LOST IN THE SUPERMARKET

The Memoir

(This is chapter four of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

By the beginning of 1994 the excellent Unix operating system had reached critical mass in the corporate offices, public organizations and schools of the world. It was still unavailable in most homes, though a new user-friendly version called Linux was beginning to show up in homes with geeks. Any computer that ran Unix or Linux was automatically wired for the Internet, so this new communication platform was poised to explode.

This explosion could have gone a variety of different ways, though. A variety of early Internet publishing standards (Archie, Jughead, WAIS, WWW) jockeyed for position as the user base swelled. Fragmentation might have appeared inevitable, but instead an amazing convergence on a single publishing standard took place between the summer of 1993 and the summer of 1994. The entire Internet community adopted a presentation protocol called Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), a transport protocol called Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and an open linking system called the World-Wide Web. The speed and ease with which this complete convergence took place remains astonishing, and seems to have been almost magical.

Think of it this way: over at rec.music.dylan, we couldn't agree on anything. A Dylan fan couldn't wish another Dylan fan a happy birthday ("and may you stay forever young") without starting a major flame war. Flame wars were absolutely rampant on the early Internet, and yet somehow everybody in every corner of the untamed Internet came to the web format. Fifteen years later, we're still using it exclusively.

HTML, HTTP and the World-Wide Web were invented by a British computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee while he was consulting at CERN, a large nuclear physics research center in Geneva, Switzerland (his supervisor wrote "Vague, but exciting" on the first draft of Berners-Lee's "hypertext web" proposal in 1989).

A research center at Stanford University in Northern California -- the school that had historically connected with University of California at Los Angeles to activate the Internet in 1969 -- now had the honor in December 1991 of being the first organization outside of CERN to run a public web server. With Stanford and CERN linking back and forth, Berners-Lee's hypothetical web had suddenly become an actual web. Many other organizations quickly joined the fun.

But the WWW couldn't take off until a chubby kid named Marc Andreessen, an entry-level computer scientist at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's National Center for Supercomputing Applications invented Mosaic, the first widely popular web browser. Andreessen's elegant design encouraged the use of graphic images, and the first "wave" rippled across the web development community as a world of text-only sites began adding graphics so they could "look cool on Mosaic". There would be many waves to follow.

I first saw Mosaic at JP Morgan, and it certainly was love at first sight. I struggled at home to connect my cruddy old Mac notebook or clunky 486 PC to the Internet so I could check out the new Beastie Boys Homepage, or a library catalog, or a growing directory at http://akebono.stanford.edu that called itself "Yahoo". I finally achieved connectivity (it wasn't easy) and spent night after night exploring the web, thinking about creating a site of my own.

The spring of 1994 was a happy time for me. Just as the World-Wide Web was exploding, in some way I felt my own life was exploding, or at least had become very exciting. Meg was pregnant, my short story "Jeannie Might Know" had just been published in InterText, and my book contract with McGraw-Hill was nearly finalized. At work, I had begged my consulting manager to get me out of the dreary JP Morgan project, which I just couldn't stand anymore, and began doing shorter and punchier assignments at Smith Barney Shearson and Reuters. Everywhere I went, the techies I worked with were all discovering the web, talking about it, trading Mosaic tips ... all of us energized by what the future might bring, and what opportunities this might present for us as software developers.

There seemed to be something fresh in the air, but there were malevolent breezes too. On Friday morning on the 8th of April I read a strange article in the New York Times: anarchy had broken out in Rwanda, and machete-wielding gangs were carrying out vast massacres of entire families, entire villages. This seemed particularly brutal and inexplicable and I didn't understand exactly what the strange article was saying.

Later that same day, the news broke that Kurt Cobain's dead body had been found. He had shot himself in the head three days earlier.

Kurt Cobain's death certainly meant nothing compared to the unbelievable horrors in Rwanda, which I followed closely in the news over the next few months, feeling helpless, wondering "whatever happened to never again?". I thought a lot about Cobain too, and thought a lot of heavy thoughts. I was also reading a lot -- Jack Kerouac, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Paul Auster.

It never occurred to me at this point that I was about to create a website about literature, or about the Beat Generation. But I had recently become enraptured by a biography of Jack Kerouac, Kerouac by Ann Charters. I had loved several of Kerouac's books, but I found his own (sad) life story possibly the most compelling story of them all. Jack Kerouac was not popular among readers at this time, and most people had not heard of him. Just as there were only two or three books about the Internet in early 1994, there were only two or three books about Jack Kerouac, and Ann Charters' biography was the one that sealed my fascination with this enigmatic writer.

I was in a busy, dizzy state of mind in the late spring and summer of 1994. I occasionally thought about building a website, but I was in no rush to get started; I was having enough fun reading other people's pages. I got off the subway one night after work at the 71st Continental Ave/Forest Hills stop and walked home along Queens Boulevard, stopping at the Pioneer supermarket on 68th Road to buy some frozen yogurt, milk, polenta and spaghetti sauce. I was in the spaghetti sauce aisle trying to choose between Ragu and Prego when suddenly two words popped into my head: Literary Kicks. I remember the moment distinctly. It wasn't as if I thought of these words, but rather it was as if the website I'd been imagining in my head suddenly told me its name.

That could work, I thought. I wondered what type of website it would be, as I stood there contemplating the tomato sauce. I ended up choosing the Ragu.

