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Monday, February 25, 2008

The Internet of Yore! Damn you, Al Gore!

Back in the days when the Internet was still cooling, I learned how to make a webpage. During the fall of 1994, my friend, Deep, which was short for Sandeep, had introduced me to HTML, Unix, and Mosaic. We hunkered down in the University of Pittsburgh computer labs and typed away on a PICO editor through Unix on PCs till the wee hours of the morning. The result of our hard work was an amazing sight to behold. I had successfully created a page that displayed my name, a picture, and a couple things I liked. Now, In today's society, that would be 2 minutes with of programming and seen with as much awe as a refrigerator wall hanging. That is, if it were somebody else's child. My child will be an exceptional artist, in my mind. Yes, she will dazzle us with masterpieces done in her favorite medium, Crayolas.

However, for a college student who has just been introduced to HTML with no previous training, it was pretty neat. This internet thing is pretty cool. Prior to this my experience with computers were mostly a one sided interface. Growing up in the 80's we were taught Spanish and Math on Apple II's. There was no internet the way it exists today. In my three years of high school, I was exposed to local BBS groups through a 2400 baud dial up modem. Of course, it was certainly not cutting edge technology. I would sit there hunting and pecking around on my brother's PC running DOS 5.0 while gold monochromatic characters burned out my retinas. Personally, I felt it inferior to my Apple IIc with built in 5.25" disk drive that I could hook up to a television set for big screen viewing. Hey, man, I didn't have to boot up a prompt and type in a string of letters and slashes to get things running. I just popped in a disk, hit the power button and I could play Beach Head II and Hacker and Lemonade Stand in blazing 15 colors with in minutes. I was enthralled with the black and white text adventures of Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy. There was no worry that I would hack into NORAD and try to start a nuclear war with my Apple IIc. Alas, technology moved on and that old computer just gathers dust in my parents' house. I started the transition to PC's in college after surviving the Apple and Mac attack in high school. I briefly renounced PCs when I first started college because I felt that the Mac OS was simpler and allowed me point and click functionality that our computer lab PCs lacked.

Of course, what did I know? It's not like I was using those Macs for anything special. My friends and I would get a hold of a list of FTP sites from around the world and we'd telneting to some place weird looking for pictures of supermodels and cars I didn't even know how to email at the time. In 1993, I was starting my first semester of college at Coastal Carolina University in Myrtle Beach. Don't laugh, it was a good school and....yeah ok, I went there for the beach, but that's another story. At that time, email didn't even exist in my world and my computer served two functions, doing papers and playing games. When I transferred to Pitt in the Spring, I was suddenly bombarded with all these weird words like PINE, UNIX, and Kermit. I had no clue that computers could talk to each other over long distances, let alone let you talk to the person on the other end of them as well. I had just found out the world was not flat. So, within a year, there I was putting up pictures and links to my favorite sites and surfing the internet for Star Wars pictures.

Soon, my world came to a screeching halt. Mosaic was being given up in favor of Netscape. I couldn't believe it. I had become so comfortable navigation the Information Superhighway with this little browser that I didn't want to give it up. I had begun to really get into creating web pages and even began to promote mine in some search engines. This was quite the blow to my recreational computer time. Still, I soldiered on and found Netscape was just as easy to use and provided a lot more functionality. As HTML evolved and more code was available to help add gaudy looking backgrounds and really disproportionate text and font sizes, Netscape allowed webpages to look more like Stevie Wonder created them with a background in Picasso’s style of painting. Boy, there were some awful pages out there. Here's an example of what I mean, and this guy did this recently. He probably gets a million visitors just from people who have pointed out how bad it looks. Bleeding eyeballs aside it was just fun to create something that could be viewed by fifteen people. After all, how many of us constantly checked our page counters to see if anybody had visited? I still do. There's one at the bottom of the page that tells my I've visited my site 13 times. Apparently, I am the only one who reads this blog and quite frankly, that's probably for the best. I do not claim to be a prolific or awe inspiring writer. My creative ability could be summed up enough with one phrase, "Jack of all trades. Master of none." This is because I have never been formally trained on half of the stuff I do in my life. I learn by doing or by stealing from other people's work. Sad isn't it? If humanity was to be wiped out tomorrow and I was the last living person on Earth, I'd have to learn to walk on all fours and lick myself. Wow, depressed yet?

With the Internet community growing by leaps and bounds my friend Deep decided to let us in on his latest discovery. We were sitting around the dorm one night and he leaned in and asked myself and another friend if we had ever "Chatted" From his demeanor and hushed voice, I thought he was referring to either something drug related or he become British and wondered if we have ever talked. We both shook our heads and he gathered up his things. "Come on, I'll show you." We headed off to the computer lab and loaded up IRC onto our PCs. "Now just start joining channels." There were all sorts of channels, Star Wars, Movies, Music, and Sex....what was that? Immediately intrigued I tried to nonchalantly sneak into that room. If the IRC had a voice you would have heard a thousand voices talking overtop of each other.....and all of them male, constantly asking “A/S/L,” in the hopes of seeing an “f” in the response. I couldn't believe what I had been introduced to. Until now, my dealings with people on the internet had been a one to one ratio through email. Now, I was being bombarded by hundreds of people all wanting know how old I was, what gender I was, and where I was.

Just then my screen went blank. What happened? I just got kicked off by an ASCII cow? I tried to log back on but now my nickname is being used. What the hell? Being unregulated at the time IRC users were sometimes open to attacks by other users who were regular users of a nickname or a channel. If you got in someone's way there were a variety of vicious, yet sometimes completely hysterical, ways to boot someone off the system. I added a few letters to my former nickname and headed back into the #Sex channel to find the SOB that booted me. Next thing I know, I'm being sent a message, not seen by the other users. "Hey, wanna go private?" I was then extended an invite to a private channel where a female user began flirting with me. I began to see what Deep was talking about. We began chatting back and forth and eventually she started getting a little racy with the dialogue . She had all the creative writing ability of a trashy novel and I was eating it up.....Oh my God! I'm a computer nerd. I didn't have much time to wallow in my self degradation. I had to know where this girl was. I threw out the standardized question and when it came to location, she simply said, "Turn around." I swiveled my computer chair 180 degrees to see Deep and three other guys from my dorm floor huddled around a computer laughing, hysterically. Though, it was still a few years away from being accepted into the lexicon of internet slang, I had just been severely "pwned!"

Now armed with chatting, emailing, and web page creation, I set about to completely disregard my collegiate studies and just slack around the computer labs 24/7 printing out blueprints for the Millennium Falcon and adding retina exploding backgrounds to my "All About Me" page. Unfortunately, Pitt did not have an extensive curriculum dealing with web design or HTML, so I was left to sifting through lines of code from other people's sites that I deemed "kewl" and wanted to adopt into my own. My dorm room became a shrine to black and white .jpg print outs and when I graduated java was just becoming the norm in web page design. Once again, the world moved on without me like my Apple IIc to PC and my Mosaic to Netscape. My HTML skills fell out of practice and unfortunately, if I were to get back into creating a webpage, I'd give old Roger Art a run for his money. I still do some HTML work mostly to fix and change a couple things in SharePoint, our newest work application. Unfortunately, there are 12 year olds out there with more knowledge at manipulating and reading code than myself and I've become a dinosaur, a 90's internet culture cliché. I think back fondly on those days when talking with someone meant calling them on the phone or speaking to them in person. Communication is one of the cornerstones of our civilization. Yet, the brightest of our species devise and create new ways to separate us from actual contact, leaving us to hide behind a keyboard and monitor. I wonder if humanity will continue this path towards anonymity and avatars or realize that while the internet is a great tool, it's no replacement for life. Until that day comes, I'll still be trudging around the internet looking for that elusive code to make my name blink. Hey don't laugh; I'm part of the Top 5% of the Web. Take it from me, a member of the HTML Writers guild. It says so on the bottom of my page.

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