Peter James on life on the Net before the Internet

(from The Independent, June 1999)

Once upon a time, on our lumpy centrifuge two rocks away from the sun, many squillions of milli, micfro, nano, pico, femto and attoseconds before the Net, there was – well – um – there was – sort of – a net.

I just read about it in a truly extraordinary new book called Cybergypsies, by Indra Sinha, published for some mystifying reason on paper rather than in any virtual form, but none the worse for it. It is an account of life out in cyberspace, in that wilderness decade between the internet’s arrival in the UK and the time it began to download itself into our nation’s consciousness.I first entered the portals of cyberspace on a snowy December evening in 1970.

There weren’t many sites to visit – to be precise, there was just one. You could travel down a phone line from a computer in Cambridge, Massachusetts to another at Berkeley, California and back – subject always to the serendipities of Ma Bell. The machine at MIT was a mainframe the size of the Isle of Wight, and used the combined output of nine nuclear power stations, which meant that when the other computer, two and a half thousand miles away on the West Coast was online, no one in America could make toast.

We played Space War, written by an MIT student as a term paper, which might have been the world’s first ever computer game. You steered a spaceship armed with fifteen missiles across the solar system, fighting another steered by your opponent at the far end of the flaky line at Berkeley University. My opponent’s name was Dave. In those days no one hid behind cybernames like Jesus Slutfucker, Gawain or Bear. Cyberspace was still a greenfield site. There was no porn, no hacking, no spamming, no chatrooms, there really was, to borrow from Gibson, absolutely no there there at all.

Sitting in that MIT computing sciences lab, I still remember my incredible glee at discovering that these soulless multi-million dollar number crunchers, had a whole alter-ego, you could do really frivolous things with them. You could play games on them! And you could get them to talk to other machines – all over the world. The human interface, the anthropomorphisation of computers had begun.

Although officially launched in the US in 1976, it was 1984 before JANET made the internet accessible in Britain – at least to anyone who spoke Fortran, dreamed in Unix and held a C-2 programmer’s ticket. It was to be a further decade before anyone outside of a very closed club of academics, tekkies and computing sciences students got to hear of it, or attempted to make it remotely user-friendly – anyone at least, except for Bear and his virtual pals.

By then it had become the private domain of a fiercely entrenched subculture, difficult to access, vigorously defended, and openly hostile to entrepreneurs. The early commercial pioneers of the Net in Britain – of which I was one – were subject to scary abuse on newsgroups. How dare anyone try to make money from the net? We were pirates to be blown out of the water, we were trolls, demons, warlords, triple-headed monsters. We were the evil atavars in a cyberinferno of diminished reality. But we needed to be killed in real time, by real weapons. Postings went up on newsgroups instructing people to make letter bombs and mail them to us. At Pavilion, we disconnected them in a kind of virtual castration, which made them even madder. Just what had been going on down those phone lines, since that December evening back in 1970?

It is Bear’s book Cybergypsies that truly taps into the zeitgeist and brought me up to speed with those missing years. Bear – known to the real world as Indra Sinha, an eccentric, talented, advertising copywriter with an aptitude for computers, found himself a member of a disparate band of cybergypsies travelling a digital dirt-track that was a whole decade south of what would become the information superhighway.

It was, in Bear’s words, the cybergypsies crouched over the phosphorus crucibles of their screens, who invented virtual sex, ran up phone bills the size of national debts living out role-playing games, traded in computer viruses, hacked state secrets, brought multinationals to grinding halts, yet raised untold millions for the Kurds and for the victims of Bhopal, gave a life to thousands of disabled or immobilised people who formerly had no life, and gave a voice to the silenced of Tienanmen Square.

These cybergypsies were the true unsung pioneers of the net. One hundred years ago if you sought fame, fortune or merely adventure, you provisioned up and pointed your boat or your horse west. Now cybergypsies booted up and pointed their mouses at cyberspace. The lawless old wild west had become the weird-wired virtual west, and the cybergypsies the virtual explorers and conquistadors of our modern world. In the kingdom of the geek, the one fingered typist was king – or at least, maybe a wizard, all the time his computer didn’t hang…

The net is becoming a quieter place now, both richer and poorer for it. Bear says that old time cybergypsies rarely talk of ‘surfing the internet.’ They regard present-day netsurfers as tourists, flown in their millions to the gaudy electronic resorts of the world wide web by package tour operators like Compuserve and America Online.

Nowhere stays unspoiled for long.