Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Two Decades On

Some time in the coming weeks it will be 20 years since I sent my first email. I became a new student at the Math & Informatics Department of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam [VU] in September 1988, and after the first introduction week, quite soon I would have had my first keyboard time in the computer labs for the first programming assignment. This meant an introduction to UNIX, vi, and mail, on green screens attached to a PDP-11 somewhere. Thus I must have sent my first proper Internet email, with an @ sign and everything around this time 20 years ago. And 20 years of electronic conversation started, with the first big explosion happening few months later, when someone told me about this globally shared repository of written articles, grouped into topics and reactive like conversations. Well, just part of it, not all groups were carried into Europe yet, but I could tap into all of that by just typing the letters 'rn'.

You had to select which machine you wanted to login to, all named after types of sailboats I believe, and if you logged into the wrong one you wouldn't find your files. During the explanation for the assignment in the second semester we were told we had to compile on the new SUN machines. "So how are we going to get to our files in our home directories from there?" I asked. Turns out shared filesystems from servers had made their introduction, which we all thought was quite revolutionary, and it just went on from there. SUN Workstations (I even designed some of my own 2-bit icons for SUN windows for my own programs). X terminals. irc, gohper, archie, veronica. Color. Full Usenet feed finally carried in. Laser printers. Shared everything, transparently, all your settings, desktop, colors, environment through the whole building no matter which X terminal you sat down behind. And then in 1994 Niek told me I should check out this WWW Mosaic thing, maybe write my own page...

And now a list of Big Changes, purposefully not arranged with HTML list codes:

* When I entered college, my music was on tapes which I played on Walkmans. Yeah, actual Sony Walkmans, I was a brand snob for those. They ate my tapes or I would kill them with the way I would be using them non-stop and dragging them everywhere banging into everything. Then I would upgrade, spending more money than as a poor student I should on a better model, much like my pattern with subnotebooks today. These days I play my music on an iPod the size of my Walkman remote. The sound quality is better, but I can't swap in a AA battery if I am out of juice. I do not have to drag around tapes or discs and the 2nd gen Shuffle is almost indestructible but I still need externals to get music: instead of borrowed time on HiFis to make my tapes from discs borrowed at the library, I need iTunes, a program with some severe issues. I haven't bought a pre-filled tape or disc in years, and never expect to again. I also haven't had to buy a whole album for the single good earworm song in years, and I love that.

* I buy and schedule _everything_ over the web if it is even remotely useful or just even possible. Dentist appointments, restaurant reservations, music, books, clothing, designer clothing, furniture, computer hardware -- until my MacBook I hadn't bought a CPU in a store for over 5 years -- pharmaceuticals, financial products like stocks and insurance and bank accounts, supplements, shoes, food, comics, hotel rooms, tickets, and often as cheap and convenient as I can. I really do not feel I am missing much in no longer having store interaction. I can compare clothes quicker as thumbnails than when seeing racks and racks of them. I can't feel them or try them on but by now I can predict a lot, I can preview far more of them than I can try on in a store and with less aggravation, I can buy what I have bought before, and I can send bought items back. Hotel rooms are such a standardized product that I am totally comfortable getting them through priceline.com auctions. My $, £, and € are going further than ever. Which is good in an economic crisis.

* It was still to be ten years before Google got started, but when Google did, already the .com revolution was well underway. One of the fundamental changes this brought was the mindset inside my cohort of computer scientists of what our paths were and what we could be expected to do. While the idea of being absorbed into a large company and working in labs for years still remained viable and expected, suddenly the idea that we should venture out into a start-up, get big, cash out, and be set for life at 30 gained massive currency as a realistic life-path, and for quite some years if not to this day. While a few people did make it out rich, most of what this idea led to was an 80-hout-a-week work ethic for most of the people actually doing the work creating what turned out to be by 2001 utterly unsustainable businesses, with paper gains being cashed in by VCs, potential gains from going public dwindling to far less when the six-months to two-year lock on selling the stock held by the workers actually expired, and what was there being eaten up by the cost of living issues around Silicon Valley with its triangle of living space, affordability, and a short commute: choose two and feel lucky if you have just one, but you will almost never, ever have all 3. Unless you actually did end up living the dream, made it into Wired, and are now discussed by Valleywag from time to time.

* I remember typing with gloves on at a green screen at the VU because I needed my e-mail and Usenet fix over the Christmas break, but since everyone was supposed to be gone, all heating in the computer labs had been switched to minimal. Nowadays I am appalled if I do not get a 3G signal to check on everything with whatever mobile device I carry, and even more appalled when I can't get a cheap unlimited billing plan for it. I have a connection about as fast as the whole University had got coming into my home now, and the laptop runs so hot I do not expect to need gloves to type on it even if the heating in my living room goes out. Also, I probably could host that Usenet newsfeed the VU got in 1988 from my current N73 phone as a node, although not the modern Usenet feed with people posting whole movies on the alt.binary groups. Our needs for media always outstrips capacity.

As for predictions for the next 20 years? I will still be over music I bought in two months prompting me to buy yet more, I will still be having this online conversation, and I will be connected 24/7 to it. I just hope the electronic systems get better at offering me what I want instead of me having to hunt for it.