"A brief history of the Internet as I know it so far," J. R. Carpenter, Fish Piss
Vol. 2, No. 4
When I started university in 1990 I knew almost nothing about computers. I could not imagine what went on inside of them. I typed term papers on a typewriter; I wrote letters with a fountain pen. I undertook an undergraduate degree in fine arts with a concentration in fibres. Fibre arts turned into fibre optics. That joke isn't even funny any more. Here's what happened:
In 1993 one of my fibres professors forced all her students to get Internet accounts with the university so we could visit an alt.art. newsgroup she had started with some cultural theory types the year before. I was furious. Knowing full well that computers were evil and having no intention of coming under their power for public control, I resisted. But to no avail. The professor insisted. We were all trundled off to a dingy lab on the eight floor. It was another world up there.
During my early Internet excursions, I had no idea where I was or what I was doing there. Technically speaking, I had a lot of ground to cover. I knew nothing about directory structures or, well, anything. And it drove me crazy that I didn't know so I pushed and pushed. I had always been an avid letter writer. Written communication through a series of interconnected machines didn't seam like such of a leap of faith.
The Internet was totally textual back then. It had no interface. The joke of the day was, On the Internet no one knows you're a dog. Everyone was talking about gender politics and how, on the Internet, you could role-play and construct your own identity. At the same time that everyone was obsessed with sexuality they were all claiming disembodiment, which seemed like a contradiction, even then.
After a while the Internet started to seem like a natural habitat, albeit an adopted one. I didn't have a computer of my own. In 1993 I was accessing the internet from a UNIX lab that had X-Windows on Sun stations with huge monitors that made you feel like you were falling. I knew I was fumbling around in the dark. Surrounded by computer science students, I harassed them constantly. I wanted someone to show me how this thing really worked. No one would tell me anything useful.
Hey, how come this anonmous ftp thing doesn't work?
You spelled anonymous wrong.
Hey I heard about this thing called pine for reading email. Do you know about that?
Well, how do I get it?
Pine is for weenies.
I'm a weenie.
vi editor rules.
I want pine.
I'm sure I used to think the Internet was up in the air. Not literally, but in the early days, the way they described things, it always sounded like the data traveled through space. I knew all these machines were connected but I wasn't sure how. I messed around with Archie, Gopher, Telent and FTP without ever finding a really good use for any of it. I gleefully sent packets over protocols I didn't know existed and, since I didn't know how to delete files properly, I surreptitiously stored data somewhere on the university network. When I first heard about Mosaic I went hunting for it. I didn't get it at all that it was a piece of software, an interface, something I would have to download. I thought I could just sign up for it like a chat room or a MUD. Finally some grad student helped me out. He manipulated my account information to make it appear as if I had enough space for this thing. I was extremely disappointed. Not only did I have no idea what to look for, but also, everything I found was lame. And black and white and very, very slow. By the next time I logged in the program was deleted from my account.
I made my first website in 1995 for Netscape 1.1 - it's still online somewhere. In 1996 I found work designing websites for an art gallery or two. One marketable skill led to another. Any romantic idea I had of cyberspace is now long gone. I don't believe in the invisible walls of software anymore. I know exactly where the hard lines lie. Cultural theory gave way to the need to make a living. It's a slippery slope: from the Internet to the World Wide Web; from art to design; from freelance to full time; from front end to back end. I felt like a fish out of water when I was a Fine Arts major working in the UNIX lab, lurking in Lamda MOO. But six years latter I found myself swimming with the software developers, systems administrators, sales guys and middle managers of corporate America.
For three years I worked as the manager of a high-tech company's web development team. I watched an 18th century industrial neighbourhood become a 21st century multimedia city. Warehouses were gutted and reconditioned. Factories and foundries were refurbished to house design houses, e-commerce complexes, tele-communication conglomerates and software companies galore. High tech companies moved in and expanded faster than they could find bodies to fill the jobs. Disembodiment my ass.
There was a shortage of technical people. From executive staff right through marketing and the sales force, many people took the web at face value. No one wanted to hear the details. They didn't want to understand the technology but they expected it to do things for them. The urban industrial landscape was being rebuilt based on these expectations. My desk shook from the heavy machinery. Construction crews were everywhere. Ragged and dusty road crews worked all summer. They sweated and yelled and ate their lunches on the banks of a now defunct canal along side the new media digerati. The streets were impassable. Periodically the facilities department sent out mass emails to apologize in advance for any inconvenience the next round of noise and/or lack of parking might incur.
