The Classic Internet


I sat in my dorm room, one night during orientation, on the campus of the small rural college I attended, and hit reload on the message board I had just created for my homepage so that my friend back home and I could talk, waiting for his inaugural message to appear, as if by magic.

It was 1997, and I had opted for the futuristic, yet difficult-to-read electric-blue on black color scheme. All the dorms had been recently wired, primarily for access to the library catalog and e-mail, and almost as an afterthought, to the Web. Steve Jobs had just returned to Apple computer. He must have loathed their website at the time. That September, someone registered the domain Google.com, but it wasn't live.

In the 1700s, a missionary to the Oneida Indians had founded a school on the future site of my college in a failed effort to convert them to a western way of life, but throughout the 19th century, the college enrolled the children of local farmers and gave them a classical education, grounded in Greek and Latin. By the time it came to register for classes, and I paged through one of the last physical course-books, Greek had long lost its prized place, and I felt drawn to study it primarily on account of its strangeness.

On the first day of the Intro Greek class, held in the same building that also housed the religious studies department, a narrow, but tall brick Gothic anachronism with a turret, our professor went around the sparsely studented room and asked why we chose Greek. No one had a good answer.

When my time came, I said, “Because my grandfather's Greek,” since it seemed relevant, and because I didn't like to answer that I chose it because I thought very few other people would.

“My grandfather is dead,” she shot back, “and I'm not studying necrology.” It stung, but you had to have a little edge to cope with devoting your life to a dying field.

At the time, the Internet and Classics felt about the same. Both sparsely attended, and both fairly strange. In my dorm, I browsed people's home pages, more art project than anything, an odd photograph here or there, inscrutable text. Following links was a bit like working your way through an ancient sentence. Eventually it clicked into meaning. Sometimes it never did.

Then, one day, in a practical sense, the Internet became conventionally “useful.” I ordered a CD from Amazon.com, and picked it up from my post-box in the student center the next week. Someone in class asked about “The Perseus Project”: at Tufts they'd been digitizing classics, and offering links to morphology as an aid to translation.

Professors took Plato's attitude. He had a thing against innovation. In a dialogue, Plato's Socrates relates how Thoth, the ibis-beaked Egyptian god of invention, shows off writing to the King of the Gods. Thoth claims he has created an “elixir of remembering.” The King retorts he’s invented only “reminding,” so that people will seem to know many things, which they have not learned, and thus will appear wise without being so.

In a prime example of the Internet's powers of reminding, the first article on Wikipedia can be traced: it appeared, after I graduated, on 16 January 2001, at 21:08 UTC. It wasn't long before Wikipedia articles found themselves cut-and-pasted into student essays, reinforcing Plato's negative view.

Since then, the Internet has sloughed another skin. Apple grew triumphantly on putting the digital world into your hand, letting you read the Internet like a book. Social media apps, like Twitter, stream a further overlay on reality, a reflection of a reflection Plato might say.

The Classics find themselves in a paradoxical golden age, where anyone can pull up the original text of any ancient writing that exists, and read it. Almost as soon as two previously unknown poems of Sappho had been unearthed, they were shared on the Internet, exposed at once to the widest simultaneous audience her work may have ever known.

The Apple website is uber-slick now. Mega-corporation Google has mapped and photographed the known world in its quest to show ads. Internet oracles predict an Internet of things, your toaster tweeting with your TV.

Back in my dorm, over a dozen years ago, on my homepage, leaving messages for my friends, something odd happened after a while. Strangers, who had discovered my site, began to post. These human voices still scroll through Twitter on my phone chatting back and forth in a strange landscape where Plutarch’s truncated quotes interact with the mash-up Kim Kierkegaardashian.

Of these prodigies of the Internet, one might say as Plato has Phaedrus do, challenging Socrates, “Surely you could make up anything for an Egyptian god to say.”

“People of old,” Socrates replied, “. . . were content in their simplicity to hear from an oak or a rock, provided it spoke the truth.” (Phaedrus, 275b-c)