The other Internet: or AND NOT OR

I’m going to credit Cory Doctorow with first putting into words a concept we’re all deeply familiar with: when we were 18, anything invented before we were born must have been around forever, which was revolutionised by anything invented in our twenties, but anything invented in our thirties should be banned.

In a couple of days time my son will turn 18. It occurred to me that, just as my generation might be forever identified with wet-look hair gel, luminous green terry towelling socks and the rise of rampant unaffordable consumerism, his generation will be the first to enter adulthood assuming the internet has been around forever and Facebook is better than leaving the house and making actual friends.

Once the preserve of nerds looking at Star Trek and talking about porn, the internet has almost completely changed in just the last 10 years. For the first 30 years of its life, it mostly consisted of academic research and bulletin boards for home-built, do-it-yourself particle accelerator enthusiasts. I remember in the mid-1980’s an old friend of mine showing me a circuit board covered in badly soldered wires, plugged into the phone line, which made weird noises like a robot choking on methamphetamine, as he desperately tried to convince MS DOS Shell to “go on line”.

I had no idea what he meant by “go on line” but it sounded like a good idea at the time. He had remote access to his college computer department’s file server and wanted to show me the future. Later still, me and the same friend would fill every draw in our parents houses with CD-ROM’s from every two-bit operation under the sun, offering free internet for a month. The same friend would boast that he didn’t pay for an internet connection in two years; merely hopping from one free offer to the next, cancelling his subscription a day before the billing period started on one account, before signing up a new account with another. Boots the chemist, Dixons, Poundland — you name it, if they had a dreamlike boardroom vision for becoming the company who got Britain on-line, we had a few hundred of their free trial discs littering our bedroom floors. The dot com boom and inevitable bust would be the financial ruin of many of these companies.

I remember the first time I saw a photorealistic image on a computer screen. In early 1980’s, aged 11, my parents gave me, for Christmas, a Sinclair ZX Spectrum — the UK’s first affordable home computer, alongside the Commodore 64 and Acorn Electron. It’s display adapter was no more complicated than the one used for closed caption subtitles inside any modern TV set. But for its time, this was sufficient to play a whole range of game titles, including the now legendary Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy and Wanted Monty Mole series — the precursor to the sort of games which now run on your basic run of the mill £14.99 mobile phone.

Perhaps just 5 or 6 years later, here I was staring in genuine amazement at a full colour representation of the Mona Lisa, on the screen of an Atari ST, which another friend of mine had rigged up to a synthesiser, drum machine and four-track cassette recorder in what was, to me, the highest of high-tech home recording studio set-ups I’d ever seen.

The Joint Photographic Experts Group, or JPG for short, had pioneered the compression algorithms necessary to squeeze a bunch of image data into a relatively small file size, when it was first realised that using the Mandelbrot set to identify a repeating pattern of pixels, a computer could reduce an image which would ordinarily take up a huge amount of memory down into just a few megabytes. And here we were eagerly rushing home from the newsagents, with a copy of some Atari enthusiast’s magazine, whose free give-away that month was a few disk’s worth of 1’s and 0’s demoing this amazing new technology.

Really advanced and expensive home computers at that time, probably had around 128 kilobytes of memory in total, and floppy disks being the only affordable storage medium of the time, could hold just over 1 megabyte each. Today, the Google logo on the search engine giant’s front page, takes up 25 kilobytes of display memory and downloads instantaneously billions of times per-day, into the homes and business of people all around the world. In the late 1980’s, to view one simple photograph of the Mona Lisa, we waited at least 10 minutes for two floppy disks to dump their wad into the memory of a computer no more sophisticated by today’s standards than a microwave oven — and all for the simple pleasure of seeing a computer do something we had never seen a computer do before.

In my home town, of Stockton on Tees, there used to be a Record Mart secondhand vinyl store, which I would pile into for a few hours every weekend and leave with an armful of L.P.’s with interesting artwork, sporting the names of vaguely familiar musicians I had read about in Guitarist Magazine. I discovered Frank Zappa, Van Halen, Deep Purple and Joe Satriani through a series of painful experiments with Vinnie Vincent and Richie fucking Sambora.

By this point, I’m still using dial-up internet but now on a far more sophisticated Apple Macintosh computer. I had my own home recording studio set-up now and was experimenting with early so-called soft-synths — virtual versions of classic electronic musical instruments, like the Roland TR-808 drum machine. The internet was still something you made a point of connecting to, almost like a special event, because the only ISP’s who had survived the lunacy of giving away their services for free, had now merged into the cable TV and phone companies, who were now charging a more realistic 1p per-minute.

It was a bright autumn afternoon. I vividly remember the sun was blasting into the window of my bedroom studio in Hind Street. A friend of mine, who I’d been writing music with since the early 90’s, called around for a coffee and to listen to my latest demo, which he would then take away and work on vocals and lyrics. He sat on the bed behind me as I looked something up on that internet, while we talked about where we wanted the song we were working on to go. I can’t remember what it was I was looking for, because even as he continued to talk over my shoulder, I was completely distracted by a story I’d stumbled upon, on the Slashdot website, about this new service which was causing a shit storm. They called it, Napster.

I turned to my friend and explained what I was reading about. We both instantly knew what we were dealing with. We stayed up until the small hours, for weeks on end, frequently leaping around the room as music we never dreamed we would ever get the chance to hear slowly filled the hard drive — music we didn’t know existed, by artists we previously thought we knew well, suddenly available at the click of a mouse.

This was far from instant gratification, however. It would routinely take well over an hour to download a single MP3 file. Finding a user who was sharing his or her files on a connection faster than a 56k dial-up modem, was like discovering a lost Babylonian treasure.