The company I worked for was based in an old factory building. Pulleys and winches hung idle over waves of desks, a sea of programmers, an ocean of engineers. Outside my window was the weathered grey stone wall of one of the oldest warehouses in the city. Before it was a warehouse it was a prison. I'm sure it still is for some poor bastard working there. Staring off into space, through my window into theirs, I could see the low ceilings and the wide oak beams of another century. Outside, they were digging up the narrow streets to lay fibre optic cable: broadband for the old quarter. In many places you could see the cobblestone beneath the paved roads, the solid stone foundations and the crumbling old pipes - lead, and sometimes even wood - a cross-section of three centuries of industry exposed in a massive contradiction of infrastructure.
When I used to sit in the UNIX lab at the university on some already ancient computer terminal and cruse through alt.art. newsgroups I felt like I was part of something, like I was connected to a world out there. Receiving email was exciting; the Internet was a social event. It was a free way to stay connected to family and friends. When did it become a way of life, a working environment? I came to dread email. Even working for a division of a multinational corporation, everyone knew where I was. I sat at my desk and worked flowed through the network at me. Low level white noise was everywhere: hundreds of air vents, machines of every nature, telephones, cell phones, pagers, Palm pilot alarms and always in the distance, construction workers and their heavy machinery, laying down pipe. Somewhere below me was the server room. I had a rack and a half of live web servers running in there. I watched the stats through my browser - data generated graphs, log files and traffic reports.
I wondered: who died and left me in charge of all this? All this what? It was hard to say, sometimes. It often happened that developers or foreign offices came to me with their own web initiatives that they hoped I would jut put on line for them. My response was: Yeah, anyone can make a web page - go ahead. But then you will also have to take over all the rest of this web infrastructure crap because it is wearing me out. I had root access to the only hardware sitting outside the firewall. Everybody wanted a piece of that real estate eventually. If something went wrong I was often the first to know. Sometimes I felt inadequate to be so intimate with it all - all the servers and their backups, the switches and where they are on the gig, the router, the local loop and the shifting vagaries of the pipe. I felt like a switchboard operator, a camp counsellor, a matchmaker, a goddamn babysitter at times. The future is now. Yeah.
I had secret helpers in the product development team, in R&D and in IT. In some ways not much had changed since my days in the UNIX lab. I only knew enough to rely on more technical people, especially since my responsibilities as web manager so often bled into other territories. The pipe, the firewall, the mail servers, the LAN, the WAN - I didn't take care of any of that directly, but if something appeared to be wrong with any of it, people called me. I had a guy call me from India once, to tell me that our site was slow for him even though he was on an ISDN. No kidding. I wonder how many machines the data had go through between here and India. The funny thing was, he called. He must have had to do some planning to get a time of day when we would both be at our desks. He could have just sent me an email. The Internet never sleeps.
I used to think that the Internet was full of limitless possibilities, endless information - if only I was clever enough to uncover it all. Now I find I have to say no a lot and no one understands why. Few people seem willing to accept how expensive the Internet is, how fragile it is in places, how permeable and how slow. It is embarrassing to admit the failings of infrastructure. The backend remains a murky secret, a subconscious unwilling to be explored. This frustrates me.
For one of the three years I worked in high-tech I had a very good boss. He was always telling me to look at problems from 30,000 feet. He flew a lot, for business. So do I. We were constantly flying over boarders, across time zones, through billions of signals. Through data. We took taxis to the terminal to taxi down the runway to lift off to soar through the clutter of near space. We were on schedule, on autopilot, on radar. We worked on our laptops in midair. We caught up on yesterday's email and prepared for tomorrow's meetings. We were neither here nor there.
Sometimes I would look out the airplane window way above the continent - the wingtip shuddering over some imperceptibly still prairie - and I would think: is this where the Internet is?
A moment in the history of the Internet as I know it so far: I am 37,000 feet above the Nevada Basin. I crane my neck to catch a glimpse of some detail, some deffinition - any kind of data point at all. How can I possibly understand this landscape otherwise, this new cartography of information? The continent feels so empty. Despite the hype. I try to sit back and relax. My baggage is stored safely in the overhead bin. As we start to cross the mountains it strikes me incredibly funny that there is turbulence, even in business class. What will they think of next?
J. R. Carpenter, 2003.
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