A Few Thoughts on the Internet

It’s my blog. That’s the beauty of it. I can go COMPLETELY off topic, and start writing about pizzagate or gamergate or some other weirdness, and it’s perfectly legal. It might not gain me any readers, but it’s legal.

But don’t worry. None of that today. But I am going to write a little about the internet–its history, the way it seems to be headed, and some personal anecdotes. Now, before you change the channel, let me assure you that I am not going to bore you with a “how we played Asteroids on the NASA server in 1978” story. I’ve already posted a few stories like that so I’ll skip it.

No, today is a walk down memory lane, and if you hate that stuff you can just switch off, but I hope to provide some good information, not just junk.

I started spending a great deal of time online when I discovered Usenet while I was working as a help-desk guy. This is from about 1996 to about 1999. Usenet was like the Rocky Mountains in the 1830’s. You had to be the real deal to live there. No sod-busters. In fact, cowboys were too wimpy to make it as mountain men. You had to be able to find and configure your setup to fit some kind of server to get on Usenet. It was all geeks, all the time.

Who fought over the stupidest things. But behind it all was a kind of loopy, nerdy idealism. We all thought that the world would be perfect if there were no governments and we all had a brotherhood of nerds. Then came The Web.

The Web shifted everything. It ate up Usenet, and Usenet, at the same time, became the home to nothing but software piracy and insanity. The whole internet experience changed. What had been mountain men in the wilderness became Wyatt Earp and the “rule of law” in the form of carefully managed forums. Toe the line or get shot dead.

Usenet gradually died. Usenet was portrayed as, and rapidly became, a drunken, wide-open lunatic asylum where no good deed went unpunished. Too many hucksters and other low-lifes had invaded our pristine country. Now, Usenet had become like the Wild West. The internet itself was a dangerous place, where only islands of “safety” (forums) were fit for decent people.

Gradually, heavily policed communities like Hyperscale grew up. No freedom, really, except the freedom to obey the law, but it was safe for kids (unlike Usenet) and you could raise a family and live a good life.

But capitalism would not be denied. Robber barons showed up with sacks of money. The railroads came to town. What had been good, honest, Andy Griffith places became slightly sleazy as they, almost unknowingly, began to serve “big business interests” and sometimes that meant truth and justice and sometimes it meant that some people got banned for speaking the truth. Oh well.

Then came “them.” I don’t quite know how to say this, but I was on a forum that was targeted by somebody to use as “practice” for what amounted to cyber warfare. They came to our peaceful forum and did bad things to it, and they did a lot of damage, but they thought they were doing it for “the greater good.” Since I had this experience, I am now more aware than ever of the potential for abuse and manipulation that exists on a typical forum. I’ve also seen a lot of the type of cyber warfare that was unleashed on me and my friends on our quaint little forum back in the early 2000’s.

Then Facebook came along and produced the ultimate “gated community” where you can keep out NOBODY but it feels like you can. “Privacy” in the age of no privacy. Enter the domain of Facebook and trade your freedom and dignity for safety and security.

It’s really amazing how much online life resembles face-to-face relationships. Grown men get all silly and flirty when a girl shows up. I mean, they don’t even know for sure that it IS a girl, but they do it anyway. Other things about online forums are just like “real life.” If you want to be “respectable”–you have to repeat the company line and always, always promote the “proper” way of doing things. Even if it’s wrong. Keeping your virtual tie knotted is important. Witness the number of model building forums where somebody always insists that the only proper degree of perfectionism is 100%.

They can’t live that way in their real lives–can they? But they’ll jump in and dog-pile on any topic that demands input from a lunatic perfectionist. They will also always promote a product over a person. In other words, the heart of a typical forum is dedicated to puffing everyone up as much as possible. “Oh yes, I always buy the finest blah blah which can only be supplied by blah blah. More expensive but worth it.” Or “Of course you are going to correct the incorrect rivet pattern inside the intake? I wasn’t going to say anything but it really does make the model.”

Instead of grumpy old men the inhabitants of model building forums should just get t-shirts saying “I don’t look like a Mean Girl but I AM ONE.”

The history of the internet is just a repeat of the founding, exploration and settlement of the New World. The only thing missing? No peaceful natives were driven away in large numbers and confined to reservations. Unless–wait a minute–is THIS a reservation? I do have some native ancestors. May-be….

2 Replies to “A Few Thoughts on the Internet”

  1. I have always thought of the “Wild West” as a metaphor for the development of on-line communities, and am pleased to see a good summary of that concept here. An initial unexploited frontier of seemingly unlimited resources, followed by unrealistic promises of utopia, followed by changes in the demographics and number of settlers, followed by anarchy and range wars, followed by law and order being imposed by both financial and self-preservation interests, but at a price. Incidentally, I found this piece as a result of an occasional Google Search I do of “Usenet” and “dead”. Usenet is not dead, but we are definitely in a post-Usenet era.

    1. I knew that the end had arrived as I was speaking to a Comcast help-desk weenie. I mentioned “Usenet” and she asked me what it was. Then I asked to speak to a supervisor, and the supervisor dutifully appeared, and I asked about Usenet and the supervisor said he had never heard of it.

      The whole idea of the the “closing of the frontier” is related to “the tragedy of the commons.”

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