As painful as it may seem, our world existed before social media. There were some interesting times when the cheesecake factory was the brightest part to criticize the rent, failed to laugh at the absolutely zero epic, and there was no adorable fist bean available for Ogling. There were no daily main characters! We lived as a low-bandwidth wild man, the soft glow of CRT monitors and our cackling, cracking signal modulators, happily unaware of the social turmoil brought by this new Internet.
In his new book, Modem World: A Past History of Social MediaKevin Driscoll, author and assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, examines the early days of the Internet – even before AOL Online – when BBS was king, WiFi was not yet a concept, and speed. Top out at 300 baud of electronic ideas.
Courtesy of Modem World: A Past History of Social Media By Kevin Driscoll. Published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2022 by Kevin Driscoll. All rights reserved.
Initially, the heartbeat of the modem world was steady at 300 beats per second. Streams of binary digits flowed over the telephone network in 7- and 8-bit segments, or “bytes” and each byte corresponded to a single character in the text. Ordinary home computers, connected to fuzzy CRT monitors, organized in forty columns and twenty-four rows, can display only a thousand characters at a time. It took about thirty seconds to fill the entire screen at 300 bits per second, or 300 “baud”. The text appeared faster than anyone had typed in real time, but it was hardly instantaneous.
In the late 1970’s, the pace of data transmission through dial-up networks followed a specification published by Bell almost two decades ago. Created in the early 1960’s, the AT&T data-phone system introduced reliable technology for two-way, machine-to-machine communication across consumer-grade telephone lines. Although the data-phone was initially sold to large firms to facilitate communication between different offices and the same data-processing centers, it soon became a real standard for commercial time-sharing services, online databases, and amateur telecom projects. In 1976, Lee Felsenstein of People’s Computer Company designed a DIY modem kit compatible with the AT&T system for less than 100. And as new technology firms such as Hedge Microcomputer Products in Atlanta and Chicago-based US Robotics began selling modems for the home computer market, they assured consumers of compliance with the “Bell 103” standard. Instead of competing on speed, these companies have sold “smart” features to hobby consumers in features such as auto-answer, automatic dial, and programmable “remote control” modes. The 1980 ad for the US robotics phone link acoustic modem emphasized its warranty, diagnostic features, and high-end aesthetics: “sleek … quiet … reliable.”
To survive, early PC modem manufacturers had to sell more than modems.
They had to sell everything they got online. Today, networking is at the heart of the personal computing experience – can you imagine a laptop without WiFi? – But in the late 1970’s, computer owners did not see their machines as communication devices. Contrary to this traditional approach, upstart modem makers pitched their products into fundamentally different computing gateways. Like home computers, modems were sold as transformative technologies, potential consumer electronics that could change your life. Novation, the first innovator in this rhetorical game, has promised that its iconic black modem, the cat, “will bind you to the world.” Hedge soon adopted the same language, describing Micromodem II as a boundary-breaking technology that would “open your Apple II to the outside world.” Note that these “worlds” did not yet exist in 1979. Modem marketing conjured up a desirable prospect for the near future, especially for computer enthusiasts. Instead of driving to Office Park, modem owners will be the first truly autonomous information workers: telecommuting to meetings, dialing into remote databases, and swapping files with other “computer people” around the world. According to Novation, the potential uses for cat-like modems were “infinite.”
In practice, 300 bits per second did not slow down. In fact, the range of online services available to microcomputer owners in the 1980’s was rather amazing, given their small number. A bell-compatible modem such as Pennywhistle or Novation Cat provides access to searchable databases such as Dialog and Dow Jones, as well as communication services such as CompuServe and The Source. Despite the hype, microcomputers alone may at times come as a surprise to the public, who are guided by the philosophy of the almighty, supernatural “world brain.” However, as one byte contributor noted, the experience of using the online “retrieval of information” service seemed to consult Electronic Oracle. Oracle accepted questions on virtually any topic – “from ardworks to zymurgy” – and the answers were immediately apparent. “What’s the value of your time?” Another byte asked the author, comparing the breadth and speed of an online database to a “well-stocked public library”. Moreover, exploring the electronic database was fun. One representative for the dialogue compared its system search to “adventure” and joked that it was “much less frustrating” than a computer game of the same name. In fact, many early modem owners believed that online information retrieval would be a killer app that would bring computer ownership into the mainstream.
Although it was not accessible to other machines, it was accessible to other people which eventually led to the adoption of telephone modems among micro-computer owners. Just as email maintained a sense of community among ARPANET researchers, and time-sharing helped thousands of Minnesota teachers and students, dial-up modems helped stimulate a growing network of microcomputer enthusiasts. While users of time-sharing networks tended to access central computers through “dumb” terminals, users of microcomputer networks were often typing on microcomputers. In other words, there was a symmetry between users and hosts of microcomputer networks. The same device – a microcomputer and a modem – used to dial in a BBS can be reused to a host. Microcomputers were more expensive than ordinary terminals, but they were much cheaper than mini-computers used in contemporary time-sharing environments.
Like many fans and enthusiasts, computer enthusiasts were eager to connect with others who shared their passion for hands-on technology. News and information about telephone networking has spread through the pre-existing network of regional computer clubs, fairs, newsletters, and magazines. In early 1979, the first wave of modem owners was meeting at bulletin board systems such as CBBS in Chicago and ABBS in San Diego to talk about their hobbies. In a 1981 article for InfoWorld, Craig Vaughan, creator of ABBS, described these early years as a wake-up call: “Suddenly, everyone was talking about modems, what they read on bulletin boards like this and that, or which of the options. .. was the most reliable for long-distance data communication. By 1982, hundreds of BBSs were operating across North America, and topics of discussion were growing beyond computing hobbies. The slow connection speed did not slow down the expansion of the modem world.
True to the original metaphor of the “computerized bulletin board”, all early BBSs provided two main functions: read old messages or post new ones. In this protein phase, the distinction between “files” and “messages” may be blurred. How to book for BBS software developers in 1983, Larry Myers described three types of files accessible to users: messages, bulletins, and downloads. While all three ASCII characters were stored and transmitted as sequences, Myers distinguished “message file” as a defining feature of BBS. Available day and night, the message file provided the community of callers with an “electronic cardboard”: a place to post announcements, questions, or comments “for the good of all.” Myers’ example routine, written in BASIC, identified each message by a unique number and stored all messages on the system in a single random-access file. Myers’ comments on the code suggested eighty messages to be the appropriate maximum for systems running on TRS-80. In such a system the caller requested messages by typing numbers on their keyboard, and the system retrieved the corresponding sequence of characters from the message file. New messages were added at the end of the message file, and when the maximum number of messages was reached, the system wrote only the old ones. Like the flyers on the corkboard, the messages on the BBS were not expected to last forever.
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