Welcome to the Internet: 1990

In the spring of 1990 I was admitted to the Bowling Green State University. I arrived in Bowling Green, Ohio, in August of that year. The first thing I did was to find an apartment. The second thing I did was to order a new computer. As a new student I had a super student discount and ordered an Apple Macintosh SE. The shining new order arrived on September 19. And I had also ordered a 1200 baud modem. Hello Internet!

Most of you might not know what a 1200 baud modem is. With the old protocols, 1200 baud could have translated in to 1200 bits per second. That means a top 40 hit would have taken about 8 hours to download. But thank goodness, in those days all services were text based.

Having my own computer in 1990 put in me in great advatange over other students. One advantage was of course that I could write all my notes and term papers on my own machine. But perhaps more importantly, I could do all my reasearch online. Connected to the school library I could surf books, dissertations and other materials from the comfort of my apartment.

Using the library in 1990 was not simple. First, I had to take the bus or walk over to campus. That took about thirty minutes. Then I had to use a library computer to search for books. Normally it might not be a problem. But close to midterms or finals you could wait for hours to get access to a terminal. And then it was yours for twenty minutes. So hurry up!

It would be a few months before the first successful communication between HTTP client and server occurred. And it wasn’t until the Mosaic browser was released in 1993 that users truly discovered the opportunities of the World Wide Web. I was living happily in Ohio mainly getting information about news and the weather from Case Western university, an early content provider on the Internet.

A few million users were connected to the Internet in 1990. But it seems like a few thousand. I would post an abstract of a paper I was writing and would receive responses from college professors in Illinois and California. That wouldn’t happen today. I also contributed with my own content writing movie reviews on what became IMDB and giving people advice on how to listen to shortwave radio.

If you had asked me about social media, fake news, pornography and gambling in 1990, I wouldn’t have had a clue. Perhaps I didn’t have the imagination. Things were so different back then. My computer didn’t have a password. You just turned it on and you were in. Of course, I wasn’t online until I logged in with my modem. But even then, the services I used didn’t require any user ID or password.

Using a computer in 1990 stirred the imagination. I often discussed the potential of artificial intelligence with my friends in computer science. The concensus was that we were at an impasse at the time when researchers struggled to teach a robot how to tie shoe laces. The focus back then was to create machines that did what people did physically. Large language models and such used today shows that we were probably on the wrong track in 1990.

What we thought we were right about was the transforming effect of people communicating across borders. Being able to send messages to people across the globe instantly and without paying cash was radical. Governments hadn’t figured out how to censor communication like they do today. With centralized platforms we use in 2024, you can effectively prevent mass communication by taking down the user or the service. We felt much more free to communicate than anyone can expect to do now.

And people were polite. I have heard rumours about the first trolls before 1990, but I never saw any until much later. Everyone knew a lot of people and you didn’t have the relative anonymity users have today. Most users were academics and researchers anyhow so the tone was generally very nice. People helped each other out and there was more a more communal feel to the Internet without money being made or politics being conducted .

After the death of the Russian opposition leader Navalny on February 16, someone said that this was the day the Internet died. In some way I believe that the Internet of 1990 died that day. In the sense that the last illusion that the Internet can be used for good without consequences is gone. I sometimes lay around thinking that if I had known what was to come I would have created Netflix or Google. Today I wish I could have made the Internet what it was intended to be, a place where we could exchange information and collaborate across the world irrespective of our location and without fear of repercussions.