A lot of myths exist surrounding the Internet. Before I get all wistful and memoir-ish, I want to put a couple of those to bed:
The Internet was developed as a decentralized communications network in case of nuclear attack
FALSE: This one is cited so often that almost no one believes me when I tell them that the Internet was, in fact, developed to allow information sharing on Government projects amongst institutions, individuals doing the work, and their overseers, in an effort to streamline, avoid redundancy, and bottlenecks in knowledge. It was the brain child of a Pentagon visionary within DARPA (then called ARPA) who got tired of having to sign on to four different machines, with four different interfaces, to reach four different research institutions. ARPA, therefore, commissioned the folks at Bolt, Beranek & Newman to build what would come to be known at IMP’s: Intra-Network Message Processors, to act as ‘interpretive gateways’ between the differing platforms and operating systems each institution used. These four nodes became the foundation of the Internet that we know today. There’s a phenomenal book on the subject by Katie Hafner, called “Where Wizards Stay Up Late”. Read it – it’s awesome.
*(Acronym Reference Available Here)
Al Gore invented the Internet
FALSE: This is just stupid, so I won’t dignify it further.
The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) was the first public message sharing system:
SORT OF TRUE: This leads me nicely into my story.
As I mentioned before, I learned of something called a Modem (Modulator/Demodulator, for those who want to know what the hell that means) from the Block brothers when their new computer came equipped with one. A modem – for those of you who are still killing animals with a spear and living in caves – is a communications device which allows one computer to speak to another over a wired or – now – wireless conduit. Back in the eighties, they weren’t particularly useful to the average consumer, as there weren’t a whole lot of places to call with them. Unless, that is, you lived in the Rockford area.
I have a vast library of books, within my library of books, about the origins of technology. Within their numbers are numerous tomes on the Internet, and its predecessors. Yet within none of them is one name found. That name, is Bill Basham. Basham was a Rockford local who developed a Bulletin Board System (BBS, for short) that allowed Apple computer users to ‘dial in’ and ‘talk’ to one another in a group teleconference by typing, and sending to all participants, each message. Sort of like a party line phone call, but for computers. Diversi-Dial (or D-Dial, as it became known), was born.
The Rockford area, I am told, at one time boasted more D-Dial’s and, later, BBS’s than anywhere in the country. I was a few years late arriving to the party, but boards such as Heaven N’ Hell, Spenders Never Inn, Nightlines by MultiComm, Uncle Spike’s, Jeff’s Bored, Bloomford, Gateway, ‘R’ World, Paradigm, Perception, and a number of others all had their roots in the Rockford area. Infamous luminaries like King Blotto, Cap’n Crunch, and other big name ‘old school geeks & true hackers’ knew where Rockford was. We were not only on the digital map, we were one of the primary epicenters.
By the time I got around to using my first BBS (Bloomford) with Dan Block, I was hooked. Here, one could play text-based games against real individuals in real time. And the real-time aspect of not only these BBS’s, but D-Dial before them, made them truly interactive: moreso than The WELL, in that The WELL functioned more like basic Facebook with ‘static’ posts and responses. BBS’s, on the other hand, offered real-time private messaging, as well as public ‘Teleconference’ messaging where the participants were limited only by how many phone lines and modems the BBS owner had. Also present were e-mail boxes, text messaging, games, forums, special interest groups and, later, CD-ROM servers. It was magic.
I had the opportunity to buy my first modem-equipped machine when I was fifteen. I purchased it from a friend, who had found it at a swap meet. He already had a modem in his Apple and, so, had no real use for it once he heard that I was willing to give him $50.00 for it. It was a far cry from the computer of today. What it was, in fact, was a portable dumb terminal, used by telephone linemen in the field. It was a bulky, laptop-esque thing, with a super-dimunitive, monochrome screen, no software (save the dialer and terminal software), and a keypad (think Speak ‘N Spell) rather than a keyboard. It was God-awful to use, but it got me to the magical place called ‘The Teleconference’ at a whole 1200 baud. My life changed forever, and I still type with three fingers and two thumbs in a ‘float’ rather than home rows. All those thousands of hours rewired my brain to make it work, and on a good day I can still type 80+ words per minute, as well as using a ten key pad blind – with either hand. I’m pretty sure that makes me a freak of nature, because I haven’t met anyone else who can do that ambidextrously. It’s just not normal. Then again, neither am I.
