Why Has Everyone Forgotten the BBS Culture?
Continuing their coverage of the debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush, Salon.Com’s Scott Rosenberg asks if Gore is really that far off base when he says he took the initiative in creating the Internet, Did Gore invent the Internet?. My take is that if you think that the Internet is just a bunch of mainframes owned by megacorporations and government institutions talking to each other, then yes, Gore did pretty much invent the Internet. On the other hand if you mean a system that empowers individuals and small groups to communicate easily, then no, Gore not only didn’t have much to do with inventing that, but if he’d been able to foresee it there’s a good chance he would have tried to kill it (too much “cultural pollution.”)
The most annoying feature of these “thank the government for the Internet” stories is the incredible ignorance displayed in claims that the Internet would have been impossible without government intervention. Rosenberg writes,
Implicit in their [people who defend Gore’s claim] argument is a broader awareness of what it took to create the Internet. Anything as successful as the Net is not and cannot be successful as technology alone; technology does not exist in a vacuum. And just as the Internet required the services of brains like [Robert] Kahn and [Vint] Cerf and all the others who contributed code to its foundations, it also needed bureaucratic and legislative patrons.
It took social engineers as well as software engineers to build the Net. And that may be why the response to Gore’s original statement was so savage: Not because his claim was a lie, but because it was a truth that a lot of people today are trying to forget or bury.
The Internet didn’t spring full-blown out of some scientists’ heads, nor did it just grow, like some techno-Topsy powered by the mysterious magic of the marketplace. It emerged from the world of government-subsidized university research, and every step of the way along its passage from academic network to global information infrastructure was shepherded by the state. As the Net’s parent, the government didn’t do everything right; but it managed to nurture the network through its youth — then get out of the way once it was mature enough to move out of its parents’ digs and shack up with private industry.
But the truth that seems to be buried and forgotten is that there was a vibrant, cheaply priced online community sustained mainly through market forces back when the Internet access was so expensive it was the province primarily of college kids and academics.
In fact there were literally tens of thousands of BBSes, usually using software running on a single machine in somebody’s bedroom or den, connecting through what seem like incredibly slow speeds (I remember thinking I had died and gone to heaven when I finally latched my hands on a 1200 baud modem). I have always been an e-mail fanatic and save pretty much every message I send and receive, and when I look at messages I sent in the 1980s there are thousands of them, but rather than sent over the Internet they were sent through systems like RIME and its competing standards that let people all over the country and world talk without the extremely high prices that commercial services charged. Surely I’m not the only one who remembers scripting my PC to log into a local BBS at 2 a.m. and download a QWK file of e-mail and newsgroups. All Rosenberg seems to remember are the big online services such as Prodigy, Compuserve, GEnie, and others which didn’t have compatible networks — but were being forced to move in that direction by consumer demand toward the end.
Could that network of BBSes have turned into an Internet-style service? Maybe, but one of the problems was that it was a bit anarchic. Toward the time when the Internet began to pick up steam there were several competing software standards for graphical and visual interfaces. Maybe one of them would have gelled, maybe not. But they were all pretty much blown away by the Web.
And lets face it — that’s what really drove the Internet. Not the standardized protocols, not the government and university help, though those certainly played a key role, but a couple of college kids who wrote a graphical browser and then went on to found Netscape. Rosenberg can claim the credit really goes to the bureaucrats, but before the graphical browser came along, the bureaucrats and computer science folks were pushing such easy-to-use features as Gopher and Archie (I remember one professor I interviewed who was convinced the entire world would eventually be Gopher-ized).
The Internet is not a fairy tale about the wonders of government intervention, but a testament to the ability of a small group of visionaries to change the world, often in ways even the visionaries can’t predict.