(This is chapter nine of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
I spent a few weekends during the late winter and early spring of 1995 running around the borough of Queens, New York taking pictures, most often with my three kids in tow. Daniel and Elizabeth loved to go on random car adventures, little Abigail got strapped into the car seat and had no choice, and we usually ended up some place cool like the Lemon Ice King of Corona or the famous "Coming To America" Wendy's on Queens Boulevard by the end of the night. I didn't know exactly what I was taking pictures for, but I had some vague idea about exploring the concept of the Internet as a virtual city by writing online about my real city, figuring this would somehow make sense to readers. Or else I just enjoyed driving aimlessly around Queens with my kids and getting lemon ices. I'm not sure exactly which it was.
(This is chapter eight of my ongoing memoir of the internet industry.)
On October 28, 1994, Chip Bayers of Wired Magazine posted on Usenet about an ambitious new website called HotWired.com:
HotWired is new thinking for a new medium. We call it a cyberstation, a suite of vertical content streams about the Digital Revolution and the Second Renaissance with an integrated community space. While HotWired is currently bound by technological limitations that restrict bandwidth, it represents the genetic blueprint that will evolve into the overarching media environment of the next century.
Further down, Bayers' post also said this:
HotWired is free to members. HotWired's revenue model is similar to broadcast media - content supported by sponsors. HotWired's sponsors are some of the bluest chip advertisers in America, including IBM, AT&T, Volvo, Sprint, MCI, Zima (Coors), Internet Shopping Network (Home Shopping Network), Club Med, etc.
I didn't know what to think of all the hype, or of the "tribal" design aesthetic. But I appreciated that HotWired bothered to have a design aesthetic, since most websites still featured black Times New Roman text against a pale gray background. I registered to become a "member" (a new concept at the time), but didn't find much to do with my membership. There were discussion groups, but they felt meager and artificial compared to Usenet.
The most unique thing about HotWired was not its look or its content but its business focus. Revenue model? Sponsors? Now this was something new. I didn't feel much confidence that HotWired would be able to pull this off, but it was the most ambitious concept I'd seen on the web so far, and I couldn't help wanting to quit my job and work for them immediately.
(This is chapter seven of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
The World Wide Web was a social network from its earliest days, but it wasn't much like the social networks of today. It was a small world, for one thing, and everybody in it had some degree of technical skill. Maybe that's one reason the earliest creatures to populate this society tended to be such strange specimens, and also why our friendships often had an obsessive edge.
Soon after launching Literary Kicks in the summer of 1994 I got an email from Malcolm Humes, webmaster of the Brian Eno homepage, who wanted to collaborate with me on a new site about William S. Burroughs. I didn't want to collaborate, but I found that Mal and I had an awful lot to talk about. We began emailing several times a day, and it meant a lot to me to be able to compare notes with another creative techie soul.
(This is chapter six of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
By the autumn of 1994 I was feeling pretty good about my crazy little website, which was bringing in more new visitors each day. I began to contemplate where this whole new web paradigm might be heading, and how it might eventually converge with the work I was doing as a database programmer on Wall Street.
Banks and investment houses were already obsessed with technological change in the late 80s and early 90s, the years before the Internet's sudden rapid spread. Access to fast, accurate and complex information had become increasingly crucial to traders and analysts in this high-flying age of arbitrage and derivative markets, so firms like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Salomon Brothers, Lehman Brothers, Smith Barney, Bankers Trust and Merrill Lynch were racing to revamp their database systems while information providers like Moody's, Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones competed to provide the best raw numbers for these banks to crunch. This was why techies like me flocked to Wall Street during these years.
(This is chapter five of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
Most early websites were hosted by universities or research organizations, and .edu addresses (like http://akebono.stanford.edu, a comprehensive web directory called Yahoo) were far more common than .coms. There was very little commercial activity on the early Internet, and many users assumed the network would remain non-commercial forever. They were in for a rude awakening. A big controversy erupted on April 12, 1994 when a pair of married immigration lawyers Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel mass-mailed a sales message to 6000 Usenet groups. Thus was invented "spam", and a hell of an uproar that still rages today.
I wanted to create a website of my own, and I had a vague idea that I would call this website Literary Kicks and write about Jack Kerouac. But I had no idea how to get started without a university account. I accessed the Internet via my employer, Sybase.com, but I certainly wasn't going to put my own writing up on a company server. A clue finally came when my rec.music.dylan friend John Howells announced a Bob Dylan website, the Bringing It All Back Home Page, in June 1994. Howells was a corporate techie like me, an employee of Silicon Graphics, and he pointed me to Netcom.com, a private company that sold Internet accounts with public web server space for 20 bucks a month.
(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.
(This is chapter three of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry)
By the time I stumbled onto the Internet in 1993, there were a small number of literary sites available. Ed Krol's 1992 guidebook The Whole Internet listed exactly two literary magazines on the Internet:
Athene and InterText, electronic magazines devoted to short fiction, are archived here.
Access via: ftp quartz.rutgers.edu; login anonymous; cd pub/journals
I went to the FTP site and found a directory for the magazine called InterText (I never found a directory for Athene, and never heard of it again). About a year and a half worth of past monthly issues of InterText were available for free download in either PDF or ASCII text format. I checked a few out and liked what I read. These were clever stories, somewhat collegiate in tone but serious and well-edited. Several of the pieces had a Twilight-Zone-ish feel. I sent an email to the editor, a Berkeley journalism grad student named Jason Snell, announcing that I planned to submit a story.
For the last couple of years, my then-wife Meg and I had both been submitting short stories to literary journals like Story, Glimmer Train and Ploughshares. Sometimes we got back stiff rejection letters, and sometimes we got nice notes saying "please think of us again". The carrot and the stick. I considered sending InterText one of the stories from my rejection repertoire, but I had a better urge to write something new.
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.
(This is the first chapter of my new memoir of the Internet industry.)
I didn't become a computer programmer because I wanted to. It was the door that opened for me.
I was a Philosophy student at Albany State, but my stepfather Gene kept reminding me that I was eventually going to graduate and nobody was hiring philosophers. Gene (a successful businessman who still gives me good advice whenever I need it) made me a better offer after my sophomore year -- a summer job in the software department of the aerospace electronics division he managed, at General Instrument in Hicksville, Long Island. My brother Gary already had a summer job with Gene, so I decided to tag along. It was a better paycheck than McDonalds.
Back at Albany State for the autumn semester, I noticed a strange and growing convergence between the Philosophy department and the Computer Science department. My Symbolic Logic professor (who'd given me an A+) James Thomas suddenly resigned his full professorship in the Philosophy department to become a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant in the Computer Science department. I asked him about it and he said "Are you kidding? This is what's interesting in logic right now. This is where I want to be." The fact that he was demoting himself from professor to grad student didn't bother him at all. That's the kind of "logic" I admire.