This article is part of the series The Memoir. The next post in the series is THE LAUNCH. The previous post in the series is BECOMING LEVI ASHER.
12 Responses to "LOST IN THE SUPERMARKET"

Here's some interesting trivia. Tim Berners-Lee used a NeXT computer, which became the first web server. NeXT, of course, was the company founded by Steve Jobs after he was booted out of Apple.

I'm thinking that the seemingly magical adoption of HTML, HTTP, and www might have hinged on two or three users who happened to put up links to content that almost everyone liked. People were so enthusiastic about the content, they automatically used whatever protocol was necessary to access that content. I have no data on this. I wonder if it's worth researching for your book.

Also, and I'm not joking about this, but where was Al Gore during this phase of internet development and did he and his colleagues really contribute to it?

And speaking of magic, Levi, I got a magical feeling when I read about your Ragu moment in the grocery aisle. I distictly remember the day I discovered Litkicks. I know this sounds dramatic, but it really did change my life.

by Jeff on

This brings back the memories! I still remember seeing an email in Feb 1993 from Marc Andreessen on some unix newsgroup announcing the beta of mosaic for x-windows. Everything changed after that.

by Levi Asher on

Bill, that's a good question about Al Gore, who should have chosen his words more carefully when he once said he "took the initiative to create the Internet". The humorous image this evokes belies the fact that Gore did follow technology issues closely at a time when other politicians did not, and as a Senator did play a significant and visionary role at the governmental level in funding research centers that were critical to the early success of the Internet. Vincent Cerf, one of the true inventors of the Internet, has written an article about the importance of Gore's support in the early days.

Al Gore was not a techie, and he chose the wrong words to explain his role -- but he sure was way ahead of of his peer legislators in terms of understanding the importance of the Internet.

"Jack Kerouac was not popular among readers at this time, and most people had not heard of him."

You sure say some silly things, Levi. In 1994 I was in high school and I was reading Kerouac, along with lots of other people my age, just as high schoolers today read him, and high schoolers ever since the publication of On The Road read him. And I'll tell you, pretty much all the teachers at the school had heard of him, as well as the parents I talked to. I honestly don't know who these "most people" that you're talking about are. I think you should try and be more careful and precise with what you say.

by Levi Asher on

Eric, I love it that you keep me honest in this memoir, but I absolutely stand by my point that Jack Kerouac was nowhere near as widely known in 1994 as he was by, say, 1998. There was a massive explosion of interest in the Beat Generation between the years 1995 and 1998. Please check, for instance, how many books about Jack Kerouac were available from major publishers in 1994 (as I say, two or three) and how many were available in 1998 (dozens, dozens).

I know for a fact that most people had not heard of Jack Kerouac in 1994 because I started a website about him in 1994 and heard firsthand from many people that they had not heard of him. The fact that you (a brainy kid from Connecticut who loved to read) had conversations with your English teachers about Jack Kerouac in 1994 does not mean that most people had heard of him in 1994. I'm talking about the masses of humanity, not brainy kids and their English teachers.

by D Broussard on

I for one never heard his name,that I can recall,
in or before 1994.. didn't really start reading any of his books till I started hanging around litkicks around 2000 or so. Interesting stuff in the Memoir!

Dude, the masses of humanity haven't heard of Earnest Hemingway. The masses of humanity don't read. You need to clarify who you're talking about, because "most people hadn't heard of Jack Kerouac" is a weird generalization. There were these huge masses of people who were hippies in the 60's who LOVED Jack Kerouac. He certainly wasn't part of the literary establishment the way he started to be in the late nineties, it's true (hence the biographies) and I don't know who you were coming in contact with via your website, but you're saying silly things. It's like me saying "Most people haven't heard of Philip Roth." Well, that's true, you go out on the street and most people HAVEN'T heard of Philip Roth. It's basically meaningless unless you clarify who you're talking about.

by Levi Asher on

So hippies loved Jack Kerouac and so did brainy kids from Connecticut and their English teachers. The other 99% barely knew the name. The point I'm trying to make -- and it's a serious and relevant point -- is that Jack Kerouac's level of fame in 1994 was absolutely nowhere near what it was five years later. Nobody's sure exactly why this explosion of interest in the Beat Generation suddenly took place -- the Gap ad, the rumors of a Johnny Depp movie, the deaths of Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs in 1997 all helped -- and I'll be documenting many of these developments in chapters to come.

"Jack Kerouac’s level of fame in 1994 was absolutely nowhere near what it was five years later." This is a perfectly accurate sentence and is the one you should use. Seriously, that sentence makes perfect sense, whereas "most people hadn't heard of him" does not.

I didn't know too many people who in 1994 didn't know who Kerouac was. Especially that year. Released then was the film "On the Road with Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats," and it played in art houses.

Even a popluar movie of that year, "Threesome," (first slacker movie I recall) there's a pic of Kerouac on the wall. Both of the law students I saw the movie with in Gainesville recognized him.

The same year Dalkey came out with Aurelie Sheehan's wonderful story collection, "Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant." He was as well-known as Ginsberg or Hemingway or Fitzgerald in the circles I traveled in, and that year I was in law school and then worked as a lawyer.

Eric is not that exceptional. I was also teaching community college lit classes in the evenings, and you didn't have to be that brainy a high school grad to have heard of Kerouac, the beats, and On the Road. Yes, it was a minority of kids who knew who Kerouac was, but there probably was at least one in every class.

by mike on

Great story, I read a book a short while back published by the wired press I thought. I think it covered this internet history fairly well but I can't remember the title.

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