Dial-up Internet: My Triumphs, My Mistakes

Monday, February 17th, 2014 by willm2

I started using the internet when I was in 7th or 8th grade. My parents had a 2400 baud modem donated to them by “techie” friends and a PC with windows 3.1. I had had some experience with BBS, Gopher, and other proto-www interfaces, but this was my first experience with the web as viewed through a browser, in this case Netscape Navigator.  While dialing up to the internet never presented much of a problem, actually surfing the web was another story. I remember waiting a good half an hour for the images to load on some websites. When we upgraded to a 14.4k modem, things became a little easier. I could even play games on-line with friends. This was a whole new beast of troubleshooting for me. When my friend and I would finally get the game to work, it was like a miracle. Some rite of technomancy had been performed, numbers and lines of code had been incanted just right.

My return to dial-up in the MAL had shades of the same alchemical mystery to it. Kyle and I struggled for an hour trying to input the correct numerical sequence into the iBook’s Remote Access software, all to no avail. No matter which permutation of the dial-up phone number we entered, the modem refused to speak to the bits in the wire. As it turned out, our flaw was not in the ingredients of the alchemical mixture, but in the vial itself. One of us (I blame Kyle) had plugged the phone line into the wrong port in the iBook. After we switched it, the internet came alive like the homunculus or golem of lore. Sadly the modem did not make the bestial hiss and screech that I remembered from my youth (then again, this would have been falling into the trap of nostalgia). Even though there was a smart-phone in my pocket at the time, I still felt the rush of excitement and possibility of having complete access to a realm whose boundaries none had yet to sketch. I think that early dial-up www was one of the moments Zielinski mentions: a point in media-history where diversity is rich and heterogeneity the norm. The difficulty of getting on to the internet, let alone navigating it properly, had the unexpected effect of creating spaces of unmediated creativity. There was no framework for expression as is the case now with the blog, twitter, tumblr, and facebook platforms (all designed to make the internet a more comprehensible space). Since there were there no established platforms, no one knew exactly what to do with this new sandbox. Witness the websites of the 96 election, archived as they appeared 18 years ago.

I accessed these sites on the 56k dial-up iBook and thus managed to get a fairly accurate sense of what it was like to use the internet back then. Data appeared piecemeal, sometimes not appearing at all, leading to a kind of persistent glitch. Only half a page would load, or text would load in place of image. Thanks to these frequent glitches, one could see the inner workings of the then-primitive HTML. Like cars up until the 1980s, one could pop open the hood and figure out roughly what was going on. I recall the dial-up age as being a time when almost everyone I knew (all middle schoolers mind you) knew how to program the basics of HTML. Everyone was a tinkerer, everyone a builder. Rising complexity does not equal rising diversity, and as websites became more elaborate, the codes fell into fewer and fewer hands, leading to the net we know today, a series of platforms that do everything in their power to limit the users ability to modify or tinker with their own experience.

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