Published July 5th 2011.
Sometimes I’m a in-my-time-we-didn’t-have-this guy.
For example: in my time there were no cellular phones. In my time there were no CD’s, DVD’s, only 4 TV channels. In my time there wasn’t Internet (gasp!).
My first personal computer was a ZX Spectrum. I still remember that for a long time I almost didn’t leave home…When I was 15 I was already a seasoned software programmer. I had computer binges of 2, 3 days connected to the machine. A download took around 2, 3 hours, and sometimes all night. I usually slept 2 hours, set the alarm, and the cycle would start all over again (sleep-> at the computer -> sleep -> at the computer>… I forgot to eat…).
The youngsters must think life in those days was empty, devoid of excitement, bland, lacking in entertainment and cultural diffusion. Nothing could be more misleading. Even in those ancient days there was a remarkable device. Being portable we could take it anywhere; we didn’t have to connect it to anything, no batteries needed, and despite that it contained a huge, unsurmountable, varied and bottomless source of diversion, culture, information and knowledge. Nowadays we can still find a few them, but the younger generations let them fall into disuse. Look for them at home. You’ll probably be able to find one them: dusty, moldy, in the back of a shelf up in the loft. It’s called a book. Try it out. I can assure you that after an initial period of adaptation with a kind of weird and obsolete interface requiring human intervention to turn pages, you’ll be won over by its charm and grace.
But let’s get back to what brings us here. In my time there was no Internet. In truth there was a simulacrum. In the late 70’s of last century (I’m getting older by the minute…), with the widespread of personal computers and modems, the BBS’s started showing up.
BBS are the initials of Bulletin Board Systems, a name strange and also not very appropriate. Because its purpose was not really about putting information on a (cork) board.
A BBS was a very curious institution, especially when we consider the lack of ROI when compared to the amount of effort and investment necessary to maintain it. I know. I had built one in my neighbourhood. It was the only one. I had two phone lines at my grandmother’s home. One exclusively for the use of the BBS, because it was always on downloading and uploading stuff. Also at that time there was something a friend of mine had discovered: the all-pervasive blue-box! It allowed us to circumvent the phone providers. I could connect anywhere I wanted without paying a single dime! Around this time I started connecting to BBS’s around the world. I was downloading, gaming, and developing programs all the time. Back then, the phone commutation switches emitted a “pi” at the end when dialing an international phone number. As soon as I was able to “memorize” that sound (i.e.,whistling into the receiver to trick the remote modem into trying to train against your whistle and lock up), I was also able to dial international numbers. The sky was literally the limit… Other things I was doing at the time, I won’t put in writing…lol (incidentally I now work at the major Telecom Company in Portugal; small world…).
It was like this: a guy spends a not so cool amount of money buying a PC to be used as a dedicated server, a certain amount of phone lines, and a modem. Remember. In those days these commodities were not cheap (telecom’s monopolies and so forth). After acquiring all of this crap, it was time to have fun, i.e., setting it up. After that it was all about word-of-mouth, telling everyone having a PC that something "new” was available. I still remember it took some time to have people connecting to my own BBS. First and foremost there weren’t many kids owning a PC. But after a period of evangelization, I was able to convince some of the kids in my borough to acquire one of those PC. In the beginning there were only messages, but later one I started uploading files, and that’s when the all thing went stratospheric. The “success” happened almost overnight. Everyone wanted to have one PC to able to connect to my BBS. Almost all of my free time was devoted to maintaining the contraption.
How much did I charge the users for the use of the BBS? Nothing. ROI? Zilch.
Do you get the picture? If not, don’t be surprised. To understand it, you’d have to have lived in those ancient days managing/using a BBS.
To be able to log in into a BBS, one had to register and get a password. There were only invited guests. Thus only friends or “friends of friends” (in those days this coinage didn’t have a pejorative connotation), and this meant exactly that: people who were friends of my friends. Up until 1992, the Internet was a thing primarily of text, and BBS’s in many ways mimicked that. To get "online" was to sit down at my computer, open up an application called a "terminal program" (or just "term program" for short), pull up my carefully hoarded list of BBS phone numbers, and start dialing. Inevitably, most would be busy and I'd have to wait, but eventually I'd be treated to the sweet sound of ringing through my modem's speaker, followed by the electronic beeping and scratching of a modem handshake. In retrospect it seems crazy that the text-based world of BBS’s could still resonate so much with me, but what I learned there underpins most of how I use the Internet today. I learned how to talk with other people in a forum, how to quote replies, and how to construct an argument. I learned how private messages worked. I learned about compressed files and archive; it’d surprise younger Internet users to learn that I used PKZip and ARJ back then, just as I do now; I learned how to flame someone and how to respond to being flamed. I learned about analog communication and modems and hard drives and how computers worked. I learned things in this world, things that youngsters these days have to pick up from the infinite multitude of Web-based discussion boards and social media. I had to learn, because that was the only way to get "online" back then. Back in the day I didn't have to worry so much about my grandmother finding my smartphone and my Facebook posts, though, because barriers to entry were higher. Our world was shrouded not just in passwords, but in incantations and ASCII gibberish. Even dialing into a BBS required a bit of understanding of how the term program I was using worked. Without some idea of what I wanted to accomplish, it would have been difficult to puzzle out how to do it.
In the beginning what attracted the users the most were not the programs but the messages. There we two types: private and public. The private messages were only interesting to the recipient; with the public messages it was a different thing altogether. Due to human nature for every single message placed on the BBS, there were who agreed with it, and there were also people who disagree with it. There were endless threads related to just one single public message! Once in a while, and metaphorically speaking, the discussion got really nasty, and the moderator, i.e., me, had to intervene, and sometimes ban one of the recalcitrant members.
But generally speaking, the atmosphere was very cordial. What I loved the most about the messages were its nature. We got everything there. When I say “everything” I mean really everything! From the capricious to the most esoteric…
And then came the internet and killed the BBS’s…
In my dreams I still hear the banshee's tele-keen of somebody trying to connect to my BBS.
I'm glad I spent my childhood online. If you think along the same lines as me, please read this book. Is it particularly well written? No. Is it highfalutin literature? No. Do you love the things you grew up with? Yes. Are your childhood stories just like or similar to the ones Rob O’Hara tells about? Yes. Read it then. You won’t regret it.
NB: Can anyone guess what the string “ATE1S7=255S11=35V1X4S0=0“, meant back then…?
NB: My own junk from “back in the day”:
(486 microchaos-PC with two modems on top of it: a US Robotics and a 14.4 modem; the pc was the host for my last BBC iteration, i.e., after that I no longer used my own BBS; it’s still there, but the CMOS battery is dead. It’s also equipped with a MFM disk with a PCI-controller; I must find the time to get this machine to run, in order to get all of goodies from “back in the day”; incidentally this was my first machine bought with my own money)
(On the left my microchaos BBS; in the centre a zip drive; on the right my first machine: a still working ZX Spectrum…)
(Networking stuff that I used to run my lab at home, i.e., BBS, Servers, printers, etc)