Innocence Lost: A Brief History of the Internet
Most of us think back on the past as a simpler, less complicated time. When we let our thoughts drift back to our childhoods – no matter how old we are – most of us imagine a more beautiful world, a more peaceful time in our lives. I do not know if this is really so, but it seems to me that most of us look upon the past that way. Maybe the song “The Way We Were” sums it up well:
“But it’s the laughter
We will remember,
Whenever we remember,
The way were were…”
Maybe some sort of filter in our heads that brandishes the painful moments, the less desirable moments, the bad and sad moments, the embarrassing moments and when filtered we are left believing the past is preferable to the present. And, I think that’s a good thing, really. We have enough problems with today without having the ones from our pasts intermixing with the ones from now and making things worse. No thanks. Today’s troubles are sufficient for today. So it’s the laughter, we remember, when we remember the way we were and that’s a good thing.
So it seems to me that the Internet, which is a product of human endeavor, is a reflection of all that is good and all that is bad in us. So I am not sure when I look back on the Internet twenty years ago I’m seeing the Internet as filtered through that wonderful filter of my mind or whether my memories of that era are accurate. I think it’s a bit of both.
When I first set eyes on the very first Web site I ever saw (Yahoo) I really didn’t know what I was looking at. There was something called a “search engine” but I didn’t know what a search engine was. A friend of mine at the time, who had been around the Internet a year before me, tried to explain it, but like a lot of things, you have to actually have to have a need to find something before a “search engine” makes sense. I mean – why call it an engine? When my friend tried to explain them to me, I didn’t understand why I would need one; this is kind of the same reason why I didn’t understand calculus – why do I need it?
As it turns out, I eventually needed to find something and that’s when the light bulb went off in my mind. After that, my goal was to find the best search engine. I can remember writing to EB about new search engines I found and I’m sure she laughed when each was supposedly better than the one I had discovered the day before. You see, Yahoo was a terrible search engine in those days – trying to find something yielded page after page of useless, irrelevant search results. I remember using Mamma and Dogpile and then finding Alta Vista. I crowned Alta Vista, king of the search engines, that is until Google came along. I wonder if those search engines still exist?
For those of you who look at Google with a jaded eye, as one who comes from the pre-Google era I can tell you that Google was so much better than any other search engine in those days, it’s no wonder they have been so successful. Google, in its infancy, provided a search engine where you could actually find what you were looking for on the first try. Google was almost everyone’s search engine after word about Google got around.
PUPs and malware were unknown. It was the age of sharing. Freeware sites offered freeware – free software and no gimmicks. There was s time when every day brought wonderful new freeware – and you can ask EB about this – I think I installed it all…or as much as a 540 MB hard drive would hold.
That’s right, back in 1995 and 1996 computers came with 540 megabyte — not gigabyte – hard drives; RAM was measured in kilobytes not megabytes or gigabytes. Internet connections were all dial-up then. The screeching connection tone is something none of us who used dial-up will ever forget. And it wasn’t likely you’d ever connect on the first attempt. I used to get a lot of “busy” signals.
Whether it’s because the equipment was so primitive or the world was a better place, things were, or seemed to be, more innocent, less hurried, less dangerous then. If you were using the Internet in 1995, you were a “geek”. If you told someone about something you saw on the Internet, you’d have to also stop and explain the Internet. Now think how hard it would be to explain the Internet when only a handful of people knew what it was.
Now, I can’t go anywhere without seeing someone sending a selfie over the Internet by cellphone. The Internet is everywhere. Children and young adults now take it for granted. It’s nothing special to them. It’s like color television or microwaves are to us know – but if you’re old enough like me, you can remember when only the people with money had color TV sets and microwaves. Now we all take them for granted and don’t really give them much thought. So it is with the children and young adults.
If the Internet disappeared tomorrow, the American economy would collapse. Banks transfer checks and money over the Internet, credit cards are processed over the Internet – we are all connected in some way by the Internet – and that includes those who have never used it. Today the Internet is a necessity; it is no longer a curiosity. Its novelty is gone, and more importantly its innocence is gone.
Today it is estimated that 45% to 60% of the Internet is pornography related. Is this because the Internet itself is a bad place? If no one wanted to see such things then there would be none at all… right? The Internet reflects us – all of us. It reflects humanity – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Today, almost all freeware comes with an asterisk…
*Beware this installer contains malware and/or pups
*Beware this site plays games with download links and buttons – be sure you guess the right link or button or you’ll be installing malware and/or PUPs on your computer.
*Beware some of the most trusted sites from the past, like CNet, are now the biggest distributors of malware and PUPs…”
The Internet grew up and it is now a vast and deep ocean of money – whether gotten by fair and honest means or by picking your pocket by turning your computer into a billboard of ads and misdirected searches – or stealing your credit card information, or by holding your precious files for ransom.
Money is everywhere on the Internet and it’s the motivation for almost everything on the Internet. Money is everywhere period. But now, even sites which freely give information or software away are supported by ads or donations. In society there has never been such a thing as a free lunch, and the same is true for the Internet. There was a brief and shining moment, in its infancy, when free lunches were free for everyone on the Internet – but that was nearly two decades ago; the world and the Internet have changed so much.
Maybe the old days were not as good as I remember them; I’m sure there are those who’d argue that they were not. But I think they were. I think there was more innocence, more willingness to share, more mutual discovery. And now it makes me nostalgic to think about those early days of the Internet, just like it does look back and relive those halcyon days of my childhood. I’m sure neither the early Internet nor my childhood memories are really as good or as innocent as they seem.
One thing I’m sure of though- it makes me feel good to remember things the way they were.
How about you?