Last week Vinton “Vint” Cerf was the guest on The Colbert Report. The elegant Mr. Cerf is one of the two acknowledged fathers of the internet (the other is Bob Kahn). Among other things, those two invented the TCP/IP protocol that allows all internet communication.
Briefly, the need to connect different computers together goes back to the 1960s. Researchers in the 1970s sought to create a network for government (especially military) and academic computing (the ARPANET). The 1980s saw the birth of the internet — the first “dot-com” name was registered in 1985. And only six years later, in 1991, the “interweb” began!
It got me thinking back to those early text-based days before “the web”…
There was a time when a 256-color GIF was impressive and a JPEG (with over 16 million) was awesome. There was a time when those things were new! (Specifically, GIFs first came out in 1987, and JPEGs not until 1992.) In the very early days, way back in the pre-historic 1980s, there were no images at all.
Essentially, we were all sending each other text messages and comments, although the software then supported longer entries than the texts and Tweets of today. Even comment boxes tend to be small (although recently some of them can be re-sized). Email still allows longer communication, but many people today use their phones, which is just as bad as a tiny comment box.
[This is one of my concerns — that the modern internet doesn’t lend itself to long or nuanced thinking. And that is a capability I sense people are losing.]
If sending and receiving images was a future feature, even the computer’s ability to create images locally was crude then. Very early PC systems had extremely limited palettes. High-end image generation used 256 colors. There was also the crappy 16 colors and the revolting four. The first Macintosh was black and white!
Which all sets up that — from the very beginning — computer programmers have used computers to play games. But the very first computer games had no images of any kind, and even later games had very crude ones. It’s only in the last decade or so that game graphics have really come into their own.
My first exposure to computer games came back in the mid-1970s. An engineer, Vince, I knew played a Medieval simulation game not unlike some of the “Sim” games of today. Vince would input information about his society and the computer would advance the simulation accordingly. Various random factors obtained: there could be severe weather or wars or whatnot. The computer would spit out the new state of the society and Vince would figure out the next round.
The thing was, Vince’s input had to be entered on punched cards and submitted as one of the big mainframe computer’s tasks. This was the 1970s, the decade before the personal computer came out. All we had then was “big iron” (mainframe computers) in “glass houses” (special climate-controlled computer rooms).
The turn-around time on a single round of play was usually 24 hours. For one thing, Vince’s game was pretty low priority, since he was using the University’s mainframe — the one charged with doing all the University’s business! The fastest Vince could play was one round per day! That’s almost like playing chess by mail.
When personal computers came around, a common type of game was a “text adventure.” The most famous of the early ones is, perhaps, one called Zork (which, in fact, predates PCs). Another was Colossal Cave Adventure, from whence comes the immortal line, “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.”
The thing about these games was that you typed commands (East or Pick up axe or Hit ogre with axe) and the game responded. And, of course, unlike video games, time wasn’t really a factor. You could go eat lunch between moves.
Sometimes I see the interweb as a kind of giant text adventure. We type commands into our computers (or phones) and we get a response from the “system.” (Trolls very much treat the interweb as a game!)
And we can pretend to be anyone we want: adventurer, explorer, pirate, merchant, teacher or storyteller.
Didn’t George Carlin have a bit about things going down the tubes? He wanted to know where were these “tubes” everyone was talking about! (Obviously the expression means “going down the drain,” and I believe that bit comes from the “Angry George” period when he sometimes didn’t make complete sense.)
And while the expression is oft-mocked, comparing the internet to a series of tubes isn’t all that far off the mark. There are the actual physical communication paths (in fiber, copper and microwave) that can be considered “tubes.” There are also the virtual connections formed between computers that can be considered “information tubes.”
I’ve been going through some old files and seeing the names of friends from those early days of networking. Forgotten names in forgotten files. Time marches on. But we sure had fun in those days when the internet was the domain of geeks and nerds. Then the rest of the world showed up, and the place really went to hell.
It’s perhaps ironic that our interstate highway system was created to enable military mobility, and our internet was created to enable military communication. War continues to be a technology and progress driver. Chaos, in general, seems involved with dynamic systems, which is why I preferred the Shadows to the Vorlons.
Astute and observant readers may chuckle when I mention that the gap of days was due to not being able to find a decent “D” and it wasn’t until I saw Cerf on Colbert that something clicked.