Internet Culture Music Personal Technology The Memoir

(This is chapter 2 of my memoir of the internet industry, which begins here.)

The Internet was born in November 1969, just after an exciting summer that included the Woodstock festival, the Charlie Manson murders and the Apollo 11 moonshot. The first successful demonstration of the Internet went much more quietly. A computer at the University of California at Los Angeles exchanged a series of messages with a computer at Stanford University in Palo Alto, 360 miles away, and at this moment -- well, one can only imagine that champagne bottles were popped, colleagues in various corporations and universities and government offices were giddily notified, and several West Coast nerds went home very happy. It didn't make the evening news.

The Internet grew, slowly and steadily. By the time I graduated with a Computer Science degree from Albany State in May 1984, the Internet was still nothing but a rumor to anyone I'd ever met. I worked for an aerospace firm and a robotics firm in the late 80s and never once saw a TCP/IP packet that didn't come from inside my building. We all knew that the Internet was somewhere out there -- I read about it in magazines like Byte and InfoWorld -- and in late 1992 I noticed a strange new book called The Whole Internet: User's Guide and Catalog by Ed Krol. It was published by O'Reilly, the most respected technical publisher in the Unix field, but it had a strange sort of 60s-ish San Francisco feel to it that was unlike any other O'Reilly book. I thumbed through it and read about Telnet, FTP, Usenet, Archie and Gopher, but it didn't make much sense and I didn't know where to find the Internet anyway.

That's why I was so excited in the summer of 1993 when an executive named Tim English stopped by my cubicle at the JP Morgan bank on Wall Street, where I had been working as a software consultant, and asked me to set up Usenet newsgroup access for his sys-admins. This meant the Internet was in the building. And I was going to get paid to figure out exactly where. Sweet!

Finding the Internet at JP Morgan turned out to be disappointingly easy. My boss directed me to a manager I'd never met named Dave Spector who was setting up the bank's new external network. I found Dave in a nondescript cube two floors away. "Hit rn" he said when he saw me coming. My question was obviously familiar.

"Hit rn?"

"Hit rn".

Unix was all about the two letter commands (vi was our editor, cc our C compiler, rm the dreaded remove all), so I knew what Dave Spector meant, though I'd been hoping for a longer conversation. I went back to my cube, hit rn and saw a screenful of newsgroup names. I paged through the thousands of selections and found the technical groups Tim English must have been referring to: comp.unix.internals, comp.unix.wizards, comp.databases.sybase. Then there were many, many, many other groups. There were biology groups, and history, and entertainment, film criticism, politics, philosophy, literature, music. I paged up and down, taking it all in:,, alt.postmodern, alt.rap, talk.politics.tibet, rec.arts.books, alt.barney.dinosaur.die.die.die. I had just fallen through the rabbit hole.

Usenet had been created fourteen years earlier, in 1979, when the Internet was ten years old. A team of computer scientists at Duke University and the University of North Carolina defined a naming protocol and access rules for free-form discussion groups between the schools, and then opened the system to anyone else who wanted to join. Like the Internet that carried it, Usenet had a slow but deliberate gestation. The main reason it took so long for Usenet and the Internet to catch on was that the operating systems of the time were a disparate mess and could not reliably manage TCP/IP traffic. The most Internet-capable operating system was Unix, which was also popular because it was free and open source. Wherever Unix went, the Internet and Usenet took root. By the late 1980s Unix had become the dominant operating system for corporations, colleges and government offices, and this is why the Internet happened in the early 1990s.

By the 1990s Usenet had already become a gigantic social network, and there were other equally strong online networks as well. Compuserve was a modem dial-up service that catered to the IBM/Microsoft PC-based community. America Online was an entertainment-oriented modem dial-up service that many Internet snobs found contemptibly trivial. Both were thriving. There were also various independent BBS services, and hobbyists were free to hack up their own inter-networks at will. Perhaps there was a moment during the early 1990s when the future of the Internet hung in the air.

