News & Views » Columns

Netropolis

The very first time I went online was in 1983. Hair was big. America was Reagan country. It would be years before the Web first appeared.

Back then, each online "site" had its own phone number that you had to call directly. If someone else was already connected, the line would be busy. For the more popular sites, you’d have to use an autodialer just to get through. And the modems were unbelievably slow. You could literally read along as the page was loading.

Thinking back, the whole experience seems almost quaint. You know, like when Grandpa had to walk five miles to school in 1908.

But believe me — back then it all felt very advanced. It was as if you were living out some strange, lost suburban episode of "Star Trek" in your own bedroom. And the whole time, you somehow knew this was going to be the future.

Now, back in the day, there was no multimedia. No animated links. It was just text.

You’d routinely see things like this:

* * *** *   *   ***
*** **  *   *   * *
* * *** *** *** ***

That was high tech back in ’83. Those colon-and-parenthesis smiley face things hadn’t even been invented yet.

But it wasn’t all stone knives and bearskins. We had e-mail, message forums, software downloads and — believe it or not — true online community. In fact, the community part really worked — in a way, better than today. Most of the people I met online were my age, or close to it. And since so few of us had modems, in a couple of weeks you pretty much got to know the whole crew.

We each took a phony name, such as "Data Desperado" or "Slipped Disk." (I was "LED Zeppelin.") Since the price of going online was the cost of a phone call, most folks stayed local by design. Sure, you’d make that rare long distance call to see what the Ohio sites looked like. But that was expensive. And the phony names you saw there weren’t familiar anyway.

Most of the time, you’d just dial around town. Every once in a while, you’d strike up a conversation with someone online and realize they lived only a few blocks away.

This was especially good for me, because I didn’t have my driver’s license yet.

I think my mother must have thought this was a great way for her boy to stay out of trouble. Parents in general were pretty naive about these things back then. But kids will be kids. It didn’t take long for me to get access to the high-level stuff. The best stuff was in secret password areas, but once the system operator trusted you, you were in.

I learned a lot about the world in those hidden areas. You could find just about anything you wanted. Stolen credit card numbers. Pirated video games. Plans for pipe bombs. Even civil defense codes. One time, I found a recipe from the ’60s for homemade LSD. (I never did find out if it worked.)

Eventually, some of the kids online figured out how get free access to the telephone lines. I remember occasionally getting calls from someone named "Grey Ghost." He’d hacked into Ma Bell’s corporate teleconferencing equipment. When I picked up the phone, there’d be a dozen people laughing and carrying on — some from as far away as England.

"Grey Ghost" was a great party line host. The funniest prank he ever showed us was calling two telephone sex lines simultaneously. The two operators would talk dirty to each other for several minutes before they figured it out.

But set-ups like this rarely last long. By the mid-’80s, hundreds more folks had gotten modems and the lines were nearly always busy. Sure, there were more places to call, too. But the community had begun to fragment. It had grown too large. And the good people started to move on.

Things really cooled off for me when a kid named "Mr. Whiz" came home to find the FBI had raided his house. My mom noticed the article about it in the newspaper. He lived just a mile away.

Then I got my driver’s license, and sitting at home in front of a screen just didn’t seem all that fun anymore.

Of course, today it’s all completely different. Now we have the Web. With photo-realistic graphics and digital sound. Now you can connect to the whole world. Not just down the street.

But back in the day — I’m telling you — it all felt very advanced. And somehow very special.

Maybe it’s because for a moment, we were in on a secret that nobody else knew about. Something we knew was going to be pretty important.

comment