SOPA, PIPA and My Internet Story

I was going to blog about the State of the Metaverse in this blog, but instead I chose to postpone that article until a later date due to the impending SOPA Blackout as we come down to the wire on the vote for the SOPA/PIPA bills in Congress.  Instead, I am going to provide my own internet story, because in some ways what I am today is a direct result of my experiences in this medium that is now threatened.

1981 was the beginning of my journey – my junior year in high school – I was failing chemistry class miserably, and decided to transfer to a new class that was being offered: computer programming.  It piqued my interest, and soon I was hooked.  I learned Fortran and Basic on NCR and the Apple ][ machines respectively, but more importantly we also had access to a timeshare system composed of two CRT terminals and a teleprinter (typewriter keyboard built into a printer that itself could serve as a terminal in addition to spewing printed output upon copious and what we would consider grotesque amounts of fan-fold tractor fed printer paper) connected mysteriously via wires through the wall to some minicomputer somewhere else.  It could have been in a closet next door or across town – I never did see that system (I want to say it was VMS based Vax/PDP perhaps?).  Ostensibly this system was to be used to print out the listings of our assigned programs that we carefully transcribed into the CRT terminals and saved in our named accounts and the output, but one day I found a classmate playing a game called ‘Advent’.  Soon I began playing it too – it was one of the first text based dungeon games; inspired by Tolkien novels.  This is when it first hit me that this medium could be a place to explore – not only the file systems and machines it was composed of, but more importantly worlds we could imagine and recreate in software ourselves.  Popular media soon saw the patterns – movies  Tron (1982), Blade Runner (1983), War Games (1983) – and literature – Neuromancer (1984) – gave words and imagery to what we were experiencing and inventing – and became part of the internet lexicon we take for granted today.

In the intervening years between my high school graduation and entry in the university, I continued to program, even as I worked in my first real job, which while not directly related to programming, allowed me to visit foreign lands.  I taught myself  C, Intel 8088 assembler, and gained exposure to different systems including the Commodore Amiga, IBM PC, DOS – and learned the intricacies of modems and modem connection command strings.  I quickly found BBS systems and connected to as many as I could.  In this process of exploration, I stumbled upon the FIDONET – a parallel network that contained discussion threads and messaging systems that was distributed coast to coast through regional nodes that shared with the collective.  The network I found contained a vibrant social milieu where anything was possible and expression and experimentation was tolerated, if not rejoiced.  I also continued to experiment with different virtual experiences – starting with the SubLogic Flight Simulator, Zork series of text based adventures and so on – but these were single player games and the computer was not a viable opponent.

When I joined the university in 1992 as a computer science undergraduate, I was exposed to the internet, Unix and deeper critical thinking on various topics available in newsgroups from a wide range of scholars and students alike.  The internet was in its infancy, and at that time the way to find resources was to use Archie, Gopher, and anonymous FTP to find and retrieve files on the subjects you wanted.  There was also an extensive email system and newsgroup system going at that time.  I felt right at home as this mode contained essentially the same elements I found in FIDONET – but it was ‘always on’ in the computer science lab, just sit down at a console and login – we take for granted today – that wasn’t that common back then.  But there was a buzz about this thing called ‘html’ and the ‘world wide web’ that culminated in the availability of NSF Mosaic – the first graphical http client (web browser), and the term ‘web surfing’ entered the jargon.  By the end of 1993 there were only 623 http sites on the web – and over 1,000,000 systems connected to the internet.  That year WWW traffic would grow 341,634% annually.  I had arrived just at the right time to straddle the old and new access paradigms, and get my fingers into both.  In between all that excitement, I was learning how to program systems, databases, and client-server applications via BSD sockets.  I also loaded my first Linux installation in these years (Slackware! Got Slack?), so I could do my work at home to avoid waiting in line for a console in the lab – and upload it to one of the servers via modem.  Games became more sophisticated and we saw the first multiplayer online games in this decade.

Upon leaving the university, I joined the business world and plied my trade with all the knowledge and experience at my disposal.  The internet and the technologies associated with it became the lingua franca of my career – and most of you lived through and are well aware of the innovations that have followed – with the culmination of the internet spread to mobile platforms, phones, and IP technology beginning to replace the old voice switched network.  The mobile internet is here and growing in size.  These advances and the free flow of information and social coordination that ensued is fueling a sea-change exemplified by the Arab spring,  Occupy Wall Street, and other movements.  I am happy to say I played a small part behind the scenes of those advances.

But in the next few days the Congress will be voting on bills that could endanger all that we have collectively worked for and built – directly affecting my livelihood and the lives of millions of other people who work in the information industries.  In the past, I have been on the fence when it came to open systems, independent artists and I was often at odds with the more militant views of these issues – such as the views of the Free Software Foundation.  With this crisis, it seems powers of greed are rolling back the clock – taking away the progress that we have managed to make in the interim.  I can see now the dangers overly proprietary systems can have, and now, more than ever, will make efforts to find and build open alternatives.

The hope we have is this: we have the power to end this – by boycotting the business entities supporting this, and by pledging ourselves to voting out of Congress all those who supported this when faced with the overwhelming evidence of the technically untenable and ethically questionable support for these bills entails.  Finally we can do something even more important in the long run: take the money you would have spent on an RIAA record album, or an MPAA movie – and seek out independent and self published artists of all types.  If the majority of us did this collectively, we would change the face of the arts and put the money were it really needs to go – into the hands of the artists.

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