Thursday, February 06, 2003

Reminscence about Usenet, and Vernor Vinge .

The following is largely rambling nostalgia about the net of the past. Some people may want to skip it.

Brian Micklethwait has some comments on Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep . He is particularly taken by what he describes as the "e-mail chat" interludes in the novel, in which characters not connected directly to the action discuss what is going on over some computer net which looks suspiciously like worldwide computer networks did in 1990.

But the way that doomed emailers would send out calmly analytical descriptions across the depths of the galaxy about why they were about to be wiped into oblivion, or why some other emailer was perhaps not to be trusted, was, for me, charming. And I liked that the emails were easy to find in the text because typographically distinct. I read them all with great care.

Some of the emails that concerned the forthcoming arrival of The Blight were rather as if Dale Amon had been doing something like his Columbia disaster analysis for Samizdata last weekend, but while he himself was on board a space ship whose forthcoming incineration he was calmly trying to account for.

Anyway, some background. When I started using the net in about 1988, there were two main applications for communications. One of these was e-mail. E-mail was essentially the same application it is today, although e-mail attachments hadn't been invented yet. The other application was Usenet newsgroups. This consisted of a large number of topics or "newsgroups" in which people who were interested in a particular subject could argue about that subject. When you logged on to a particular newsgroup, everything that everybody in that newsgroup had said since you last logged on was visible for you to read. These discussions were worldwide, and often very technical and very knowledgeable. In a time when international phone calls were a luxury you couldn't usually afford, this was amazing. People were generally well behaved, and the signal to noise ratio of these groups was high. Newsgroup messages and e-mail messages in some ways looked similar due to being all text, and from a technical perspective had certain things in common, but they were separate applications. Brian may be right that e-mail is impermanent, but this was certainly not true of Usenet. It was at least as permanent as blog posts are today. For example, a frighteningly large number of my Usenet posts from the last decade and a half are archived online, if I care to look for them . The oldest archived message of mine dates from May 1989. (As a really geeky observation, note that my e-mail address then was . This was before official ISO country codes were used at the end of e-mail addresses, and in those days Australia was going by "oz" instead of "au"). If my blog postings are still readily available in 14 years, I shall be impressed.

Both of these applications were not necessarily real time. In those days, a lot of the net was not technically "internet". Instead of being connected to the rest of the world at all times, your local network would only be connected for a short portion of the time. When a connection occurred, any e-mail or newsgroup messages that had been sent on the local system since the last connection would be sent. This meant that e-mail could sometimes take hours, or days, or in some instances even weeks to be received. Usenet news messages would take a few hours or days or weeks to propagate around the world. But still, it was amazing.

In those days, the number of people using the net worldwide was quite small. It was not the case that everyone knew everyone else (although there was a time when that was true too, this was just a little before my time), but the net was small enough that people could become well known on the net at large. There were certain people who did gain net celebrity status, and certain people who were known for their particular idiosyncracies and writing styles.

And this was approximately state of the art when Vinge wrote A Fire Upon the Deep . And so, Vinge based the network discussion on Usenet as it existed in about 1990. Because of the superficial resemblance between Usenet messages and e-mail (very similar headers at the top, for instance), the messages are easily mistaken for e-mail by people who have never seen Usenet, but they are clearly based not on e-mail but on Usenet. (Vinge has actually explained this, but if you are familiar with Usenet, it is obvious anyway). And if you know this, they are also utterly hilarious, because they are full of in jokes. The various posters to this future network are in most instances obvious parodies of the style of particular people well known on Usenet in about 1990. (Vinge has admitted to this). They complain in familiar ways. They allude to the trustworthiness of others in familiar ways. The constant complaints about how bandwidth is expensive echo what network administrators were constantly complaining about in 1990. (Largely they were complaining merely for the sake of complaining, as Usenet only got sent when other demands on the network were low). However, this subject was constantly discussed. The most common Usenet software did in fact send you the following message whenever you posted anything.

This program posts news to thousands of machines throughout the entire civilized world. Your message will cost the net hundreds if not thousands of dollars to send everywhere. Please be sure you know what you are doing. Are you absolutely sure that you want to do this? [y / n]

This was of course complete codswallop, or at least it seemed to us that it must be. If I was genuinely costing someone thousands of dollars whenever I posted a message, I cannot imagine that I would have been allowed to do it for very long.

And of course, the posters in Vinge's novel complain about costs in exactly the same way. (In case you are wondering, the novel does contain an explanation as to why networks 30000 years in the future very closely resemble Usenet circa 1990. It is set in a part of the galaxy where the local laws of physics seriously restrict the bandwidth that can be achieved in faster than light data transmissions. This also explains why the level of technology is essentially static, too. Oh, go read the novel. It's great).

Of course, when more bandwidth did become available, and we were all connected to the real time internet, the World Wide Web came along, and we spent most of our time looking at static webpages. More importantly, the number of people using Usenet grew so great that it became largely overwhelmed by noise. Spam was invented, and Usenet was extremely vulnerable. (Spam was present on Usenet for a year or two before I ever received my first piece of e-mail spam. I also recall reading the post on Usenet where the world 'spam' was first coined). The newsgroups degenerated into the free for all that you sometimes see on bulletin boards and discussion areas that get completely out of control, but on a much larger scale. I suppose a tragedy of the commons occurred. Usenet newsgroups still exist, and in many instances valuable discussions still go on in them. (They are still often the best place to go if you have an extremely technical question and you want an answer). However, they are no longer the heart of the net.

In a way, the blogosphere is quite close to the spirit of Usenet. Some bloggers post the same sorts of things that once would have been posted to Usenet. (I certainly do). Dale Amon's pieces on the shuttle disaster last Saturday are exactly the sorts of things that once would have been confined to Usenet. (Go to the newsgroup, and you will find that they are certainly still present there, although the important posts are hidden amongst a lot of noise). Essentially a commons that became overloaded with noise has been replaced with a large number of private spaces, each of which has a landlord who keeps the noise down. The trouble with this is that people reading blogs choose what to read on the basis of author rather than subject. You tend to blog in isolation, whereas posting to usenet was always posting in the middle of a giant argument. In the days of Usenet, you would read all posts on a particular subject. Now, you read all posts by a particular author. This makes things difficult if you are interested in a particular subject. As an author it also makes it hard to initially make yourself heard, whereas in the old days on Usenet, you just jumped into the fray. These days you have to build an audience, but in those days you could have one at once. (I think that what the blogosphere needs is a really good indexing tool which allows you to search the content of large numbers of blogs by content. We don't really have that yet).

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