Nostalgic Optimism

I’m pretty old.

I was thinking about my first job interview. It was 1993. I was asked what I thought about Microsoft Windows. I told them it wasn’t a real operating system. It was just a shell that sat on top of MS-DOS. It was a resource hog, and it was unreliable. It made computers harder to use rather than easier, and it wasn’t worth the trouble. I recommended that we base our new middle school computer program on DOS rather than Windows. I lost that argument, but got the job anyway.

I think — my memory is fading here — that we used Windows 3.1. That’s notable, because it was the last version of Windows that didn’t have support for TCP/IP sockets. It couldn’t really connect to the Internet in the sense that we think of today. Not that we had access to the Internet. It would be another three years before any school I worked in had more than text-based dialup access from one computer in the library.

I wonder how anything got done in those days. How did kids get schedules? How did we do report cards? Somewhere, I have my IOWA test results from elementary school. The graph that shows my percentile rankings was hand drawn with a pen and a ruler. By the time I was teaching, we certainly had computers for some of this stuff, but the details escape me.

Photo credit: Skulls n Gears

I remember, in those early days, being obsessed with the idea that computers could bring people together. I had spent a few years online by that point, in online discussions and Usenet and Freenet. Threaded discussion forums were a thing, and you could meet all kinds of interesting people from all over the world. I remember telling my students that, in a world where you are only known in text, people can’t be judged by their age or their gender or their ethnic background or their physical disabilities. You could be talking to a 14 year old white guy who is very much like you. Or maybe a 40 year old blind lady who speaks with a heavy accent. Maybe the person on the other end of that username is in a wheelchair, or weighs 300 pounds, or was raised in a completely different culture. All you know are the words. And everyone is judged only on the words that they use, the lens through which they project themselves into cyberspace. It was a world where we could leave prejudice and stereotypes behind.

I looked at it more as an opportunity for equality than a warning about deception. It would be a few years before I started highlighting the idea that people might be lying to you online, and that online safety is important. The Internet was still new enough that the altruistic ideals of the original designers were still around. It was a forum for discourse and collaboration and research.

We didn’t have to worry too much about this, though, because we didn’t really have access to it. I begged for a phone line for my classroom, and turned one of the computers into a bulletin board system. People could dial in to the bulletin board and post in forums and play games. At least, they could if they had computers at home with modems. Which no one did. I set up a system for students to experience an online environment, but they didn’t really have access to it, so it didn’t go anywhere.

Two years later, on a June afternoon, I learned how to make web pages. In a couple hours, I learned pretty much all there was to know about HTML, which wasn’t much at the time. I made a web page for my school, but it was on my university account. Eventually, they figured out that I wasn’t a student there anymore, and deleted it. It didn’t matter that much. I changed jobs that summer and added “how to make web pages” to my middle school curriculum. That was a bit tricky since we still didn’t have Internet access, and most of my students had never experienced the “world wide web.” They humored me. I taught them some basic markup. Headings. Links. Images. Hex codes. A couple years later, we were in charge of the Chamber of Commerce web site for the city.

The idea that everyone now had the means to publish was amazing. It was still the 20th century. It was still a world where there were very few giant corporations controlling mass media. There was no real path to publication. There was no way for the average person to share their ideas with more than a few people at a time. This idea that I can write something or take a photograph and put it online in a way that anyone in the world can see it was astounding.

I made my students do research projects, and the culminating activity was to create a web page about their project and post it online. For a while, some of them became the authoritative source for that topic online. The Internet wasn’t very big then, and if the topic was specific enough, a middle school web page would end up on the first page of search results. We would occasionally get an email from someone saying they had used the information for some project they were doing, or asking clarifying questions about the content. The students were amazed. And they certainly took those projects seriously.

It was quaintly altruistic to believe that a forum that fostered the free, open exchange of ideas could make the world a better place. Within a few years, I had completely abandoned the idea that online anonymity was a good thing. Original research showed that being anonymous did not have a significant impact on authentic online discourse (at least among middle school students). The ability to grab a megaphone and shout nonsense into the ether without consequence eventually took away our civility. And I lost patience with anyone who wasn’t willing to attach their real identity to their words.

But for a while, the Internet was an amazing place.