An anniversary slipped quietly by last fall. It happens all the time, this unremarked slipping away of the now into history and then beyond to oblivion. That’s the human story, our sorrow and our relentless glory. This was a Digital anniversary or at least an anniversary of something mostly Digital, though as I try to categorize it, I find these odd Analog feelings welling up. Pride, wonder, gratitude, nostalgia all come marching in around the details, the discrete facts of the anniversary. Perhaps this is the nature of anniversaries, a blending of the Digital and the Analog, the discrete and clearly distinguishable mixed up and wrapped in intangibles of emotion and surmise, the mere data of event purified in a crucible of context and experience to pure meaning.
This particular moment in time was the release of a software suite, WiscWorld 1.0, to the University of Wisconsin – Madison students. Its features seem completely bland from the remove of 20 years. Internet access, e-mail, student records and the library catalog on-line. Whoop-de-do and pass the mashed potatoes please. How the source of pride, wonder, gratitude and nostalgia you ask? Well, dear reader, let me invite you back to the fall of 1993 for a moment and perhaps you’ll understand, or at least be willing to indulge this humble scribbler.
Internet, Circa 1993
I can’t say the Internet didn’t exist, that the web hadn’t already begun to cast its virtual tentacles out across the planet and our brains. They both did, not as common fodder for the daily news perhaps, but they did exist. We, collectively, were beginning to recognize the call and squawk of that odd digital bird, a modem, flitting between the trees and feeders of our nascent Digital world. We might even have been full of wonder, never realizing how quickly the modem would disappear, at least from direct popular experience, replaced by hotspots, wifi and signal bars in the collective conscious.
The Internet was not a common currency in 1993, not quite yet. I’m guessing, with sufficient technical training, access to expensive connections, and a certain OCD level of focus you could have actually purchased something on-line. But it wouldn’t have been easy, or quick or quickly delivered. Whatever you bought probably would not have been a consumer item either, more likely something of interest to a rarified geeky collective that met the entrance criteria above.
Sure you could send an email, assuming the person you were communicating with had email, most did not. Oh yeah, and even if they did, they probably weren’t on any system connected to your e-mail system. Imagine the US postal service broken into city by city organizations that had no way to transfer Grandma’s holiday card from one city to the next.
Need a quick answer to an obscure question? The 1993 internet might have something to offer if the answer was in the domain of stuff that interested that same rarified geeky collective mentioned above. And if you had at least some general idea of where those answers might be located and how to access those locations. Think of an internet world with no Google, no Bing. It’s a little like getting a loan from a bank. You only qualify if you don’t really need it. You’ll get your answers, but only if you vaguely already know them.
Inventing the Internet or at Least a Bit of It
And then, in the Fall of 1993, UW-Madison did something radical. It threw open the doors to all that, even before a lot of “all that” even existed. It reached out beyond the pocket protector and taped eye-glasses crowd to the general community at the UW. Ag students, yeah, come on in. English majors, Biology researchers, Chemists, come on down! Dancers, musicians, artists of every stripe, jump on board! All you needed was a student ID. The computers were available with software preloaded in labs across campus. If you had your own computer you could pick up the couple of floppy disks and it would install itself! The connectivity was all prewired, the modems waiting with a twinkle in their red and green lights, ready for the call and response of Digital connectivity.
And it just worked – more or less. It worked enough that in the first three months we went from 600 folks in the circle to almost 30,000. In the spring we added full faculty and staff access and within a year we had moved beyond the world of UW-Madison and past 100,000 user mark.
Somewhere in the rush of all that expansion, I was walking across campus to a lecture by Gloria Steinem. On my way I walked by one, two, three computer labs and saw hundreds of students in front of screens lit up with email, browsers, library info, spreadsheets, and word processors. I felt like the campus was changing.
And then, at the end of Ms. Steinem’s lecture she did something I understand she always does. She threw open the floor for questions, but also invited anybody who was organizing an event, or just wanted to share some relevant information to step to microphone. A co-ed stepped up to describe a discussion group she was pulling together and then gave her e-mail address as contact for more information. “Cool,” I thought, “Geeks raising consciousness.” And then the next person stepped up to mike and described an event and… gave her email address. And another person came to the mike with a different activity, but again, the email address. Probably six or seven folks called out to the community gathered at the lecture. Sometimes they gave a physical location and a time, sometimes a phone number, but everyone gave an e-mail address without apology or concern for the efficacy of that channel of communication. I left that lecture knowing something fundamental had shifted, a shift we had accelerated a year earlier in the fall of 1993.
Anniversaries, Once and Future
If anniversaries are a blending of the Digital and the Analog, then I guess it is inevitable that anniversaries also contain some little whiff of Analog decay and mortality, a falling signal to noise ratio that announces eventual death. One of Digital’s superpowers is its easy replicability. It makes Digital feel deathless, eternal, or at least pretty damn persistent. It’s easy to forget just how young our Digital consciousness is, and how little opportunity to experience Digital mortality we’ve actually had, how easy it is to fall into a trap of confusing low probability with a the lack of possibility.
Whether by coincidence or the underlying mysterious way of things, this anniversary was called to light by just such a moment of Digital mortality. The New York Times published an article in September of 2013 headlined, Technology and the College Generation. The gist of the article was that the student of 2013 had moved on from e-mail as just too slow and apparently oh-so last century. Not that they’d abandoned the always on connection across networks and devices, but just that e-mail wasn’t as connected or heterogeneous as they wanted it to be. One flabbergasted professor remarked, “Some of them didn’t even seem to know they had a college e-mail account!” Well, snap my suspenders.
I’m not letting go of my pride and wonder for 20 years of commonly available Digital worlds at the UW-Madison. It was and is an amazing thing. I’m still surprised, though, to discover yet again, how much the Digital world just echoes the ancient Analog one given enough time and perspective. This still shiny new Digital mulit-verse is not an escape from the vagaries, decay, and loss that hound us in the Analog world. Over time, these worlds behave very much the same. I will continue to celebrate this and other anniversaries, Digital or otherwise, not as a gesture to some kind of immortality or past perfection, but rather as a nod to our mortality and the restless creativity it engenders.