Hitting the books: what life on the internet was like at 300 bits per second

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As painful as it sounds, our world existed before social media. They were interesting times with barely a dimly lit portion of the Cheesecake Factory dishes to criticize, exactly zero epic no shortage of laughs, and not an adorable paw bean available to ogle. There weren’t even daily main characters! We lived like low-bandwidth savages, huddled around the soft glow of CRT monitors and our cackling, crackling signal modulators, blissfully unaware of the societal upheaval this new-fangled Internet would bring.

In his new book, The modern world: a prehistory of social mediaauthor and assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, Kevin Driscoll examines the golden days of the early days of the Internet – even before AOL Online – when BBS was king, WiFi wasn’t even a notion, and the speed of electronic thought topped out at 300 baud.

Yale University Press

Extract of The modern world: a prehistory of social media by Kevin Driscoll. Published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2022 by Kevin Driscoll. All rights reserved.


In the beginning, the heartbeat of the modern world pulsed at a constant rate of 300 bits per second. Streams of binary digits traveled over the telephone network in chunks of 7 and 8 bits, or “bytes,” and each byte corresponded to a single character of text. The typical home computer, hooked up to a fuzzy CRT monitor, could only display a thousand characters at a time, organized in forty columns and twenty-four rows. At 300 bits per second, or 300 “baud”, filling the entire screen took about thirty seconds. Text appeared faster than if someone was typing in real time, but it wasn’t instantaneous.

In the late 1970s, the speed at which data traveled through dial-up networks followed a specification published by Ma Bell nearly two decades earlier. Created in the early 1960s, the AT&T Data-Phone system introduced a reliable technique for two-way machine-to-machine communication over consumer telephone lines. Although Data-Phone was initially sold to large corporations to facilitate communication between various offices and a single data center, it quickly became a de facto standard for commercial time-sharing services, online databases line and amateur telecommunications projects. In 1976, Lee Felsenstein of the People’s Computer Company designed a DIY modem kit that offered compatibility with the AT&T system for less than $100. And when new technology companies like Hayes Microcomputer Products in Atlanta and US Robotics in Chicago began selling modems for the personal computer market, they assured consumers of their compatibility with the “Bell 103” standard. Rather than competing on speed, these companies sold hobbyist consumers “smart” features like auto-answer, auto-dial, and programmable “remote control” modes. A 1980 advertisement for the U.S. Robotics Phone Link acoustic modem emphasized its warranty, diagnostic features, and high-end aesthetics: “Sleek…Quiet…Reliable.”

To survive, early PC modem manufacturers had to sell more than modems.

They had to sell the value of being online. Networking is central to the personal computing experience today. Can you imagine a laptop without Wi-Fi? — but in the late 1970s, computer owners still didn’t see their machines as communication devices. Against this conventional view, upstart modem manufacturers presented their products as gateways to a fundamentally different form of computing. Like the personal computer itself, modems were marketed as transformative technologies, consumer electronics that could change your life. Novation, the first player in this rhetorical game, promised that its iconic black modem, the Cat, would “tie you to the world”. Hayes was quick to adopt similar language, describing the Micromodem II as a breakthrough technology that would “open up your Apple II to the outside world”. Never mind that these “worlds” did not yet exist in 1979. Modem marketing evoked a desirable vision of the near future, designed specifically for computer enthusiasts. Instead of driving to an office park or taking the train, modem owners would be the first truly autonomous information workers: telecommuting for meetings, connecting to remote databases and exchanging files with other “computer scientists” around the world. According to Novation, the potential uses for a modem like the Cat were “endless”.

In practice, 300 bits per second didn’t seem slow. In fact, the range of online services available to microcomputer owners in 1980 was quite astonishing, considering how few they were. A Bell-compatible modem like the Pennywhistle or Novation Cat offered access to searchable databases like Dialog and Dow Jones, as well as communications services like CompuServe and The Source. Despite the hype, microcomputers alone can sometimes seem underwhelming to audiences primed with visions of all-powerful, superhuman “world brains.” Yet, as one Byte contributor recounted, the experience of using an online “information search” service was like consulting an electronic oracle. The oracle accepted queries on virtually any subject – “from aardvarks to zymurgia” – and responses seemed instantaneous. “What is your time worth? asked another Byte writer, comparing the scope and speed of an online database to a “well-stocked public library.” Also, exploring the electronic databases was fun. A Dialog representative compared finding his system to an “adventure” and joked that it was “much less frustrating” than the computer game of the same name. Indeed, many early modem owners came to believe that searching for information online would be the killer application propelling computer ownership into the mainstream.

Yet it was not access to other machines but access to other people that ultimately led to the adoption of telephone modems by personal computer owners. Just as email nurtured a sense of community among ARPANET researchers and time-sharing brought thousands of Minnesota teachers and students to collaborate, dial-up modems helped catalyze a growing network of enthusiasts. of microcomputers. While users of time-sharing networks tended to access a mainframe through a “dumb” terminal, users of microcomputer networks often typed on a microcomputer themselves. In other words, there was a symmetry between users and hosts of microcomputer networks. The same device – a microcomputer and a modem – used to connect to a BBS could be reused to host one. Microcomputers were more expensive than simple terminals, but they were much cheaper than the minicomputers deployed in contemporary time-sharing environments.

Like many fans and enthusiasts, computer enthusiasts were eager to connect with others who shared their passion for hands-on technology. News and information about telephone networks spread through the pre-existing network of regional computer clubs, fairs, newsletters and magazines. In early 1979, a first wave of modem owners met on bulletin board systems like CBBS in Chicago and ABBS in San Diego to talk about their hobby. In a 1981 article for InfoWorld, Craig Vaughan, creator of ABBS, called those early years a wake-up call: Bell…was the most reliable for long-distance data communication. By 1982, hundreds of BBSes were operating across North America, and the topics of discussion were expanding beyond the computer hobby itself. Comparing the participatory culture of BBSes to amateur radio, Vaughan argued that modems transformed the computer from a business tool into a means of personal expression. Slow connection speeds haven’t slowed the spread of the modern world.

True to the original “computerized bulletin board” metaphor, all early BBSs provided two main functions: read old messages or post a new message. At this protean stage, the distinction between “files” and “messages” could be quite blurred. In a 1983 manual for BBS software developers, Lary Myers describes three types of files available to users: messages, bulletins, and downloads. While all three were stored and transmitted as sequences of ASCII characters, Myers singled out “the message file” as the defining feature of BBS. Available day and night, the message file provided an “electronic cork board” to the caller community: a place to post announcements, queries or comments “for the good of all.” Myers’ sample routine, written in BASIC, identified each message with a unique number and stored all messages on the system in a single random-access file. A comment in Myers’ code suggested that eighty messages would be a reasonable maximum for systems running on a TRS-80. A caller from such a system would request messages by typing numbers on their keypad, and the system would retrieve the corresponding sequence of characters from the message file. New messages were appended to the end of the message file, and when the maximum number of messages was reached, the system simply overwrote the old ones. Like flyers on a corkboard, messages on a BBS weren’t meant to stay on indefinitely.

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