Internet Dreams, written May 27, 2002

I'm reading a book called The Leap, by Tom Ashbrook, a "A Memoir of Love and Madness in the Internet Gold Rush". I also recently read High Stakes, No Prisoners, by Charles Ferguson, another book describing a startup in the heady days of the early Internet economy (1995).

Both these books do a great job of describing the hushed sense of anticipation that we all felt back in those days, a feeling that the Internet would change everything, that it would be a tidal wave sweeping everything before it, that it would allow us to communicate with anybody, at any time, anywhere in the world. It's interesting to compare that anticipation with what has developed over the past several years.

My first experience with the Internet was with a multi-user-dungeon game (MUD) back when I was working as a summer student at Fermilab before heading off to MIT in 1990. It was amazing. Not the game per se, but the experience of being able to chat with people all over the country in real time was fascinating. Not that we talked about any great deep philosophical issues or anything (mostly it was "hey, what should we kill next?"), but the ability to have a shared experience despite being in different physical locations made a very powerful impression on me.

Later that summer, I became a "wizard" on that MUD - I had conquered the MUD as a player, and was given the right to help the creators of the MUD extend it. I was literally able to build the world. All it took was a bit of coding, and I could add whole new sections to the world, putting into place my visions of what the world should look like. People would be able to explore my areas, and interact with my creations. Again, we're not talking Michelangelo here - I threw together a few monsters and rooms based on a favorite series of mine at the time.

But the power of creation was exhilarating. Because it was a world of text and text alone, changing the shared world was merely a matter of changing the text. On that particular MUD, only the wizards were given the power to "emote", meaning they could write their own interactions. The players were restricted to canned verbs like "smile" (the other people in the area would see "Player smiles happily."). Emoting gave wizards the ability to "do" anything they wanted (e.g. "Shadowlord plunges his hand deep into your chest and withdraws your still-beating heart." to take a memorable example of what a friend did to me before I understood how emote worked).

Since text is so easily manipulable, even with the simple C-based language the MUDs used, all sorts of things were possible. I created an invisible monster that burst from the shadows, merely by giving it no description until it appeared. But when you were a player, the confusion of looking around, seeing nothing, and then having this monster attack was palpable.

Anyway, I didn't mean to make this a treatise on MUDs. But the sense of being able to do anything, meet anybody, and create whole new worlds out of nothing was what the Internet meant to me at that time.

Then I got to MIT, where the Internet was taken for granted, even back in 1990. Everybody had e-mail, netnews access, even gopher! I mostly hung out in the real world. I played MUDs occasionally (they got steadily more complex throughout this time), but MIT was enough craziness and innovation and world creation for me.

I graduated from MIT in 1994, and headed off for a one-year internship at CERN, the particle accelerator located outside Geneva, Switzerland. This experience again had a powerful impact on how I viewed the Internet. I ended up not getting a lot of fulfillment out of my work there, so I spent a _lot_ of time on the Internet. I still had an MIT account, so I kept in close touch with my friends there through Zephyr, an instant-messaging service that some MIT students had written. I spent a lot of time building areas on a MUD where I was a wizard. I built my first web page in the fall of 1994, the bones of which are still being used for my web page.

I also got involved with an e-mail list called 2020world. Started by Kurt Dahl, an editor at the Seattle Times, it was an exploration of what the world would be like 25 years down the road. He generally posed a scenario early each week, and invited responses to it. At the end of the week, he'd take the best responses and print them in the newspaper. I quickly became a common poster, getting a couple of my responses printed in the paper (I still have the clippings saved someplace). The thrill of it was that I had people listening to me and my opinions. They knew nothing about me - they didn't know I was fresh out of college and had no basis for my opinions. It had the feel of Peter and Valentine in Ender's Game, starting to take over the world as children. Here I was, participating from Europe in a worldwide discussion about the future, and getting listened to. What a great thing this Internet was turning out to be!

In the time since, the Internet has become part of most people's lives. It has gone from a curiosity of academics to a genuine economic phenomenon. But it has also been transformed into something more mundane than we ever imagined. In 1994-1995, when the authors of these books were trying to start their companies, they imagined that the Internet would sweep away everything in its path, destroying the old, and giving them the opportunity to change the world. And to some extent, it has. It is now possible to know more than ever before - all sorts of information is a short Google search away. It _is_ possible to talk to people all over the world and bring them together in the sorts of discussions I participated in on the 2020world mailing list.

But instead, I use the Internet mostly as a replacement for other media. I used to watch SportsCenter to get sports scores, stats and highlights. Now I can grab them off the net whenever I want. I used to write letters and call friends to chat. Now I can just drop them e-mail. It's certainly a more convenient world. But is it a world-changing phenomenon?

Phil Agre likes to make the argument that technology does not cause paradigm shifts by itself. How technology is embedded into a social matrix is what really matters. This point is also visited in The Social Life of Information, a book I read a while ago. In particular, information technology does not get used unless there is a social basis (generally in real life) to support it. And I find that's true. The one e-mail list that I participate in regularly is composed of friends from college. I've had a few "e-pals" over the years, but either they deepened into real-life friendships, or I lost interest.

It's kind of a pity, really. There are all these possibilities, the possibilities that swept up people like Tom Ashbrook and Charles Ferguson back in 1995 into the fever of startups and the conquering power of technology, and yet life continues much the same.

At one point, a friend quipped (or quoted - I'm not sure where it comes from) "We consistently overestimate how much will change in one year, but underestimate how much will change in ten." These books, by taking me back to those heady days when anything was possible, when we would all be brought together into McLuhan's Global Village, reminded me of that quote.

How much has my life really changed on a day-to-day basis because of the Internet? I spend more time on the computer now than I ever did before. But a lot of that is replacement time; instead of reading a morning paper, I check news stories and comics and sports scores on the net in the morning. I use the internet for all sorts of conveniences: checking TV listings, checking movie times, reserving airline tickets, etc. But has it fundamentally altered my life? I'm not sure.

I can say that no matter how much I enjoy a good intellectual debate carried out over e-mail, it will never be as satisfying as an evening spent in lively conversation with friends. Technology has its place, as a convenience, as a catalyst, as a facilitator for interactions that might otherwise be impossible, but as Agre and others point out, it is not the prime cause itself. We are. We choose to use (or not use) the technology, and how it is used will only make sense within the social context of our lives.

I'm not sure what my point is. This whole discussion may just be a symptom of having spent the three-day weekend with no social interaction :). I'm curious to hear people's thoughts. Or not.

Eric Nehrlich, May 27, 2002

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