Ironically enough for someone who has plied his trade in the tech industry for twenty-one years, two-thirds of that in Silly Con Valley, I was almost certainly part of the last cohort of American college students who could go through four years of undergrad without ever having seen or touched an Internet-enabled computer. My first email address was @eworld.com, in the summer of 1994 before grad school when I purchased the Power Macintosh 6100 that would be my primary instrument for almost five years.
But here’s the other kicker: I was also almost certainly one of the last people for whom introduction to the Internet wasn’t mediated through the World Wide Web. eWorld, nice though it was, at its root was a thin-gruel AOL clone and an online service with no Internet access but a mail gateway. As I cabled up in the autumn of ’94 at Vandy, you still had to find and install all the bits and bobs yourself – either some way to dial into a terminal session on the VAX, or else figure out how to install MacTCP and then come up with a SLIP or PPP connection and then start piecing together a telnet tool, a USENET reader, a Gopher client, and of course the indispensable Eudora.
There wouldn’t be Ethernet in the campus apartments for at least a year or more. Fortunately there weren’t a lot of people using the handful of Apple Remote Access modems, so my pokey pathetic Geocom Teleport Adapter could always dial in (even if it dragged my computer to a halt in doing so). There was definitely a feeling that you had to go up into cyberspace, jacking in via the phone line in a sort of techno-astral-projection. The idea that it was a perpetual ethereal presence that you could never escape from was a good ten or more years in the future, and in an age when almost every ISP still metered by the hour or fraction thereof, the urgency of “every second counts” was real.
Of course, as I may have mentioned earlier, the big driver was email. The notion that instead of writing a letter and throwing it in the postal sea to wait days or weeks or longer for a reply, or calling and running up $10 an hour or more in long distance, you could type something out on a computer and get something back instantaneously? Mind-bending, especially for someone nursing a long-distance crush and enthralled with the notion of epistolary novels. There were two computers in the office at Calhoun Hall, and ten or so terminals in a round computing building off Library Lawn, and a whole lab of Macs in Payne Hall not far from my own apartment where the 6100 waited to tie up a phone line that never rang with anyone I wanted to speak to. I was checking my mail just before class, right after class, halfway home, and everywhere in between. Over that first Christmas break in 1994, I would actually drive two and a half hours back from home just to collect my email (and my physical mail, to be fair).
Thing is, for years, it took work to be on the Internet. It was a journey to an alternate dimension, another place with its own customs and culture. And it was a different and problematic place, but it was worth the visit and it was an interesting place to co-reside. And then we ruined it by making it easy enough for any redneck fossil with a cell phone to use it. Now that slab in your hand is more like the sunglasses in They Live – showing you the horror all around, some of which was brought to you by that slab.