I saw my first computer when I was 5 years old. I finally owned one when I was 10. But two year later something magical happened. I built my first online server. It changed everything. This is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But what I didn’t know is that I would have to wait until 1993 when the web was invented to see that revolution sparks and take over the world.
30 years ago I saw the future
1984 the year i’ve built my first ‘server’
I was in junior high school, Collège “François Couperin” in the heart of Paris, just by the Seine.
I had just been fired from the school newspaper for an article criticizing the government choice to equip schools with government-owned Thomson computers instead of the Macintosh.
I didn’t realized at the time, but this was my first political statement.
Not many kids at school had an interest in computers. That’s why I was surprised when a schoolboy came to me one day. He was from Romania, and had just joined the school. He didn’t have many friends and learned that, like him, I was obsessed with computers. He gave me a piece of paper with a phone number and asked me to connect from my Minitel when I got home.
The Minitel was a online terminal created in France by Alcatel. It inspired Steve Jobs for the design of the Mac (remember the handle?) and was given for free in every home. Luckily, our area was selected for an early experiment so we had the precious device.
Unlike computers and modems, the Minitel was designed to be entirely controlled by the main Telecom operator. In theory, only large companies with a government agreement could create their online services.
I was surprised when I tried my friend’s number just to hear a carrier sound. I connected my Minitel and immediately saw an unusual prompt.I soon realized that I was connected to his Commodore 64.
I couldn’t believe it.
He had found a way to transform his personal computer into a mainframe.
This was impossible! In my mind, you needed to own expensive equipment and a government regulated approval to do this. Not a $500 family computer connected to Minitel. It was revolutionary!
That day, I saw the future.
I couldn’t get any sleep. All night long I tried to design a better login experience and new features.
The following day, I arrived with paper notes full of ideas and a name for the service. Electre, our first BBS was born.
I was just 12 years old, and I knew nothing would ever be the same. This is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
What I didn’t know was that, at the time, thousands of people were also trying to figure out how to turn the multibillion dollar infrastructure of the Minitel into a new platform for communication.
And it was bigger than France! When I was able to connect to servers in Europe and the US, I discovered that it was a global movement to make the world more open through online communication. In order to communicate with the world, you had to figure out a way to avoid paying for phone communications and it was not always legal.
It was a very different time. The 80's were the end of the cold war era. It was a very cynical time where most of the countries were run by very old people. My generation was mostly using music to spread change across the globe: Punk in the UK, alternative rock in France and hip hop in the US.
But soon this new online interconnected culture would become the platform to accelerate the exchange of new ideas and culture. It was a breath of fresh air in the depressing state of our daily life.
I learned through a forum that a new hacker group called the Chaos Computer Club was on the forefront of this fight.
Their motto was “Information wants to be free.”
You have to understand, the 80's were a time of unbelievable creativity. On one side Silicon Valley, Cambridge and Japan were producing new computers, and on the other side hackers, writers like William Gibson or Bruce Sterling and Hakim Bey, and artists like the Critical Art Ensemble where inventing pieces of a new philosophy for this new world.
I wanted to be part of it.
While most kids of my generation were looking for the best school for their career, I was choosing the schools and universities that offered the best access to the internet.
I couldn’t unplug. I was lucky enough to gather access here and there. I landed at Jussieu university where I would learn how to install a local network, how to use and administer a Unix station. Things most of my friends thought was a waste of time and happened to be invaluable skills later.
1993 the year i discovered the web
At my university, the internet was filtered for students. You had to be a teacher to access the full internet, so we had to be creative and use alternative protocols and tools to connect.
One day, I arrived early to make sure I could get a free terminal. It was suggested by one my friends in Sweden to login to his university server with the following login: www
A new service had just opened that day, and it was pretty cool. I found myself browsing on the CERN website on day one. I still have goosebumps when I think about it.
Like that day, when I connected to my friend’s Commodore . I knew this was bigger than the usual new stuff. The web was connecting pages of content via clickable words. With an infinite number of combinations.
Not only was information free, but all the information in the world could be connected together. It was a revolution.
And I needed a better machine.
I learned at the time that a lab working on 3D modeling was the proud owner of a NeXT machine. I begged them to let me use the machine when the office was empty in exchange for building their website. Incidently It was probably one of the first website designed in France, because at the time there was no more than a hundred websites referenced on the Scott Yanoff List.
But I had no time to think about it. I was busy trying to download the first mosaic browser and understand how the hell we could integrate pictures and words together on the same page.
It was a crazy time. In San Francisco, Wired was being launched. In Paris, activists were exploring the potential of virtual reality. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation was fighting to keep cryptography in the hands of the people and not only governments.
Sometime, I feel that we are back to square one. The government is still spying on people, large companies still find new ways to sell our data and politicians still don’t get the Internet.
And sometimes I don’t. We probably have more kids around the world trying to disrupt the planet and collectively invent their future than there was in my time. They’re probably as excited as I was when I was their age.
Every time before my birthday, I think about the incredible legacy of internet pioneers: this ability to connect and change the world, and how lucky I was to be part of that revolution. But today is special it’s been 30 years.
My generation wanted to change the world, but didn’t have the tools. This new generation has all the tools, and I just hope they will learn from our mistakes and move the world forward.
Earth is a beta test, and everyone can join.