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Before the Internet Explosion

Once, There Was No Info-Highway

By Marion B. Gammill

This piece will not begin with a bad joke about the information superhighway.

Really. Truly. There's only so much you can read about "virtual off-ramps" and "cyber-traffic" without vowing to find--and somehow quietly dispose of-- the person who coined that descriptive terms for the Internet.

Fortunately, the awful overuse of "Information superhighway" references seem to have been at a minimum at Harvard during the past few years.

But that's not because no one talks about the Internet Phenomenon--far from it. In my four years at Harvard, the network has exploded into campus consciousness, co-opting students, faculty, administrators and anyone else who can manage to wheedle and account out of Mother Harvard, otherwise known as

But(something that may be shocking to the young 'uns) it wasn't always this way. In fact, anyone who's been at the school for, oh, four years or so should be able to remember the days before the 'Net explosion. Before room connections, Before extracurricular organizational newsgroups. Before the computerized housing lottery. Before, well, before Unix enveloped the whole campus in its erratic grip.

When I came as a naive and wide-eyed first-year, the Internet was around. I got my account in the first few months and passed by the Science Center computers on the way to class. Occasionally, someone would mention an e-mail mailing list or something, but that was it.

True, I wasn't in computer science or regular science classes, and I wasn't in any computer-oriented extracurriculars either. But according to the Harvard Arts and Sciences Computer Services, only 60 percent of my class had a personal account by the end of the 1991-92 school year, and if the rapid growth in e-mail messages sent is any indication, we used our accounts less than our younger counterparts.

Three years later, more than 80 percent of the class of 1995 had an account. Not bad, but it pales in comparison to the 90+ percentages among juniors, sophomores and first-years.

The class of 1995 is part of a disappearing breed--Harvardians who remember the days before the Internet rose to such a prominent place on campus. No one ever mentioned putting the Yard Bulletin on the 'Net when we were first-years. Nor did any administrator publicly speak of activating those data connections in the dorm rooms.

Well-Known campus publications--Crimson, Salient, Perspective, Independent, Peninsula, et al.--didn't write about the network; that was for computer publications. And by and large, the class of 1995 didn't know enough to press for more coverage. As James Gwertzman '95, member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Committee on Information Technology, says, "We're almost dinosaurs compared to the frosh."

What caused the shift? The activation of the first-year data jacks and the eventual activation of the upper-class data jacks were key factors.

But the administration has played a part too. The amount of pertinent information available on the campus network, like the amount of e-mail sent over it, grows in leaps and bounds. Phone numbers? Courses? Library book call numbers? Pull up a networked computer, and it's there at your fingertips.

In Some ways, Harvard has become the ideal Internet community. No, the system isn't perfect, or the system managers flawless , or the administration fast moving. But think about it. Everyone in the community has free access to a wide variety of options--e-mail, newsgroups, World Wide Web, ftp, etc.

While some people rely on moderns, direct connections to a high-speed network are widely available. Although official help lines aren't always useful, there are enough" unofficial" experts around to give you help if you need it. The administration has been wise to encourage the spread of the Internet on both an official and an individual level.

And the Internet users themselves are a fairly diverse bunch. I don't know the exact male-female user ratio, but among the undergrads at least, it's much better than the 80-20 national ratio. And while computer nerds certainly have a strong representation on the net, jocks, poets and future investment bankers play their part as well.

It's not hard to fathom what attracts Harvard students to the Internet. Remember all those things your mother told you about how brains were more important than popularity? About how you outside looks didn't matter as much as your personality? About the importance of following the rules Most Harvard students have heard this advice several times during their adolescent years.

Well, on the Internet, all these things are true. If you're smart and witty, you'll win fans. And shy people can relax a little. The network makes it easier to confess a crush or admit a grudge. The Internet offers a respite from the social ineptness of Harvard life. and it can lend people a modicum of self-confidence and self-esteem that's not easy to find around here.

Harvard seems to be holding up under the onslaught of the Internet fairly well. it's allowed students to keep up with high school friends more easily--why spend 32 cents when control-x is faster and free? The art of postering hasn't died, despite the rise of harvard.announce and harvard general. Some may lament that undergraduates here often use 'Net for procrastination, but procrastination is older than the Internet, computers and Harvard itself.

The convenience of e-talk and e-mail has let people stay in touch with those who have moved outside their circle--first-year roommates or Expos Classmates, for example. As Gwertzman stresses, the Internet is all about increasing communication.

While the network is important at Harvard, it's not, by any means, the most important part of life at the school. Students still study for classes, write for publications, struggle for extracurricular leadership positions and sneak into the Crimson Sports Grille. They just occasionally head for NCSA Telnet when they get home.

To some degree, Harvard is reflecting the world outside its walls. The number and size of commercial 'Net providers has grown dramatically during the past years. For several years around the 'Net, September was a time of learning, as thousands of college first-years with new accounts fumbled their way around cyberspace.

The recent incessant influx of clueless commercial users has led serious 'Net-heads to declare the existence of "perpetual September." Your parents may or may not have an e-mail account, but they probably have some idea of what you're talking about now.

Unfortunately, the real world that seniors are heading out into hasn't reacted as well to the growth of the 'Net. Newsweek may have a page about cyberspace, but major publications still run pieces smugly telling Internet users to get a life. Some public figures pride themselves on knowing nothing about cyberspace. The Internet was recently slammed for its usefulness for militant militias. the backlash has begun.

This reaction would be even more maddening if it weren't so amusing. People who spend six hours on the 'Net are patronizingly told of the wonders of the real world. What about the people who spend six hours in front of the television set (which isn't interactive)? Some children could probably find a way to watch a tape of "Debbie Does Dallas" If they worked at it.

Fringe groups have found the Internet useful, but they've found fax machines useful, too. As someone said a few days after Oklahoma City bombing, when the 'Net was being blamed for its role in militia organizing. The telephone has been invaluable to militias as well, and no one's running lead stories decrying the revolutionary potential of phones.

Cyberspace has the power to connect people, But it also has the power to drive people farther apart. it heightens the split between the savvy young and the technophobic old, between men and women, between the rich and the computerless poor.

Any Harvardian who spends time on the 'Net has had the experience of trying to explain the usefulness of e-mail to a high school friend attending a less technological school. Those who don't know how to use it are often afraid of it. Many hope that it will go away, or not last for long, sort of like the horseless carriage.

Like it or not, though, the Internet is here to stay. In 25 years, if the past is nay indication, the class of 1995 will be making its presence known in politics, business and journalism, among other fields. We put e-mail addresses on our resumes, so why shouldn't the kids applying to us for jobs do so too?

'Net access is fast becoming the cool perk of the 1990s, and probably beyond. Those of us who choose more altruistic--and probably lower-paying--pursuits will almost certainly shell out some 'Net funds to save money on communication in general, and they'll probably help press local governments to fund' Net access for the greater community.

We've seen the world with and without the 'Net, and while we realize the possible drawbacks, we also know the numerous advantages. If we play our cards right, we can promote the Internet while soothing the fears of the nontechies.

Harvard may not be the real world, but the real world can be influenced by the University's progeny , especially those with a little perspective on the 'Net phenomenon, such as the dinosaurs of the Class of 1995.

Now, If you'll excuse me, my Power-book is calling. Marion Gammill's work is done here, it's time Can I leap tall buildings in a single bound? What do you think the World Wide Web is for ?

Tom Y. Galloway, Douglas M. Pravda and the denizens of rec.arts.comics.xbooks unknowingly helped with the writing of this piece.

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