Why Has Everyone Forgotten the BBS Culture?

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.

RU-486 Becomes A Hot Political Issue

The recent FDA approval of the abortion inducing RU-486 became a hot political issue this week as Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush tried to dodge statements he made back in January that if he were president he would have serious reservations about the FDA approving the drug, while several politicians chimed in to say they would do all in their power to reverse the FDA’s decision.

Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan reaching deep into his rhetorical bag referred to RU-486 as “a human pesticide,” adding that if he should be elected, “I would use all the power of my office, including appointments at the FDA, to prevent its being put on the market.”

Unlike Buchanan, who has no real chance of winning in November, Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Arkansas, does hold elective office. Hutchinson told ABC’s “This Week” that there “a lot of questions” about whether or not the drug is safe and hinted that Congress might try to put additional restrictions on the drug. Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okalhoma, said he would introduce legislation that would do just that. Given all of the burdensome restrictions that are already placed on the drug’s use, it’s hard to know what else they want to do.

For a variety of reasons, the Republican position on abortion is not the dominant view of the American people (neither is the pro-choice view, however — most Americans seem to be somewhere in between, wanting abortion to remain legal, but sometimes approving of limited restrictions on its use). Using backdoors like this to try to get their way is a bit unseemly.

On the other hand, if they succeed they’re just beating the feminists at their own game. After all there are any number of feminist tracts likening the birth control to the poisoning of women by patriarchal power brokers (the difference being when Mary Daly attacks birth control, feminists hail her as a genius, whereas were some Republican Senator to do so, he’s immediately pounced upon by feminists).

RU-486 is certainly safe, and since it leads to abortion very early in the first trimester (and by manipulating hormone levels rather than through a surgical procedure), it also meets the objections of a lot of Americans with concerns about late 2nd and even early 3rd trimester abortions. The FDA placed too many restrictions on its use, but overall it did a good thing by finally bringing this drug to market.


Abortion opponents question safety of new pill. The Associated Press, October 1, 2000.

Who Won Tuesday’s Presidential Debate?

One of the things that struck me about Tuesday’s debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush was how far Republicans managed in the last two decades to push the political establishment toward the Right on cultural issues. Gore immediately launched into denouncing “cultural pollution” at the beginning of the debate and used the phrase again in his final remarks.

Add to that Ralph Nader running around the country talking about the evils of sex and violence in movies, television and computer games and the conclusion is obvious — the real winner of this year’s election is going to be Pat Buchanan.

When Buchanan gave his fiery speeches at successive Republican conventions calling for a cultural war, Democrats cried foul, many Republicans thought he went overboard, and Left magazines like The Nation went to town on him. Dan Qualye, who wanted to be Pat Buchanan-lite was roundly ridiculed for his claim that the depiction of Murphy Brown becoming a single mother glorified single motherhood and was a bad message to be sending to teenage girls.

In the upcoming election, however, four of the five presidential candidates who are going to poll more than 1 percent of the vote completely embrace Buchanan and Qualye’s message. To see how close the candidates actually are, I visited their web sites and pulled off quotes from speeches by Nader, Gore, Buchanan and Bush. See if you can tell which quote belongs to which candidate:

  • After generations of feeding our children this filth and permitting moral polluters to dump their poison into our cultural well, why are we surprised that ours has become a sick society.
  • To start with, we all share a responsibility for changing a toxic culture that too often glorifies violence and cruelty.
  • We live in a culture of moral indifference, where movies and videos glamorize violence and tolerance is touted as a great virtue.
  • It is time to say that our children matter more than this brutalizing entertainment.

The real surprise was that from the speeches I could find (and I may have missed a few), only one of the four candidates who denounced the pollution of American culture didn’t also call for legislative and/or judicial punishment of content producers — George W. Bush. In fact, Bush’s statements on the matter have been relatively low key compared to the rest of the field, probably because he wants to avoid the sort of cultural warrior taint that dogged Buchanan and Bob Dole (though Bush did champion the endorsement he received from South Carolina’s attorney general who has promised a lawsuit against Hollywood for targeting minors).

Only one candidate, the Libertarian Party’s Harry Browne, pointed out the obvious that, “If you ask the government to impose morality, you are asking that moral questions be decided by those with the most political power. This means that people like Teddy Kennedy and Newt Gingrich will dictate personal morality to you.” Unfortunately, Browne doesn’t have a chance, and so it is Buchanan’s ideas that will win in November, and that, unless counteracted, will lead to the sort of restrictions on speech of which Buchanan could only have dreamed when he fired the first salvo in his self-declared “cultural war.”

(The quotes, by the way are from Buchanan, Gore, Bush, and Nader respectively).

