This was originally published on Medium back in February, 2015
I grew up in one of the most incredible eras. The timing was really impeccable. I was born the same year the Macintosh was released. The proliferation of personal computers is something I witnessed first-hand. I remember monitors that could show only orange, followed by CGA (3 colours), EGA (16 colours), and VGA (256 colours, which was nothing short of a revelation). It was a complicated, new, and occasionally scary world.
I learnt to program in BASIC at the age of seven. My first program—”Make-a-Friend”—asked you for a name, then drew a smiley face in the centre of the screen. No, this wasn’t some indication of how reclusive I’d be later in life—despite the stereotype, I never became a loner. I learnt enough BASIC to attempt to port Commodore 64 games to the Commodore Plus-4. This never quite worked as well as I hoped it would, but it taught me a lot.
I kept making games. When we got our first PC, leaving the Commodore (and tiny, fascinating Timex Sinclair 1000) behind, I started deconstructing Batch files and learnt how to use them to make simple Choose Your Own Adventure-style games.
And then, the modem. I was late to the game. My first was a 9600 baud. No geek points for that—you have to have gotten your hands on a 2400 baud to impress anyone, 300 if they’re particularly hard to please.
The era of the BBS was here. I lived in a small town in southern Manitoba, and even then I still remember the names of some of the local BBSs I was on regularly. Jupiter’s Ring, Dusk Till Dawn, Helpless Amongst Friends, Seraphim. Even in the middle of nowhere, we were connecting.
I learnt to make levels for the game ZZT (which had a tiny scripting language all its own), then even made some of my own BBS games that could, in theory, be played with friends. But I kept them to myself. I was just learning, just playing. One day, I’d make something bigger, something worth sharing.
Winnipeg had a free, monthly newspaper dedicated to computer news. Every time we’d journey into the city, I’d try to seek it out. It was a lifeline. And every month, they dedicated a page to listing the local BBSs and their numbers. This page grew and grew until there were—if my memory isn’t failing me—hundreds of numbers. None of my BBSs, of course. These were only the Winnipeg numbers, and since they were long distance, I never connected to any of them. Well, almost never. Once, briefly, I selected one of them at random and dialed in. It was like walking on an alien planet. I never made it past the welcome screen, never made an account. I knew I was racking up a phone bill every second I was on it. But I needed to touch it. I imagined it having uncountable regular users, as opposed to the dozen or so regulars on the local boards. It made the world suddenly feel very, very big.
The AOL disks began to appear. They were great—a piece of tape over the corner of the disk, and you had free storage. Before long, lots of people would see them as a scourge, their computer desks drowning in them. Useless, once you started buying blank disks in bulk, but valuable for some reason. They were impossible to throw away.
Of course, they were especially useless to me. Where we lived, there was nowhere we could dial in, and my parents definitely weren’t going to pay for long distance or the access fee. But on more than one occasion, I installed it anyway. Again, I needed to touch it. I’d load up the interface, cancel out of the dialer, and just…click things. Open menus. Nothing worked, of course, but you could see the silhouette of something bigger than anything I’d encountered so far. I installed other clients: Compuserve, Prodigy. They were never as interesting. The AOL interface had a special sort of spell over me. I’d open the program directory and listen to the sound effects that came with the program. They were strange, and exhilarating. It was rare to get a new sound. Which kind of puts everything in perspective.
You can’t install the AOL client without consequences. Before long, I noticed that it had infected Windows, stuck its fingers where they didn’t belong. Now, when you went to change your system sounds, there were entries for new, AOL-specific events. I was scared. I thought I’d be found out, that I’d have to explain why I’d installed something so useless.
And then, things began to move at the speed of light.
The growing popularity of BBSs and CD-ROMS led to the era of Shovelware—completely random collections of software people had compiled from a variety of sources, burnt to a CD and sold for, generally, a pretty minimal fee. At first, you’d find them in computer stores (which were themselves strange and wonderful places). By the end of the era, you’d find them in every Walmart. I still have a few of these CDs, and it’d be hard to overestimate my sentimental attachment to them.
