The very long goodbye

It seems not so long ago when I made my first tentative steps online using my Multimedia PC1-compliant IBM PS/1. There were no home broadband or DSL connections, wireless LANs, or cell phones with ICQ, just Hayes-compatible modems chugging out text at 14,400 bits per second from a downtown server with not much more total bandwidth than my current home computer.

Original Pentiums just started rolling off the line with a whopping four megabytes of RAM and seemingly unfillable 160 meg hard disks. Windows for Workgroups was hot and Chicago was on the perpetual horizon. The one-off CD market was just taking off, with CD burners coming down to a mere $2,500.

For those who outgrew BBSes and FidoNET, Mosaic and Trumpet Winsock were in, and Netscape, streaming video, instant messaging, eBay, e-commerce and amazon.com were just gleams in programmers’ eyes. The browser wars, the U.S. presidential election that swamped CNN with millions of hits per hour, the online Drudge Report that started the two-year long Lewinski scandal and the Starr report were all years away. Most people didn’t know or care about the online world.

If someone had told me even eight years ago that Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web–connecting “infobases” on the 130 or so sites at the time using point-and-click “hypermedia”–would become as pervasive as it has, I would have cried insanity. After all, why would I ever need to connect my computer to some other computer half way across the world? Certainly, not to access something akin to a large, unorganized and slow version of the Grolier’s Multimedia Encyclopedia–especially when the library has better sources. As for putting out my own online content, the blue IBM logo in a white box on a grey background was great for IBM, but why would I ever need a “Web page” for myself?

Never have we so easily and rapidly integrated such radical technology into our lives. Not checking e-mail upon arriving at the office is almost uncomfortable, like missing out on the morning cup of coffee; someone, somewhere will have e-mailed overnight, and a factual answer to any question is assumed to exist in one of the three billion pages on the 13-year-old Web. We seem to have forgotten in the infinite sea of information that only a few years ago, Yahoo! was maintained by hand and there was something called Y2K.

How things have changed in these last eight years. With the ubiquity of dot-coms, e-mail and the rest of it–thanks in large part to the likes CompuServe and Prodigy who brought the commercial Internet to consumers–we have grown to treat the online world as though it is something that has always been–e-mail and Web access have become essential utilities, like electricity or running water. People rarely speak of the before-time, when content actually mattered and academia dwarfed commerce online.

But change happens in mysterious ways. The free everything of the late ’90s brought about by venture capitalists and people who thought banners and Napster were worth money, ignored all economic order and brought the access to the masses and the masses to access. But when the euphoria went dry and money depleted, VCs went home and providers turned off their shops, leaving users wanting more and few able to deliver.

Soon, a dark-ages of sorts descended as the great pestilence of macro-viruses, server worms and other malware coursed around the world unchecked through still-narrow pipes. Corporate assimilation and scavenging of a grand scale took over the landscape. Everywhere, economic uncertainty left both businesses and consumers confused as investors’ billions turned into millions into nothing. Millions of people were in some way burned, but they still wanted more. Those same millions and then some now drive the current revitalization, where market forces have effect and share prices mean something.

Unfortunately, spammers and other crooked Internet “businesses” were and are still immune to economics. The practice of sending out millions of advertisement messages mostly at the cost of recipients, a practice pioneered by Arizona lawfirm Canter and Siegel in 1994, is the bane of almost everyone with an e-mail account, and online “pharmacies” and “investment” houses proliferate, unchecked by outdated laws. Legitimate and other businesses still don’t understand that banners, pop-ups, pop-unders, pop-throughs click-throughs, Flash animations, zap the monkey, and all sorts of ineffective advertising just waste bandwidth and potential customers.

As I hack this piece out using vi–a text editor about as old as I am–on the Web server for lack of any working workstations at the moment, I am reminded of the incredible fusion and evolution technology can undergo. The commercial Internet as we know it today is largely built on decades old technologies designed for completely different purposes. That we can repurpose a national defence network into a global communications tool speaks proudly of our technological creativity. We can only hope that as the technology continues to evolve, we gracefully evolve along with it and avoid responding recklessly to change.

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