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I Was Born to be a Native Citizen of the Internet

I’m re-reading the Cluetrain Manifesto for the nth time (grabbed the text from the website, dropped it into a text file, and threw it onto my Kindle). There’s something distilled and concentrated about the ideas it contains. They just ring true, even though the book was written 10 years ago (ancient history in Internet Time). I can barely get through a few paragraphs of it before my mind is swirling with ideas and things I want to write about. Maybe I should just do a “book report” on it, chapter by chapter, and write up everything I’m thinking as I go along.

I feel like I was born to be a native citizen of the Internet. I was reading the Introduction and part of Chapter 1 of Cluetrain, where Christopher Locke talks about how telling stories to each other is an ancient, intrinsic part of what it means to be human, and how when the Internet (and the Web) came along and started to flourish, people who were used to being isolated in their own homes and used as targets for broadcasters flocked to it by the millions. Why? To BE with each other. To laugh and argue and tell stories and learn and be human together.

I was born in 1976, and computers (and later, the internet) have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Much longer, I suspect, than most people of my age and my experience. I credit my grandfather, Dr. Ron Hansen, for that. He’s one of the smartest, most connected men I know, and from a very early age, he took it upon himself to make sure I had opportunities that most other kids just didn’t. He knew that “computers” were going to be a Big Deal(TM). And not just in the vague sense that someone might look into the future and make that (now obvious) prediction. He was a retired Air Force officer, university vice president, and research scientist, with a PhD, and his own research institute that “spawned many high-tech spin-offs, including WordPerfect, Novell, and Dynix”. He really knew what he was talking about.

I got my first computer when I was five years old. I was in kindergarten, it was 1982. It was an Atari 1200 XL (the top of Atari’s 8-bit line at the time). It had a whopping 64 kilobytes of RAM, and it took cartridges. That is, if you wanted to play Dig Dug or Pole Position, you inserted that cartridge. If you wanted to program, you popped in the BASIC cartridge. Without a cartridge inserted, the only thing the computer could do was display the Atari logo in a phasing, shifting rainbow of color. Programs were stored on and loaded from cassette tapes (later, I got a 5.25″ floppy disk drive, which was the size of a large toaster). My grandfather gave me the computer, a few games, and some books on BASIC programming, and I went to town.

I have a very clear memory of one of the first things I ever tried to do with the computer (which is what sparked me to write this). This was before the era of the personal computer, when a computer in the home, using the TV as a monitor, was still a novelty. I remember getting that first command prompt, and typing a question. Something along the lines of “who was daniel boone?” SYNTAX ERROR was the response. I was reasonably sure that wasn’t the right answer. So I tried again. When my parents (who to this day don’t own a computer) saw what I was doing, even they understood why my query wasn’t working. “A computer only knows what you tell it, what you program it with.” That made sense, and I accepted it. But I what I remember so vividly is that before someone told me otherwise, I instinctively grasped the idea of interacting with computers in the way that’s second nature today to us as “citizens of the internet”, living in the Age of Google.

I spent the following years in the isolation of pre-Internet computerdom. Playing, hacking, learning what I could. But it all felt so limited, looking back. I was restricted to book or software that I could get my hands on through my grandfather, or people he knew (many of his associates in the high tech world had a part in my geek upbringing). Entering in BASIC programs (games, mostly) by hand from books and magazines. But somewhere, in the back of my mind. there was always the insistence that we should be able to ask a computer any question, or use it to talk to any person we wanted, and it should just magically obey.

My grandfather continued to supply me with opportunities to use, play with, and be around computers, long before that was a common thing. He got me a “Franklin Ace” (an Apple II clone with a bad ground somewhere in the power supply, that delivered a healthy shock if you touched the right place on the metal case), a huge 20 pound Zenith 8086 “laptop” (one of the first with a hard drive, and a blue-and-gray 4 “color” LCD), and a succession of PCs. He made sure I got to attend summer programs, and learn a few rudimentary programming languages (I remember Pascal and Turtle Graphics). I learned DOS and Windows by messing around, reading help files, and by playing. By the time I hit my teens, he got me access to Brigham Young University computer labs during the summers. The very places that the pre-commercial, pre-consumer Internet was thriving.

I spent the summer of 1994 learning HTML and the basics of the internet in a computer lab at BYU with Paul E. Black and some of Dr. Phil Windley’s graduate students (yes, that Phil Windley). I created the very first website for the BYU Alumni Association, completely by hand. This is the current site – the Wayback Machine at Archive.org doesn’t go that far. Later, in high school (1994), I was the webmaster for the first school in the state of Utah – Springville High School – to have a website, and helped to build a site for the Springville Art Museum.

That was my first exposure to the world of connected computers, and shared access to more information than you could dream of. Web pages that could magically take you to another page just by clicking the blue underlined text. “Surfing” from one link to the next, and when you found something cool, trying to remember how you got there, so you could get back. Exchanging messages with other people, anywhere in the world, via email. Having so many choices, and so many pages to choose from, that you had to start using a directory site like Yahoo! to find what you were looking for (there were no good search engines yet – this was way before Google, and the idea that you could index the WHOLE web in one place). And, looking back, perhaps the most significant of all, in the context of connecting human beings to each other – the reason we all flocked to the Internet in the first place, before companies figured out how to make money off of it – USENET newsgroups. Precursor and grandfather to discussion forums, blogs, and social networks.

I’m going to pause the story for now – this has gotten quite long. I feel like I’m writing a book. Maybe I am. If a few little pages of the Cluetrain can draw out this much, perhaps you and I both had better prepare for a lot more writing like this. I feel compelled to write it, and it’s fun. I hope someone, anyone, wants to read it. It makes me feel more human. Maybe it will help me find and connect with people who feel the same – other native citizens (and immigrants!) of the Internet. 🙂

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