If so, it was Linux that saved it in the early 90s. Until a skinny kid from Helsinki named Linus Torvalds coded up a high-quality PC implementation of Unix called Linux, you couldn't easily run Unix without an expensive dedicated server. Now you could slap Linux onto the broken PC in your basement and be on the Internet from your bedroom. Once again, the adoption of the right operating system was the gating factor for the Internet's success. Once Linux made Internet access affordable to broke geeks with cheap hardware, the race was over. Now America Online and Compuserve didn't have a chance (AOL would eventually become an Internet service, and Compuserve disappeared).

Around the industry, other techies were stumbling onto Usenet just at the same time I was. Two days after my first rn, I got a call from my Sybase colleague Tony Leotta, who was stationed at Citibank across the street:

"Hey. There's this thing where you get newsgroups. There's a group called comp.databases.sybase you gotta check out."

I told Tony I'd been there already. I'd found it two days before.

The Usenet ethic is "think before you talk", but it didn't take me long to attempt a post. My son Daniel was a two-year-old Barney fan in the summer of 1993, and I came up with a good joke about Min and the Stockholm Syndrome which I fired off to a cruel but likable group called alt.barney.dinosaur.die.die.die. Nobody responded. The next day I posted again, and again nobody responded. They all laughed at each other's jokes but nobody laughed at mine. Finally I ran a test post on a test newsgroup ("if you can read this please respond") and discovered that our Usenet connection was a one-way street. I ran to Dave Spector's cube with this complaint. He looked me over and slipped me a different path to a different version of 'rn' that actually worked correctly. (This is typical network manager behavior).

But, in light of all the agonies that would face me in my future adventures on the internet, I think it's funny that my very first experience on my very first social network was an experience of panicked alienation because I was being ignored. I really had no idea how much agony lay ahead.

I must have had a deep need at the time to discuss Bob Dylan's lyrics, because I gradually became a regular at, along with several fascinating tech-aware Dylanologists like Stephen Scobie, a Vancouver professor who'd written a book called Alias about Dylan's notions of identity, and Craig Jamieson, a Sanskrit scholar at Cambridge University who ran a large online Bob Dylan archive. I posted an extensive analysis of the obscure Bob Dylan film Renaldo and Clara, and I basked in the gratitude and praise I received. People liked what I wrote? That was a refreshing feeling.

It's a weird fact that, having stumbled onto the Internet, I immediately decided that the primary purpose of the Internet in my life would be to enable me to discuss the work of Bob Dylan. I guess I had years and years of private thoughts about Dylan that I needed to get out of my system. The fact that the level of knowledge, insight and clever humor regularly displayed within this Usenet group further focused my new obsession. Still, it's strange that my first reaction to the discovery of this exciting and future-oriented 1990s technology was that it would help me talk about a 1960s/1970s songwriter who hadn't released a good record in the past ten years. I began using a Bob Dylan quote in my .sig, which looked like this:

Marc Stein =

"twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift"

I did have a few other interests besides Bob Dylan. The amazing David Lynch television drama "Twin Peaks" had recently concluded, and I was eager to discuss interpretations of this show on I also hung out at alt.rap, where a very funny and talented amateur hiphop critic and MIT grad student named Charles Isbell aka the Homeboy from Hell was a regular poster. I sent my first-ever Internet fan email to Charles Isbell, and he politely wrote back. I also tried to make friends at rec.arts.books, but this newsgroup had a stuffy feel and never gathered much heat.

(Amusingly, the one set of Usenet forums that I never bothered to look at were the ones I'd been asked to set up Usenet access for: the highly active newsgroups on Linux, C++ and relational database design. These forums looked okay, but why would I want to talk about C++ when I could talk about Bob Dylan, David Lynch and Kool Moe Dee?)

Now that I knew my way around Usenet, I wanted to explore the other services described in Ed Krol's The Whole Internet: User's Guide and Catalog, which was still the only book about the Internet available in any store by the end of 1993, though many would be published in 1994. Telnet and FTP worked pretty well, and Archie and Gopher seemed pretty lame. Usenet and email were easily the biggest things on the Internet, though the book contained two chapters on up-and-coming Internet access tools that Ed Krol believed to have a lot of potential.

The first, and the one Ed Krol seemed most excited about, was an indexed Internet access architecture called WAIS (Wide Area Information Server). I tried to reach WAIS but couldn't figure out the complicated interface, so I gave up.