Growing up, I was always the socially-inept fat kid who was also poor. Not impoverished, mind you, but poor. I also smelled like cigarette smoke (though I never knew that) because my parents chain smoked in a closed house. This is probably why I find myself being the center of laughter and attention even to this day: I fought my battles with wit and humor and, over time, became adept at both. As the first weeks of modem ownership wore on, I began to recognize that this group of folks I had digitally dropped in amongst were more like a huge family than a bunch of people who mingled around aimlessly. Again, this is the eighties, long before AOL, CompuServe, or anything else had ever even been conceived. Almost no one knew what the Internet was, and computer geeks were thought of as folks to be avoided. We – the actual Rockford area group – coined and openly propagated that term to refer to ourselves in a positive way, regardless of what anyone else says the origins are. It was ours, and I was there when it happened. I am, proudly, one of the original ‘Geeks’.
Bloomford and Gateway were the two 800-pound gorillas in the Rockford area, with vociferous followers and patrons much like a pair of professional sporting teams. Gateway had Warren’s Annual Picnic, and monthly pizza gatherings at the Godfather’s on State & Alpine, where all the folks getting to know one another digitally could come and meet in person. Bloomford, likewise had these sorts of gatherings at ice cream parlors, restaurants, etc. In fact, toward the end of its life, Bloomford also had The Bloomford Café downtown, both owned by Kim Kirkpatrick. Those were the days.
Here’s the strange thing: I got to know individuals from the ages of ten to seventy, intimately, before I even met them. They came from all walks of life, all levels of society, and many were folks I would never, under any other circumstances, come to know. One of my closest friends was nearing fifty, was a Senior Financial Analyst for The Newell Group, and under any normal circumstances our friendship seemed impossible. She’s since passed away, but those years of friendship will never be forgotten. Others of these myriad individuals are still my closest friends, even to this day. On-line, we could be ourselves, and no one cared what we looked like (and, no – we were not all fat, stinky, perverted trolls living in our mother’s basements). Most of us looked like anyone else, but tended to be a bit more intellectual, adventurous, shy, or crazy (in a good way).
Even today, folks on Facebook ask, “How do you know that person?”, when they see that I’m friends with someone. My answer is, often, “I don’t, yet, but they seemed interesting.” To this day, I have made new friends of all ages with each passing month in this manner, further solidifying and growing my list of individuals whom I proudly call friends. It’s a balancing act of empathy, listening, and communicating that is fast becoming a lost art, and that few have known and mastered to begin with. I’d like to think I’m a good judge of individuals who are worth getting to know, and then taking the time to do just that. People fascinate me.
I feel honored to have met so many unique individuals whom I now call friends through this medium. A medium whose birthplace is not in California, nor The WELL, as most would have you believe, but was, in fact (and my humble opinion), the ROCKFORD area.
And now, for the big finish, I offer you this: Eighteen years ago, I went to a geek party (we knew how to throw a party and have a good time, believe me – they were like nothing you could ever imagine) where a young girl I had seen on line, but had not yet met in real life, showed up. I chided her, she didn’t get my humor, and we hated each other almost instantly. I’ve been married to her for almost fifteen years now, and I am beyond blessed to have such a wonderful, funny, beautiful, smart, sexy, talented, and loving wife. All this, because I accepted the mantle of digital pioneer, solely for my amusement, so very long ago.
Thank you, Mr. Basham, wherever you are: I recognize your leadership, and pioneering spirit, and am glad that a Rockford-area native had such an impact on my life, and the lives of so many other dear friends that I would otherwise never have known; friends whom I still keep in touch with today on Facebook in a closed group that I created, just for us old-school geeks, just for old time’s sake. It has evolved into a different medium than you probably ever dreamed it could be, Bill, but your spirit lives on within its confines, nonetheless. Then again, you were a visionary: maybe you saw this coming.