My parents were well aware of the spell computers had on me, and they did their best to both temper and indulge it. For a long time, my computer access was limited to only a small amount of time each day. But when my dad heard about the Winnipeg Computer Expo, he decided to take me. I could never thank him enough for this. The expo blew my mind wide open. It was small, but every corner was home to some new and exciting thing. And the next year, he took me again. And again. I won my first graphics editor at one of these expos. Later, I’d see a virtual reality unit for the first time. I left that expo with a book on virtual reality—a beautiful, gaudy, massive book called “Virtual Reality Madness and More!”. It’s still on my shelf, and I still pull it out every once in a while to thumb through it. Turns out it got a lot of things wrong. Virtual reality didn’t become the next big thing. Not then.
Then, the shift.
You could see it happening. The internet happened, and it ate everything else alive. The BBS list in the newspaper began to shrink. Before long, the list was gone, and the paper died with it.
The expo died, too.
One by one, the local BBSs packed up. A friend and I had our own BBS, which was one of the last to go. Possibly the last in southern Manitoba, completely.
What replaced it was a behemoth. When the internet set up shop, it devoured everything. But it was also the start of a new era. Now, I could connect to more than the people in my small little circles. On Usenet, I could talk to hundreds of people. On Telnet, I could play MUDs with dozens of people at the same time. New sound effects weren’t amazing things anymore. Everything was right at your fingertips, and everything was cheap.
But before long, something even bigger ate even this: the World Wide Web. People who came late to the internet probably don’t even remember the era between the BBS and the World Wide Web. It happened, to many of us, in a flash.
My first job out of high school was in computer sales, just in time to see the internet become this thing that—suddenly—everyone wanted, even if the majority of people still didn’t quite understand it. Everyone had seen it, now, and no one wanted to be left behind. Every day, wide-eyed customers would ask me whether or not our computers “came with Yahoo.” There was no good answer to that question. Make any attempt to explain and you’d see fear creep in their eyes, followed by a hasty retreat. Too much, too soon.
I lived the last offline childhood. Yes, I grew up with computers, but there’s very little evidence of that. Or rather, evidence of me. Now, we take it for granted that anything we say or do on a computer will haunt us forever. But my childhood has rotted away. Literally. Disks were never made to survive more than a handful of years, and while I have a small stack of giant floppies saved from my childhood, it’s safe to assume that they’ve been claimed by bitrot. Not that I could find a Commodore Plus-4 diskette drive to read them, anyway.
Today, sitting in a coffee shop, I found the earliest evidence of myself online. It’s eighteen, maybe nineteen years old. Two-thirds of a lifetime ago, which seems impossible. It’s a short, simple message, etched into an archive of the server where my first website once sat, a page titled “Where’d it go? Away.” It reads: “Sorry… got sick of it… Site is gone now and eventually I’ll put up my new one… Whenever I get time…“ The title is heartbreaking truncation. A message that there was once more, but it’s gone, now. No one had ever thought about saving it. What would have been the point? We were used to things being temporary, of writing over stuff when we ran out of space. Only now does it feel like loss.
I’m chock-full of nostalgia. I want kids to get off my lawn. I want to tell people about how damn static the World Wide Web made the world, that when I was young, it was all about community. About content creation, not content consumption. When Apple made HyperCard, not Gatekeeper. But, of course, this is crazy. If I could, I think I’d burn down the internet and go back to the BBS era. I think I’d be happier, then. But it’s only because of my age. I want to return to that era where everything was scary and new. I want that sense of wonder back.
My Oculus Rift arrived last week. The first thing I did was take a picture of it sitting on top of my ancient virtual reality book. Ten-year-old Aaron is so proud. I’ve been listening to him more, lately. Telling myself that it’s okay, that everything turned out alright. I made it to the future.
Then, I took a picture of my six-month-old daughter sitting beside it, looking at it with a confused expression. More than anything, I hope I take her to her computers expos, whatever those may be. Everything’s wondrous to her. And I want to know what she’ll find scary and new.