Several years ago I took a required course on computer literacy at UNO. Admittedly, the course was outdated even then. Its primary function was to teach students several things any college student should be embarrassed to have had to learn—how to make a Power Point slide show, how to move files from one folder to another, how to find porn, etc . . . But there were also several lessons that appealed to the historian in me. One lesson that still stands out in my mind was on the history of the internet. In the lecture, the professor gave us the standard spiel: DARPA begets ARPANET begets, well, YouTube, facebook, and other incredible wastes of time. I remember leaving the lecture feeling angry. Hell no, I thought!! He’s left out a huge part of the story!! The internet wasn’t the product of the top-down, deliberate activities of a few professors and government organizations. Where’s the personal agency? Where’s the unpredictability? Where’s the unintended consequences of teenagers writing software just for fun or plugging in one piece of hardware to another just to see if it would work? WHERE’S THE BULLETIN BOARD SYSTEM!!??!!??
Now, the few people who stumble across this blog are likely unfamiliar with the concept of a BBS. But, for anybody who grew up in the shadow of War Games and Whiz Kids, Bulletin Board Systems were the internet before the internet. More than this, they were a more intimate, more personal, more close-knit network of computer users. Essentially, a BBS was an open system run on a personal computer that other users could dial into via phone lines and modems. A system operator (Sysop) would set up his computer as a single- or multi-user host system (depending on how many phone lines he had); and other computer owners could use their 300, 1200, 2400 baud modems to access his computer for the purpose of trading files, sending messages, posting comments, chatting with the Sysop or other users, or playing multi-person online games. This may seem limited by today’s standards, but in the late eighties and early ninety’s, it was blowyourfuckingmind exciting!!!
It’s sad to think that this stage between autonomous computers humming in living rooms around the country and the full-blown internet has been written out of the history of networking. The transition wasn’t necessarily linear—BBSes didn’t become internet websites. But the BBS world opened the door that the internet walked through. The unanticipated, viral popularity of BBSes made the dream of terminal to terminal communication and digital commerce a real possibility. Somebody should really fight to write BBSes back into the story. And, maybe somebody has. I found this fantastic eight-part documentary on the lost BBS world. This is the best attempt I’ve come across so far of someone writing the BBS back into the history of the world computer networking has made.
NO CARRIER . . . . . .
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