What Napster would ultimately reveal, was that the demographics the multimillion dollar marketing departments had relied on for decades, in some of the largest recording and publishing companies in the world, weren’t even close to understanding their audience. A user sharing Metallica was also sharing Miles Davis. Another sharing Joni Mitchell and Talking Heads was also sharing super rare bootlegs of Captain Beefheart and Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

It was a time of anxiously awaiting the completion of a 4 or 5 megabyte download, before the one hour maximum connection time the ISP’s allowed per-session would roll around again, and you’d have to try multiple times to reconnect, before going to the back of the queue to nibble away at the last few hundred kilobytes of the MP3 file in question. But that moment, when a song you never thought you’d ever get a chance to hear, would finally read “100% complete”, was more exhilarating than jumping headfirst into Milena Velba’s cleavage with your face covered in quick setting glue.

Bear in mind, this was music we couldn’t even go out and buy if we wanted to — and boy did we want to! But the high street music retailers had been too heavily focused on the Take That 12 year olds, to notice the generation clambering for Ozric Tentacles were being consistently ignored by every major media company in the business. They simply didn’t know people like me and my friend existed, and certainly not in the sorts of numbers who were using this new platform to finally realise a dream held by music fans around the world, since the invention of the gramophone itself.

This was a genuinely wild new frontier. You never really knew from one day to another if the next time you tried to connect to Napster, there would be a knock at the door and Lars Ulrich would be stood there with an attorney demanding his cut. Nor was it a particularly long lived phenomena. The experience of Napster many users had, once it inevitably became embroiled a series of headline grabbing lawsuits around the world, was nowhere near to the experience of using it in those first few months of its launch.

It was these bandwagon jumpers who, perhaps inadvertently, ruined it for everyone else. Within months, files started to propagate around the network which were either horribly low resolution or simply deliberately mislabelled, so as to discredit the service and give it the appearance of being too slow for “serious music collectors” to bother with. But I would bet that there is still a lot of music out there, safely packed away on CD-ROM and doubly backed-up on memory sticks and portable hard drives, which that solid core of early adopters eagerly collected, somehow almost knowing that this opportunity to finally hear music created by people who wanted nothing more than for it to be heard, probably wouldn’t come around again within their lifetime.

In fact, I have yet to see made available, on any of the networks which later grew from the ashes of Napster’s demise, many of the albums and bootlegs I collected in that period, when the internet made that transition from a nerd’s toy, to the omnipresence it is today. Some of the more commercially viable stuff has since surfaced in legal on-line record stores. Most of the Jaco Pastorius era Weather Report I collected in that time, for example, has now been officially released and I duly paid to own legit versions of it. But if it sounds like a well-worn trope to insist that every generation doesn’t know how lucky it is, it is just as true to say that many a perfectly healthy baby has been thrown out with the bathwater of ignorance, which has suffocated perfectly good ideas like Napster, simply because the prevailing establishment has so consistently failed to appreciate the opportunity to innovate, even when it’s handed to them on a silver platter.

In the mid-1980’s a consortium of music publishing companies and musicians, headed by the record producer and guitar legend Todd Rundgren, was within inches of a deal with the American media giant Warner Music Publishing, to roll out a set-top-box which would deliver on-demand music into the homes of subscribers to the Warner cable TV service. Despite having most of the major music publishers on-board, Warner couldn’t even convince it’s own music publishing department to endorse the system. So the whole thing, which had even gone as far as in-home trials, with all the software written and all the hardware ready to be put into the homes of the MTV generation, simply had to be scrapped.

The music business executives who would later blame their own customers for the collapse of their entire business model, quite literally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, some 10 years previous to the infamous Metallica show trials and the inevitable rise of myriad peer-to-peer networks which took Napster’s place.

The parallels with what happened in the music business, to what is now happening to open democracy, are stark. In the early days of the internet, the politicians had a unique chance to actually listen to what voters were saying about everything from foreign policy to energy production. They had an open goal into which to shoot the winning World Cup Final ball, simply by listening to what ordinary people felt about everything from the despicable business of defence contractors creating their own pro-war TV news networks, to how great the similarities are between someone in Eritrea and someone in Encino, when it comes to fair-trade commerce. But the politicians, like their counterparts in the music business, consistently failed to realise the societal changes happening all around them, were being hamstrung at every step of the way by their own lack of vision.

Napster was to the music giants, what Twitter is to corporate accountability. When it emerged that Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World had hired private investigators to illegally hack into the phone of a teenage murder victim, and stalk the parents of a missing British toddler, Twitter bombarded the companies who advertised in News International’s papers with demands that they pull their sponsorship. Within a day, the News of the World was closed down.

When the Egyptian authorities ordered Vodafone to send a text message to the people on its streets, demanding democracy, telling them to return to their homes or face the consequences, a Tweet sent from a small but determined group of protestors, refusing to obey an armed, violent and corrupt police force, turned into a crowd of millions — whose voices carried instantaneously around the world, inspiring people to take to the streets of New York, London, Madrid and Athens, to demand answers from their so-called leaders, on a range of issues which politicians have had 30 years to do something about, but have chosen to do nothing.

When my son’s son turns 18, his ability to look back at those clunky old machines which you couldn’t have a conversation with and didn’t even self-charge their own batteries from tap water, will be just as strange to him as looking back to the ZX Spectrum is to me. I’d like to think his generation might learn enough from mine, to see that there is nothing to be frightened of; that no religion, government or private corporation is so powerful that they can’t be demolished with a single idea from the mind of someone who knows how to think critically and share that idea with everyone else. We’ll see!

4 comments on “The other Internet: or AND NOT OR

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