Sea Monkeys Funding Hate Group

My wife and I were in Toys R Us a few weeks ago helping my daughter pick out doll clothes for her Cabbage Patch Kid. In the science toy area they had a pretty good selection of Sea Monkey stuff, and I was very tempted to snatch several items up as waves of childhood nostaliga swept over me.

I changed my mind at the last minute, reasoning that I still had’t opened the Mr. Potato Head I bought at Kaybee a couple days before. Now I’m glad I didn’t after Boing!Boing! linked to an LA Times story that establishes beyond any doubt in my mind that the inventor of Sea Monkeys is an active promoter of racist hate theories, and that it is very like that some of the profits from the purchase of Sea Monkeys finds its way into the hands of groups such as the Aryan Nations (which will need the money after they lost a recent $6.3 million lawsuit after security guards employed by the Aryan nations beat up a black couple outside the group’s Idaho compound).

The weird thing is that Sea Monkeys inventor Harold von Braunhut is ethnically Jewish, which didn’t stop him from saying at a 1995 Aryan Nations meeting that Jews are “the bacillus of the decomposition of our society.” Actually it isn’t unheard of to find ethnic Jews, though rarely practicing Jews, among hate groups. If I remember correctly from Deborah Lipstadt’s book, Denying the Holocaust, one of the prominent Holocaust deniers is a non-practicing Jew.

Regardless, I think I can do without Sea Monkeys until there is absolutely no possibility that my money’s going to get funneled to a hate group.

Buggy Software, Free Software, and Beyond

Monty Manley rips into Linux and some parts of the Open Source community in an article at osOpinion, The Failure of Linux: Credibility and Responsibility. This is tangentially related to some of the stuff Mark Morgan and I were discussing about free vs. commercial web sites (which reminds me I need to post my thoughts to some of the issues he raised in his reply).

One thing Manley doesn’t like, in both open source and traditionally licensed programs, is the large number of bugs:

Alone of the major engineering disciplines, software has inculcated in its users an expectation that it will fail: that it will be late, buggy, balky, and over budget. Programmers, unlike other engineers, tend to have low credibility in their organizations since their time and budget estimations are invariably far off the mark. Often, programmers will simply refuse to provide time or money estimates, preferring instead to give the old “it’ll be ready when it’s ready” answer.

First, note that this is an exaggeration since there are some areas where the lack of bugs is an extremely high priority and software runs extremely stable. Software that runs medical devices, for example, generally requires extremely stable software — wouldn’t want a respirator crashing.

Second, unlike Manley I like buggy software. No, I don’t mean I enjoy rebooting Windows ever few hours, but on the other hand I’m glad I don’t have to wait forever or pay extremely high prices while Microsoft and application developers root out every last bug. For the most part, bugs are annoying but they are not deal breakers at current software prices, especially if they are quickly corrected by software patches.

Manley also claims that companies are being “forced” to use something like the GPL for software:

This surfeit of freeloader zealots has had an unfortunate side-effect: many companies have felt themselves forced into GPLing their bread-and-butter products (as with Trolltech’s QT) just to stay in the good graces of the community. The GPL is a fine license, but it isn’t for everyone, and it has weaknesses that can stymie future development. I think some software houses have been made to feel guilty about charging for their wares, as if their talent and effort are somehow less important than the will of the community. I think most experienced programmers would agree that it is not only silly but morally wrong to deny someone a fair price for a good product, and yet that is all too often what the Linux hordes do to smaller software companies.

Huh? This seems to me to be an example of good old-fashioned market competition. Consumers, in this case Linux users and programmers, let it be known that if Trolltech didn’t meant certain specifications, they wouldn’t use QT. That’s no different from companies I’ve worked at handing vendors specification sheets and saying they won’t even consider bids for software that can’t meet the specifications.

Lord knows software companies constantly impose demands and requirements on end users, what’s wrong with end users putting demands on software companies once in awhile? (What Manley’s claim about Trolltech really reveals is that maybe that company might want to re-think its market and strategy).

Five Alleged ALF Terrorists Arrested in Denmark

On September 28, Denmark authorities arrested four men and one woman and charged them with at least 80 counts of ALF-related terrorism.

The five men and women were apparently under police surveillance and were followed to an area near a large farm. After arriving there the five donned gear apparently aimed to allow them to sneak onto the farm and raid it, including radio headsets, shoe coverings, and small lights mounted on their heads.

At that point police stepped in and took the small group into custody. ALF supporters seem particularly upset that, in a delicious irony, the activists were charged with animal cruelty among other things.


Five arrested in Denmark. Frontline Information Service press release, October 3, 2000.