May 2, 2006 · Tim Wu
My first experience using a chatroom was in 1988. Some group in Toronto, Canada, set up something called the “Free Access Network,” or FAN. It wasn’t really the internet: it was all dialup, with perhaps 100 phone lines or so. And it was, true to the name, free.
FAN was amazing, and still maybe the most addictive thing I’ve experienced in a life with a decent amount of experimentation. After school we’d run home, Lisa, Karen myself, Quaid and others (Onil was always skeptical), 15 year-olds all, and “war-dial” FAN desperately trying to get an open line. I developed a Pavlovian response to the sound of the modem’s carrier – a kind of deep excitment that comes back just by thinking about it.
As an aside, I remember Cory Doctorow, the writer and Boing-Boing editor, well-known to readers here, was also on FAN. Cory and I went to primary school together, and even once colloborated on a short film, but since high school we’d drifted apart. My last memory of Cory on FAN, at the last time I would see him in a decade, was the day Robert Heinlein died, May 8, 1988. Cory, of course, wanted people to quit talking about nonsense and recognize the importance of what had happened.
But back to FAN — what drew us in? There was, of course, flirting, which to a 15-year old has a power not dulled by the drudgery of dating. But, to me, really it was something else — this sense of vastness of opportunity. The feeling, oddly enough, that you can get in the Grand Canyon, or walking around parts of New York City, when you think, who knows what you might find or become. Something about those simple lines of text made the imagination run free, like all the dust at Black Rock City, and I’m still not sure why.
That was how it was — when the internet promised deliverance from the hassles of identity. And when the internet mostly was stuff that took you away from the “real world,” or what sometimes was called “meatspace.”
Where’s that vision, nearly 20 years later? Certainly, some of it is still there, and its maybe better, especially in places like Second Life. Today’s online worlds, have way more users than FAN ever did and get alot deeper. But what’s different is there’s alot, maybe most of the internet usage that’s not really personally transforming or an escape, unless you consider writing responses to eVITE personally fulfilling. Sometimes I feel a little sad about that, sad that email doesn’t have the same thrill it did in 1993 — when “you have mail” felt like getting messages from a burning bush.
What happened over the long run is interesting. The principles of the network’s design, in short, trumped the power of the applications, as compelling as they were. That may seem a subtle point, but one with enormous meaning for how the Net is governed.
Alot of the early apps were indentity-twisting and escapist. That, among things, led to a strong sense that self-governance could handle most problems (as it does on Second Life). That’s even what seemed to be what the Supreme Court had in mind in ACLU v. Reno, or when it called the internet as a “unique medium–known to its users as ‘cyberspace’–located in no particular geographical location but available to anyone.”
But the infrastructure, the basic protocol design, itself never believed in or promoted self-enforcement or independence from law. Instead, it just pushed difference and tolerated diversity. That meant, in time, more replication of realspace activity — banks, ebay, amazon, orbitz. Apps not designed to get away from the real world, but instead trying to improve it. That meant more demand and need for laws to control the effects of what the network had given birth to. That led to what we see in the book: more government involvement, sometimes out of necessity, and for better or for worse.
In short, the framers of the Net maybe might have, but didn’t actually create a Net that would rule itself. They created something that could be anything and many things. And that’s what it has become.