A few days ago, I came across an episode of a long-running TV series, Computer Chronicles, about the Internet from 1993. (I don’t remember seeing this during its twenty-year run, between 1983 and 2002, but man, I wish I had!)
Throughout the program, the hosts do a commendable job at explaining the Internet (or “internet” as almost everyone on the program refers to it). One of the first things they do is distinguish it from commercial networks, such as Compuserve and Prodigy, and from closed networks, such as those run by NASA and (D)ARPA. The Internet, they imply, is free and is open. It is “open” in that there is no central authority controlling it, and it is “free” after one invests in a computer, some software, some networking infrastructure (basically, a modem and a phone line), and sign up with a service (for $10–20 per month, they explain).
The Internet in this 1993 episode predates the web, but the features of the Internet are nonetheless compelling. The guests showcase a handful of Internet technologies: gopher, telnet, finger, and file transfer protocol (FTP), which in 2012 are all deprecated. We also see a demonstration of The Well, a very old but still operating online community. Each of these technologies were independent of a commercial system. They were all contributed by an eager community of early users of the Internet. It is as if they understood that in order to make this network great, there must be some measure of personal sacrifice. The Internet was not a way to get rich. It was a place to connect.
Or at least it seemed that way.