Then, between pages 227 and 242 of his book Ed Krol described a new thing called the World-Wide Web, which used a format called "hypertext". I couldn't get the "browser" called Viola to work on the JP Morgan network. So I gave up on this one too, or so I thought.

This article is part of the series The Memoir. The next post in the series is BECOMING LEVI ASHER. The previous post in the series is THE BREAK.
25 Responses to "FINDING THE INTERNET"

The teaser at the end is good. The memoirist would be more interesting than the the history of the internet.

by Bill Ectric on

Book hell, I'll send you twenty bucks right now to keep the chapters coming.

"I had just fallen through the rabbit hole."


by Webster Ash on

This book seems like fun! I’m new to the internet (can you believe that someone out there is new?!) and I use Clear wireless internet ( as my ISP. They were really easy to set up, so easy that a non-technician like me could do it himself. If you live in Portland, I recommend checking them out. I really like the cover of this book, it made me smile. Thank you for including the photo in your review.

by tito on

I think Isbell's Homeboy From Hell site is still one of the best music sites of ALL TIME on the internet. I remember the pleasant surprise when he responded to one of my emails as well.

by Levi Asher on

Wow, Tito, you read him too? That's so cool!

When I edited "Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web" in 1997 (which I'll be covering in this memoir shortly) I begged Charles Isbell to send me some creative writing, but he said he was not a writer and had no fiction or poetry to send. Definitely one of the freshest voices on the early Internet -- if it weren't for his example, I might have never thought of starting LitKicks. His writings on hiphop are still online here.

I had a CompuServe account, and also for a while I had Prodigy, an early graphical effort. Ah the days of dial up. Remember the movie WarGames?

by jota on

In 1994, an excited creative director barged into my cube and shouted for me to come down to this little room and see the future. I was working as a PR hack for Saatchi & Saatchi at the time and nobody saw this coming thing beyond internal email. When I went down to the first floor into this tiny room a crowd of crazy creatives were ooh-ing and aahing at the slow, slow, slow page of text landing on the screen from overseas.

Three years later they all cursed about having to add ugly wwww. url addresses to every piece of marketing material. And then the brilliant kids began creating dynamic content that actually moved on the screen.

A new revolution was here! The electronic superhighway. We were going to become one world and communicate and see new things. We were ecstatic and then we waited and watched to see what would come to rescue humanity.

We roamed the halls exhillirated and I walked into my boss's office to see what he what he was doing with this brand new tool.

Staring at photos of naked ladies, with his pants half down.

by jota on

Love your piece, Levi. Can't tell you how elated I was when you created essentially the first blog, at least for the beats. Oh how it has blossomed.

Your story is hilarious because it is so true. I have been stalking you ever since.

By the way, for Christmas I received my fourth On The Road and am re-reading it for the millionth time backwards to front. Your site turned me on to all of the cast beyond Jack.

Thanks for all of your hard work and to your hard working editors C and Jammie. Didn't you know god is a pooh bear?

Of course you did.

Please exuse my spelling errors here and above. Can't wait to hear more.

One more thing. The story of the California Burrito always cracks me up.

Yours in cyber friendship,
a west coast brother


by Levi Asher on

You're the best, Jota. Meeting you (though somehow we've still never met in person) was definitely one of the highlights of this journey. And believe me, you'll show up in some of the stories to follow. Just wait till we get to things like the 'caliscouri' chapter (ahhaaaa haahaaaa) ...

by fallerte on

While a few thousand miles away I was learning how to dial this modem thing I had plugged into my Atari ST to send my text fies (in strict ASCII format) to my buddy with a 512 MAC so he could lay out the pages in Aldus Pagemaker for my paper, "West Kootenay Logger." He had a trial supscription to Compuserve (whatever) which was of some interest to me.

A couple of years later one of my first searches was "Jack Kerouac" which brought me to The Cosmic Beat baseball league and Litkicks.

