3. SERENDIPITY By William Bowles

April 2000

3. SERENDIPITY

started out by messing around with computer-based communications, back at the end of the 70s, back when there were things called Bulletin Board Systems, or BBS for short. BBS’ are PCs that can answer the phone and connect you to Bulletin Board software, where you can do most of the things we now do on the Web, except no pictures, just text. They were the precursors to Websites. There were Chat areas, Email, Message Boards, File Downloads and so on.

Initially, I got into exploring them because I was writing a column called New York On-Line (NYOL) and I thought it would be interesting to network out NYOL to a bunch of BBS’, mostly around the NY area and see what happened. NYOL became very popular because it was a political/cultural/techi column and most people who used BBS’ were kinda nerdy and thought NYOL was ‘different’ and ‘neat’ from the ususal diet of purloined software and hacked long distance phone card numbers belonging to giant corporations (the first ‘Robin Hoods’ of the Internet).

I was exploring the implications of the IT revolution almost from the minute I got my first Commodore computer for $200 in 1979 when I was living in NYC. Here was an entirely new medium of communication and one which was already having an effect on the way we worked and lived. I was sure that fundamental changes were on the way and spent quite a few years exploring various facets of this new, digital medium.

By 1983, I had setup my own BBS called, predictably, New York On-Line and started networking news and information around the planet using a system called FidoNet. FidoNet was setup by a bunch of nerds who used to argue all the time over who stole what computer code from whom and threatening to shut the system down. By this time tho, FidoNet was big, too big to shut down anyway. It was a major means of getting information into and out of South Africa throughout the 80s. I used it to get info on South Africa from London and publish it in the US in both print and electronic formats (1984 also saw the birth of Desk Top Publishing. It’s when I bought my first Macintosh and laser printer).

Today, we take the network of permanent connections that make the WWW possible, for granted but in the early 80s, only large corporations or universities could afford to have their own leased lines that connected just a handful of computers together. Most were big ‘mainframe’ monsters but the history of the evolution of the Internet is filled with chance events. It’s called serendipity.

H&R Block was the US’ biggest tax accountant, they had offices all over the country, which were connected by leased lines to their central computer system in Columbus, Ohio, where all the tax data collected at branch offices was processed. Somebody realised that at night, all that processing power was sitting idle. Thus was born Compuserve, the first of the really big ISPs and content providers.

It was here I discovered online Chat and I wrote my first and only, interactive, online play called appropriately, ‘online.pla’. I wrote a script for all the ‘actors’ in the play, assigning them characters and attempted to get the ‘actors’ to ‘obey’ the script via what was called on Compuserve, CB Chat, after Citizen Band radio. ButI soon lost control over them, as I had no means of actually orchestrating their interactions, except via the Private Chat function, where I would plead with them to get back to the storyline, without much success.

The story told of a society where nobody went out anymore and communicated only via computer. The central characters were an online ‘vandal’ who bombed peoples’ computers with junk information and who had to be hunted down by the ‘online.police’ and his victims who were being isolated by his blocking of communications.

The results were saved as screens of text files but out of the context of the real time interactions, the lines of dialogue didn’t appear to have any connection to each other. The interesting thing about the experiment was in getting a ‘feel’ for the medium for example, keeping multiple conversations separate from each other, so that you could respond to each person only on their subject. I also had no idea where all the people were, or even who they really were. I ‘knew’ only their online personas.

The socialogical implications of the Internet became apparent to me very early on in my explorations of this new, digital world. Other, more disturbing aspects also became apparent to me but I’ll save that for my next Folk Tales of the Internet.

All content on this site is copyright © 1987-2003 William Bowles unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved. You have the right to reproduce content from this if it is not-for-profit, non-commercial use or for ‘fair use’. For commercial reproduction, please contact the copyright owner.

 

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