Reading your ‘blog posts from this week reminded me of the effect that technology and changes in government regulation can have on our perception of the time and effort required to make something happen. When we get used to the time- and effort-saving convenience of technology, can we ever go back?
As many of you know, I’m an amateur radio operator – or at least, in possession of a license – and though I didn’t acquire my first license until I was in my mid-20s, I had always had a soft spot in my heart for radio communication as a favorite medium. Baby boomers who grew up in Springfield in the 1970s and ’80s will remember WDBR had a 4-hour marathon show on Sunday nights (The Goldmine Show) that played ’50s and ’60s hits well into the 1980s. It was the last gasp of the golden age of locally-produced rock radio and a must-listen program is you were in middle or high school.
In 1978 I entered high school and met new friends who were “technologically inclined.” One was an amateur radio operator – a ham – who encouraged me to study and try for my license. That involved learning a lot about electrical and radio theory as well as learning to decode Morse code by merely listening. I was intrigued, but both enterprises required an intense commitment and the materials were not cheap. Even mowing lawns at $5 each – my source of income – would take years to amass the $500-$700 to afford even the most modest equipment.
But it was the height of the CB fad – sparked by C.W. McCall’s song “Convoy” and the FCC had relaxed the permit requirements for operating a CB – and they were significantly cheaper. All my friends and I got single-sideband rigs. Coincidentally, the sun was at the peak of its 11-year sunspot/solar flare cycle and Earth’s upper atmosphere was supercharged – turning the short-range radio signal into a long-distance skip contact. Collecting QSL (confirmation of contact) cards became a hobby. Little did I know that experimenting with radio was going to lead to my first exposure to the Internet. (Thusly named, at least.)
Fast forward 10 years past college and the launching of a career lands us huddled in comfortable apartment on the west side of St. Charles, Illinois in 1991, where technologies and media to whom few were exposed up until that point in time had converged.
We crammed four single guys in our mid-twenties into apartment. We all had disposable cash (we all should have been saving, of course,) and myself and another roommate decided to study for our amateur radio licenses. That year, the FCC dropped its Morse code requirement from its Technician class license and an older ham who knew me (and my interest in getting a license) hounded me until I decided to go to a class that his club was sponsoring on Wednesday nights. I ended up joining the Fox River Radio League and began wiring the apartment with coaxial cable and began making my own antennas from scratch. I purchased an Icom IC-24at handheld rig, which I still have.
Add to this mix, my roommate George, a true “first adopter” of early technology, had purchased an Amiga 500 computer, a 500 MB hard drive and a 19.2 kbs modem. The hard drive and modem set him back almost $1,100 (used) whereas the computer and monitor was a mere $500.
George got hooked instantly hooked on calling dial-up BBSs (bulletin board systems) all over the place and downloading software “cracked” by hackers to remove the copy protection. Amigas were common in Europe, but the latest software (games) was hard to come by in the United States. At one point, we had a $600 telephone bill because George had found a productive BBS located in Belgium. My other roommates and I staged an ‘intervention.’
One of the BBSs George called frequently hooked into the burgeoning Internet and later purchased the Internet Service Provider that I used through the 1990s (ExecPC.)
I went a more legal route to get my techno-kicks. We all started sending e-mail to people we didn’t know (just because we could) and met with others on the various board’s chat functions – a precursor to Instant Messaging.
George and I had both earned our amateur radio licenses. He was N9LXJ and I was licensed N9LXI. We both purchased FM handhelds that allowed us access to the various repeaters in the Chicago area. Repeaters intercepted your low-power transmission and boosted it over the vast region of northeastern Illinois. We could talk to fellow hams throughout the Chicago area, Wisconsin and Indiana – even farther when the atmospheric conditions were right. Hardly anyone had cell phones then, but we could make free telephone calls from anywhere through the repeaters’ autopatch functions. In fact, hams at Motorola were experimenting with the ham radio repeaters of the area to work out switching issues with the cellular networks they were creating.
I had purchased a used XT compatible laptop computer and printer for about $400 (a bargain then) and soon found a new movement afoot in ham radio.
Around that time, a group of hams in the Tucson, Arizona area (who had some knowledge of the Internet and TCP/IP) developed a standard based on TCP/IP called AX.25 that took modified Bell 1200 baud modems and used them to control a ham radio and encode digital text. They called it “Packet Radio.”
Well, this was the coolest thing ever. I bought a packet TNC (terminal node controller) and bridged my laptop to my handheld radio and began sending “wireless” e-mail literally all over the world — for free. With packet, you could chat with others in your immediate area, or connect to a BBS and send E-mail. The mail is then “bucket-brigaded” to the other BBSs in the network until the message lands in your recipients box… it could take days, but it was cool nonetheless.
My first exposure to the modern Internet came in 1992 at a FRRL meeting where a teacher at the Illinois Math and Science Academy gave a presentation by chatting in real time to someone in Australia over packet radio through an Internet gateway at the academy.
It’s hard to imagine now how impressive it was to see someone connect with the Internet over the radio and carry on a text chat with someone in Australia. In 1992, phones were connected to the wall. No one you knew had cell phones. Long-distance calls cost an arm and a leg. Computer BBSs – even Prodigy and Compuserve – were self-contained. The World Wide Web was a small-scale experiment.
In each of these instances, the common theme has been that each of these developments shrunk the physical distance of the world we lived in. The geeky fun we had was really derived from the ability to communicate easily with others of a similar mindset. Isn’t that the heart of social networking today?