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Did you use pre-internet online services like CompuServe or Quantum Link? How was your experience?

Was it fascinating? Did it feel like the amazing future? Were you all too aware of the mounting cost relative to what you were actually doing?


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  • I used Usenet and anonymous FTP, archie and gopher, in the days just before the creation of the web. I actually thought the web was weird when my ISP started trying to push it, and couldn't really understand why they were making such a big deal about it and taking so much trouble to explain to me all the things I'd have to do to get hooked up with it (which were significant). It seemed like just a bunch of weird-looking pages and not all that useful. Weird bomb-making recipes in text files from anonymous FTP seemed a lot better.

    CompuServe had a very different feel as opposed to the community-run places like FidoNet and Usenet. It always sort of felt like a Dollar General version of the internet, where all the shelves are a little disordered and no one's really paying that much attention to what's going on. Usenet and FTP were very cool. There was wild stuff on there.

    Getting access to email was very cool. Before that it was sending letters, or talking on the phone with family members or random strangers walking around hearing you. Getting a physical letter from someone you were distantly-connected to was very cool in a way that's not replicated on any electronic network, and email seemed initially like it was better, although I think now that in letters we lost something important.

    Probably the most massive difference between now and those days is something I don't see people talk about very much: Before the internet, there really was only 1 viewpoint and 1 viewpoint only on the news. US soldiers were the good guys. Neoliberals in government are looking out for you. Criminals are bad. It's just... it's hard to explain, because now there's such a wealth of different opinions and ways of looking at things that it seems normal, but back then it was very rare to get your hands on even one little piece of "subversive" viewpoint. When the Rodney King beating made the news, it was really electrifyingly shocking; at least to the white world, the idea that the cops would ever do something wrong or could even be charged with a crime was aberrant and confusing. They found the cops not guilty in the first trial. It was just too much to take on, to change the jury's world view around to that they might have done something illegal, even with the whole thing on video.

    I got an issue of Adbusters and it was like this wild precious thing, an artifact from some other world. I was visiting somewhere when I found it; it wasn't available in my hometown. On the early internet, I was reading a message board where some people were talking about tactics fighting against NATO troops, and it was fucking mind blowing. Like... they're the enemy. How can they be allowed on the internet? Like people? And then I started downloading episodes of "Off the Hook" and issues of 2600, and it sort of was this gateway into this whole other way of looking at the world. I read some Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, and around that time this whole other type of media came along, and in about 5-10 years it became, silently but inexorably, an acceptable thing. But when I was growing up, it wasn't.

    It's not gonna be possible, I think, for someone from today to really understand how blinkered the view was of the world for 99% of people, before the internet came along. I don't know how well it will translate to today, but I remember Spin as another big watershed at the time, in showing me how much fakeness was in a lot of what I thought was real.

    • Before the internet, there really was only 1 viewpoint and 1 viewpoint only on the news.

      Absolutely, though it went beyond the news. Culture in general was much more monolithic. You could start a conversation with any random person about the previous evening's episode of Gunsmoke or MASH or Cheers and there was a very good chance they had watched it. It's hard to overstate how much more diverse culture has become in the Internet era, for better and for worse.

    • Even though I was too poor and rural for internet services, I am old enough to remember the analog days, and this is very interesting what you're saying about the narrow perspective and then broadening it.

      Like I remember the nightly national news on television and accepting it in the way of a kid who's bright but hasn't seen anything of the world very far from his house. Maybe the wider world seemed like something that happened only on television. Whatever Tom Brokaw said seemed like probably what was happening out there.

      But I think I would have expected at least a Southern cop to fuck anyone over whom he didn't know, and we knew that cops liked to sit at the bottom of a hill with an unexpected speed limit and ticket the public all day.

      I can remember being a little bit aware of adbusters in the late 90s (IIRC, they were trying to sell something called black spot sneakers, and I kind of suspected they were just being like any company except with different rhetoric), can remember seeing that there was some company called Loompanics (I think) that sold every kind of crazy book. I knew that alt.2600 existed, but I didn't really understand it.

      But, beyond that, I don't think I recall the broadening as clearly as you do. There was probably a good bit of waking up that I didn't do until the 2000 election happened, saw how the people around me regarded it, etc.

      I've never heard of Spin! I'll watch it now.