And yes, hi jota, missed you my man. As does Ebonis.

by Bill Ectric on

I have a story about Litkicks. I'm sure the actual threads are somewhere in the archives, but I don't remember what year this happened so it might take a while to find them. This is back when Litkicks had about a dozen separate boards, or categories going at the same time, with incessant posting on most of them.

One night I went joyously crazy over the fact that Litkicks was, the way I saw it, like a neon mansion and each board was like a separate room in the mansion, and I could run around from one room full of people to another, like Jack and Allen did in the Beat Hotel in one of Jack's books.

So I went into one board, I think it was the "Utterances" Board, and said, "Hey, who wants to come with me and surprise another board by barging in on them! A couple of people said, "Yeah, let's do it!" and we did. It was a silly, arguably meaningless gesture, but it reflects the fun spirit that often sparkled up in Levi's house.

by kelasher on

Keep the chapters coming! Bringing back memories: panix, ftping Monty Python scripts, usenet groups on every cool subject ever. Kids these days don't know how easy they have it.

by Bill Ectric on

I should clarify my above comment by pointing out that in those days, Litkicks threads were almost like a chatroom, people replying to one another so quickly. So while two or three people were talking on, say, the Roadgoing Board, suddenly these other people jump right into the thread, saying, "Hey, everybody! Bill? You here?"

"Yeah, I'm here! What is this place?"
"Roadgoing! Hey, roadgoing people, we came to say hi!"

"Well, I'm outa here."

"Me, too."

Roadgoing person: "What was that all about?"

"I don't know. Crazies. Anyway, where was I...oh, yeah, so I'm travelling on Highway 61..."

Note: I made up the preceding exchange because I don't remember the exact things we said. The real event was probably not as clear as to what exactly was happening.

by TKG on

It never goes away.

I liked archie. It was the google of its day.

Then used ftp

"The most Internet-capable operating system was Unix, which was also popular because it was free and open source."

I didn't think the original Unix was free and open source, at least not in the 70's and 80's. That was why Torvalds and Stallman were both working on their own, free, open source versions of it.

In fact, there wasn't even such a thing as open source until Stallman invented Free Software in 1984 or so...

by Levi Asher on

No way, Eric! The whole reason Unix was so successful was that it was free and open source. It was invented by a team at AT&T, but neither the inventors nor AT&T chose to claim ownership rights.

I don't get how your statement makes sense -- if Unix were not open source, Torvalds and Stallman (or the folks at Berkeley) would not have been able to make their own versions of it. You can't make your own version of Microsoft Windows, because it's not open source. You can make your own version of Unix -- and call it BSD or GNU or Linux or whatever -- because Unix is open source.

Richard Stallman was a great evangelist for open source culture. But to say that Stallman invented open source is like saying that Nirvana invented punk rock. In other words, it's off by about 15 years.

Incidentally, in the era when Unix was invented, many software projects were implicitly free and open source. Developers were accustomed to paying for hardware and freely exchanging software. It wasn't until the rise of Microsoft that the alternative concept of "closed source" and "licensed" software began to take hold.

History, man!

My understanding was the Torvalds was only able to make Linux because a university professor had made Minux in the 80's and published the source code. That project however, was not open source and Linus had to redo all the code from the ground up to prevent litigation. Indeed, this is exactly what happened to FreeBSD; AT&T sued them and prevented the release of their operating system for years. Similarly, Stallman didn't get even rough versions of his Herd kernal off the ground until the late 80's, when software like Minux was around for reference.

But perhaps we're using different definitions of "open source". My understanding is that the term "open source" was invented by Eric Raymond to give "free software" a more corporate-sounding name. You're right to think that the software in the 70's often had their source code freely distributed, but that emphatically did not make them "open source" because you were not allowed to resell the code or, legally, develop new code based on it. Just letting people look at the code does not open source make.

by Levi Asher on

Eric, maybe it's fair to say that we're stumbling over the difference between "open source" (a loose term) and "Open Source" (the codification of the principles of open source programming via the Open Source Initiative). But, as you acknowledge, the principles of open source programming existed long before the Open Source Initiative was created, and the term "open source" was in general use -- the term was not invented by Eric Raymond or by the Open Source Initiative. I don't know what the earliest use of the term was, but it was always understood that whatever "open source" meant, Unix was it.

