appearances by [Amy], my sister at school in Florida, and [Miki], my ex-girlfriend studying in Germany. Somehow, in the space of a few months, those closest to me had managed to transcend space. There was immediacy to our chat sessions. They weren’t 3,000 miles away, but in the same room.
From these humble beginnings, some scary destinations have been reached. Here we are several years later, and though I can’t tell you when it happened, somehow the Net took over our lives. It must have been a gradual thing, working in stages. Maybe it was just our being out in Cyberspace before everyone else that warped our minds. Whatever the reason, there is no escape for us.
Now that everyone in my family has an e-mail account, my mother spends a couple hours a day online. First thing in the morning, she handles her mail. Then in the evening, she logs in again, checking the mail and delving into her new fascination with Border Collies. These BC people are fairly crazy in their own right.
My mother wades through 50 BC messages a day posted to the group. When our old dog, Chips, was finally put to sleep a couple years ago, where did we find a new border collie? On the Net, of course. My mom just posted a message that we were looking, and Ritz found her way into the family. I’m fairly certain that that was the period that finally hooked my mother. Sure, talking to her kids over the Net was nice, but getting moral support from all those other dog owners during our BC interim really kept her going.
Ken ended up getting a degree in English. As the common joke and truism runs, he didn’t have much luck in the job market after graduation. While he worked his no-brainer job at the law firm, he kept up his Internet tricks. This constant devotion paid off when he stumbled into a job writing HTML for an online book store. When he was hired, you could count the employees of www.books.com on your fingers. Now, there are more than two dozen, and Ken’s Internet expertise goes well beyond just writing Web pages. He has made a living out of what was originally a novel convenience.
Finally, there’s me. I’m so hooked that I get cranky when my inbox is empty. It’s like a drug fix that I need several times a day or you just do not want to be around me. I’m here in grad school, working on a Ph.D. in philosophy. My research areas are strictly related in one way or another to the Net. I look at ethics and metaphysics on the Net and even a little social theory. When I spend hours online every day it’s fun, but it’s also research. Don’t ask me about Aristotle or Kant or whether God exists; I’m not that kind of philosopher. I’d rather tell you about our ontological commitment to those virtual life forms we are blowing up with a virtual rocket launcher while playing Quake.
All students at the University are assigned an e-mail account. Don’t ignore it — seize it for the wonderful potential it presents. Just watch out. We can hardly predict where tomorrow’s technology is going, let alone where you might end up after a wild trip on the Net.

Chris Trejbal is the librarian at The Daily and a graduate student in philosophy. He welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected]