Online in 1991

Recently I have been talking about how to improve email. This got me thinking, and I remembered an essay I wrote about email in my final year of higschool. This may be of interest for its historical value – both because of what it says about how widespread online communication was, and because it contains online political comment from back in the day. One thing that jumped out at me is that although technology has advanced, the cost of a computer has remained the same in unadjusted dollars: $500 would buy you a machine with a modem.

Much of what I had to say has since become commonplace – I defined terms such as “information age” and E-Mail, and remarked that – ! – sex is part of the online world. But 1991 was before the World Wide Web. The Internet was reserved for the government and academics; I had only vaguely heard of it: there was certainly no way to subscribe from home. Instead I focused on the free system set up by hobbyists, such as BBSes and FIDOnet.

My teacher didn’t understand the topic and tried to discourage me. So as a trick to convince him to award me high marks, I analyzed media forms in terms of characteristic pairs (mass vs. personal, synchronous vs. asynchronous, temporary vs. permanent). I got the marks. Later I realized it was no trick at all – the analysis remains accurate.


7 April 1991

Over the past couple of decades computer technology and the changes that it has brought have swept across the world rapidly: “We are indeed in the early stages of a major technological transformation, one that is far more sweeping than the most ecstatic of the ‘futurologists’ yet realize . . . processes are not organized around energy . . . they are organized around information” (The Media Lab, referencing Peter Drucker in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, p 20). The “information age” will bring with it changes in the way that we look at ourselves and the world. Perhaps one of the greatest changes, and one that is seldom recognized, is the development of a completely new form of communication: the New Media.

The New Media is not a single technology or form of communication, it embraces an integration of different technologies and means of communicating. However, there is one aspect of the New Media which is already in place and is at the foundation of all of the different forms of the New Media.

Before describing this aspect of New Media, it is useful to describe the forms of communication which have preceded it, and whose characteristics emphasize the qualities of the New Media that make it so unique.

There are several characteristics of a form of communication which can be used to compare the different forms.

The first of these is synchronization. If the communication is synchronous, both parties must be communicating at the same time (as with speech). Asynchronous communication allows communication in which only one party must be communicating at any time (as with a letter).

Timing is another factor. Instant communication, such as telephone conversation, allows the message to arrive at its destination immediately. Non-instant communication, on the other hand, takes time to arrive, as with a newspaper or book. Local communication is limited in its range, but non-local communication has a range which is effectively unlimited. Television and radio are non-local, whereas speech is local, for example.

The scale of the medium is also important. Personal communication only allows a few people to receive the message, but mass communication can have a practically unlimited audience.

A temporary medium does not record the message, whereas a permanent medium does. One important advantage of a permanent medium is that the sender can take time to compose and perfect the message before sending it.

An obvious limitation on many important forms of communication is that they are one-way, as with television and radio. Two-way communication is much more powerful.

Finally, many of the more advanced forms of communication are privileged and only individuals or groups with access to expensive equipment can communicate, as with published material, radio, and television. Common communication allows almost anyone to communicate. Note that this only affects who can send a message, not who can receive it.

The first form of communication was, and is, simple speech. It is synchronous, instant, local, personal, temporary, common, and two-way. It allows for small number of people to communicate, but there is no record made, and the range is limited.

After speech came writing. It is also personal (one cannot send a hand-written letter to every inhabitant of a country), but it is asynchronous, non-instant, non-local (mail is an example of this), permanent, one-way, and common (although literacy was once a problem). It allows for refined ideas to be recorded permanently.

The printing press was the next big step forward, for it made writing a form of mass communication; Newspapers and books can be created and disseminated to large numbers of people. The one possible disadvantage is that the people with the printing presses control what gets published, and thus it is privileged.

The telegraph was essentially a high-class and speedy improvement on the mail. It was similar to writing except that it was privileged. However, its successor, the telephone is an extension of speech. It has the same characteristics except that it is non-local.

Radio and television were major new forms, being synchronous, instant, non-local, mass, temporary, one-way, privileged forms of communication. With the development of recording equipment it became permanent, and the VCR can make some communication asynchronous.

Finally, there is the New Media. This is the Japanese word for this class of media, and there is no better word to describe it for it is an ambiguous concept right now. It has the best possible mix of characteristics: it can be asynchronous or synchronous, instant or non-instant, non- local, personal or mass, temporary or permanent, one-or two- way, and common. It is not controlled by people with extremely expensive equipment, for anyone can use it for a cost of less than $500 (for a telephone and a computer with a modem). This comprehensive blend of features give it almost unlimited flexibility.

Traditionally (if something so recent can be “traditional”), this is the form of communication used by computer hackers. It usually involves people at computer terminals typing in messages which are stored at a central computer somewhere and can be read by anyone with access to the computer who has been targeted by the sender for receiving the message. The recipient may be anywhere in the world that has a telephone connection, so it is non-local. If the people involved are “on-line” at the same time the communication is instant, synchronous, and two-way. If they are not, the messages are just like mail, or E-Mail (electronic mail) as it is called, and thus non-instant, asynchronous, and one-way (until the other person answers). Thus, an attempt at defining the New Media might be: “Telecommunications between two or more people who may or may not be present at any given time.”

In effect, this is mail which reaches its recipient as soon as he or she looks for it. However, the mail may be sent to any number of people without any extra effort. It combines the advantages of instantaneous communication with those of permanence and the ability of the sender to consider and edit the message, and so is suitable for mass distribution of essays and other texts. It is an extremely dynamic form which places the power of fast, efficient, and precise communication in the hands of anyone anywhere.

The obvious practical uses for such a medium are numerous. Business has already started using E-mail to enable businesspeople to communicate without having to synchronize their schedules. In fact, business has embraced the medium to the extent that it has displaced more traditional forms of communication, such as speech (“Voice Mail – Boon or Bane?”, The Citizen, Saturday March 2, 1991, I1). This is just the beginning of its potential for change. People with computers and modems have discovered the true social power of the medium on their local and non-local BBSs (bulletin board systems). FIDOnet illustrates perfectly this potential of the medium.

FIDOnet is a network of computer users who pass electronic messages throughout North America. Almost anyone can gain access to FIDOnet and communicate with anyone anywhere on the continent for free. Depending on the distance, the message may arrive instantly or in several weeks. There is no public funding for FIDOnet, the software has been written by enthusiasts, and the system has its own rules to prevent abuse. There are FIDOnet “echoes” on almost any topic imaginable, such as CanaChat, an ongoing discussion of issues relevant to Canadians throughout the country.

CanaChat is nation-wide, free to anyone with a computer and a modem who follows the rules agreed upon by the users, and devoted to discussions on the nature of Canada. The following is a complete message from CanaChat (the message is preceded and folowed by lines of dashes, and is at its original level of indent in order to preserve its form):

 Msg: #931 [Fido CanaChat] 33 lines [Sent] 
 23-Aug-90 16:47
From: Michael Richardson
 To: Doug Zolmer
Subj: Re: Bloc Quebecois' Manifesto


In a message posted <15 Aug 90 20:27:59>, Doug Zolmer writes: > Yes, comparing the situation between the English and French > with > the Holocaust is a VERY faulty analogy. My god, how can anybody > think that the English are treating the French as badly as > Hitler > treated the Jews? Somebody has a very warped view or reality if > they think that.

1) I think you got the analogy backwards (unless you were talking to Eric): the parallel is between Bill 101/178 (I wish the whole country would adopt Bill 109, though) and Nazi Germany. The minority in QUEBEC is being persecuted, forced to give up THEIR culture. 2) The analogy differs only in degree. Both are the result of very strong nationalist (nation != state. Quebec is a nation as is Acadian, southern Ontario, northern Ontario, eastern Ontario, rural BC, urban BC, I'll let the Albertans divide themselves) sentiments. 3) Witness American nationalism (~=patriotism, but not quite). e.g. McCarthyism. (I used to think that McCarthyism referred to John McCarthy, inventor of Lisp. I couldn't understand why it was a bad thing :-)) This could, however, be related, if you like, to October crisis (FLQ), the six years of bombings, the 'agent provocateur's, etc... :!mcr!:

--- RMB v1.30

* Origin: An A2000 named Julie [Ottawa] (1:163/138) ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- </pre >

First, one must understand the conventions of a message such as this. The header at the top depends on where the message was read (in this case, it comes from the Mystic BBS located in Ottawa). It usually includes the date, the topic, the sender, and the recipient. It is followed by a message body. In this case it is terminated by the name of the FIDO software used ("---RMB v1.30<a href="!mcr">, the v1.30 is the version number, sort of like an edition of a book), and the origin of the message. The</a>!:" is a sort of electronic signature which most people use, a symbol they represent themselves with (for example, .../ is the symbol for Tim Park or T.P.). The body of this particular message contains a quote. Each quotes line starts with an angle bracket (">"). If the quote was not from the recipient of the message, his or her initials would precede the ">" (e.g., "DZ>" in the case of Doug Zolmer).

Most of the people who use these echoes know something about computers and programming, and evidently Michael Richardson is one such person. The "!=" means "not equal to", the "~=" means "approximately equal to", "Lisp" is a programming language, and the ":-)" is a sideways happy face.

Discussions on topics such as the example may go on for months or even years, and multiple parties may be involved. Even if one does not actually send the messages, they may be read. If references to old messages are made, they may sometimes be found in "archives" containing up to tens of thousands of messages.

The potential of such communication is immense. The newspaper allowed for people to discuss ideas and played a part in the French Revolution. This form of media is even more powerful, cheaper, and can be used by anyone. It may be serious, or it may be more humourous. The two following messages are the electronic equivalents to political cartoons:

 Msg: #16642 [CANACHAT] 32 lines [Sent] 
 22-Dec-90 05:11
From: Chris Dale
 To: All
Subj: New years resolution????


>THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. BRIAN >================================= >Brian Mulroney is my sheppard >I shall soon want. >He leadeth me beside still factories >and abandoned farms. >He restores my doubt about the Tories. >He annointed my wages with taxes, and >inflation, so my exoenses runneth over my income. >Surely poverty and hard living shall follow the Tories. >And I shall work on rented farms and >live in a rented house forever. >Five thousand years ago, Moses said, "pick up your shovel. >mount your ass, and I will lead you to the Promised land". >Five thousand year later, Trudeau said, "lay down your >shovel and sit on your ass, light up a Camel, this is >the Promised land". >This year, Brian Mulroney will take your shovel, sell your >Camel, kick your ass and tell you he gave away the Promised land. >I am glas I am a Canadian >I am glad I am free, >But I wish I was a dog >and Mulroney was a tree. - Found this Cute little poem hidden away, Though it appropriate in light of the P.M's recent outburst on the current state of the economy! - Merry Christmas Everyone! - >>>>>enter real time((())) Do we ever need an election!!!

--- InterPCB 1.33/b

* Origin: CrossRoads * PCBoard 14.5 -+=[ HST ]=+- Kingston, Ont. (1:249/126)

Msg: #14030 [Market Chatter] 29 lines

08-Dec-90 01:18 From: James Atwill To: All Subj: Stuffes Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are? Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky. Well, I'll tell you, little star, I can't tell you what you are; With this smoke and hazy and pall I'm not sure you're there at all. --------------------------------- Five Great lakes; Five Great lakes; See what we've done! See what we've done! The fish are all dead cause' polutions rife; You can cut through the scum with a carving knife; Did you ever see such a blight in your life As five Great Lakes? --------------------------------- Little Bo Peep Has lost her sheep and thinks they may be roaming; they haven't fled; they've all dropped dead from nerve gas in Wyoming. --------------------------------- Earth... The Chokes' on us. JAmes ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- </pre >

Admittedly, the messages are not as refined as newspapers, and tend to be a bit crude, but this is changing. One of the original main uses of such systems was (and still is on many networks) on-line sex. The January/February 1991 issue of Saturday Night contains a feature article on the subject, "Terminal Sex", which describes Bell Telephone's Alex network. Pictures can also be sent over the telephone lines, and X-rated images are common in some areas. However, some BBSs and echoes (such as Mystic and FIDOnet) disallow any form of crudity, and may prevent access by those who practice it.

In any case, there is no way to stop the New Media. In France, the MiniTel is free and allows anyone access to a nation-wide network, which "has become so popular that the phone company no longer issues phone books in some cities because every subscriber has a computer that can look up the numbers" (Saturday Night, January/February 1991, p20). Recently, the MiniTel has come to Canada, and Bell has introduced a similar system called Alex. Sex tends to be the first use of such systems, but in France the MiniTel has become an accepted medium for communication. Eventually, world-wide communication of this sort will become commonplace. If the changes brought about by the printing press, radio, and television are any indication, the changes that the New Media will bring about will affect every aspect of life.

h5. Works Cited

Atwill, James. Message #14030: "Stuffes". 8 December 1990. Mystic BBS: (613) 596-2295.

Dale, Chris. Message #16642: "New years resolution????". 22 December 1990. Fido CanaChat, Mystic BBS: (613) 596-2295.

Murray, Kathleen. "Voice Mail - Boon or Bane?". Citizen. 2 March 1991: I1.

Pearson, Ian. "Terminal Sex". Saturday Night. January/February 1991: 19-25.

Richardson, Michael. Message #931: "Bloc Quebecois' Manifesto". 23 August 1990. Fido CanaChat, Mystic BBS: (613) 596-2295.

Stewart Brand. The Media Lab. Harrisonburg, Virginia: R.R. Donnelly & Sons Co., 1986.