Unix and ATT Unix and Berkeley Unix and GNU and Solaris and SCO Unix and Minix and Linux all add up to a long and convoluted history. You're right that at various points AT&T did try to retroactively establish ownership of Unix (why not? it had become gigantic and valuable) but the toothpaste was long out of the tube by this point. I guess it's correct to say that the original Unix was free and open source not by any top-level decision at AT&T, but simply in practice -- that is, the source code was freely distributed and widely adopted, and community contributions and alternate versions were crucial to its growth.

Here's my point though:
Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation in 1984 specifically because he wanted a free and "open source" Unix-type operating system (though GNU's Not Unix). Which means by 1984 at least Unix was locked down in one respect or another.

Here's a quote from the Unix entry on Wikipedia:
"AT&T made Unix available to universities and commercial firms, as well as the United States government under licenses. The licenses included all source code including the machine-dependent parts of the kernel, which were written in PDP-11 assembly code. Copies of the annotated Unix kernel sources circulated widely in the late 1970s in the form of a much-copied book by John Lions of the University of New South Wales, the Lions' Commentary on UNIX 6th Edition, with Source Code, which led to considerable use of Unix as an educational example."

Unix sources were widely distributed, true, but it was always under a strict license. Which is to say that Unix was NEVER open source in the sense that people say "open source" today, in the sense that Linux is open source or Emacs is open source or even FreeBSD is open source. And even now the idiots at SCO are suing Linux companies for violating their "copyright".

So all I'm saying is that telling people "Unix was/is open source" is misleading, and will give people the wrong idea about it. "The source code for Unix was widely available" is more accurate.

by Levi Asher on

Okay, Eric, even though I feel strongly that my looser use of the term "open source" is totally valid, I will agree with you that readers might be confused if they are thinking of the later codified meaning of "Open Source". I'm not going to change the above phrasing (because if I did, nobody would understand this conversation we're having), but if I were to rewrite the above sentence maybe I'd say "Unix was popular because it was free and the source code was openly shared".

Now that we've discussed this to death, I am wondering what is the earliest usage of the term "open source". I assure you it predates Eric Raymond, anyway!

I can accept that phrasing. Besides which, you're phrasing is clear now even to people who've never heard of the term "open source".

According to Wikipedia (which, as we all know, is never, ever wrong):
"They concluded that FSF's social activism was not appealing to companies like Netscape, and looked for a way to rebrand the free software movement to emphasize the business potential of the sharing of source code. The new name they chosen was "open source," and quickly Bruce Perens, publisher Tim O'Reilly, Linus Torvalds, and others signed on to the rebranding. The Open Source Initiative was founded in February 1998 to encourage use of the new term and evangelize open source principles."

Which gibes with my earlier statement that Eric Raymond came up with it.

by Levi Asher on

I've been browsing various histories of "open source". It is clear that Eric Raymond popularized the term, but I've seen no evidence that he invented the term or that it wasn't used by software developers before 1998.

Wikipedia says that the Open Source Initiative's definition of "open source" is widely recognized. But the same page also says "There are numerous groups who claim to own the term 'Open Source'". As a software developer, I remember using "open source" as a natural term. The source code is open -- it's "open source". I would be very surprised to learn that nobody referred to Linux as "open source" before 1998, and a few Linux histories I've found online confirm that Linux was always considered "open source" (it was invented in 1991).

I would like to get more exact citations -- if anybody knows the earliest use of "open source", please post.

As a Wittgenstenian, I find this a perfect example of a problem "caused by language". I also have a sense that a general term is being appropriated here, but I don't wish to get embroiled in a pointless controversy. I am glad that Eric's pointed this ambiguity out to me, and I will avoid the ambiguous usage in the future.

by Duncan Brown on

Where woud we be without Bob Dylan.
(Kinda flattened ah guess.)
Must be the Rolling Stone.
The ambiguous usage of the future
Has a provenance past experience
That's how we all got here.

by xian on

Wasn't Tim O'Reilly involved in the decision (in the sense of recommending it) to move away from the term "Free Software" and use "Open Source" instead to describe what is now known as open source software?

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