(4) Cellphones, Email and the World Wide Web

A Basic Pager

For a sliver of time, pagers were the rage. They could be stuck in a pocket or clipped to your belt. You’d call the pager number, enter your number and the person’s pager would alert them so they could then call you back. Pagers provided a new type of communication in an increasingly connected world.

“If it’s an emergency, page me,” was commonly said.

In New York, like many cities, you could hire an answering service that would provide the function of paging you so people unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the new technology would only have to tell the service their name and number then the service did the dirty work of paging you for them. People tend to prefer the comfort of another human voice over a series of metallic beeps. Even today that remains true.

In later life, paging technology became a localized, on-site, technology for restaurants and retail. If you’ve gone to a restaurant and received a disk to alert you when your reservation or order became available, you likely held a 2.0 version pager.

Moving to Mobility

As cellphones became more affordable and common in the mid-90s, the pager disappeared. Certain social rules remained for the first few years, people rarely used them indoors, let alone in a restaurant or movie-theatre. I remember walking down E. 4th Street in the Village, calling information from my cellphone to get a restaurant’s address, garnering sneers from passers-by in the process for it. Frankly I miss those days but nothing exists absent time and life marches on.

With the rise of consumer cellphones came the SMS text, further facilitating faceless, now voiceless, communication. For a brief period young-adults mastered the art of quickly typing texts with a numeric keypad, learning the number of taps needed for each letter as well as the necessary pause-time until starting the next. Given the propensity for mistakes, people understood if you were a letter or two off and so the casualness of communication slowly seeped in, becoming the raging, roaring river that is today’s social media. Sometimes small things have big impacts, so says chaos-theory at least.

Through the early 90s, another new technology became more accessible to consumers, the personal computer, and with it, a nascent but burgeoning beast, the internet. In the late 80s and early 90s, accessing the internet largely meant one of three things, sending/receiving email, accessing Usenet groups and/or accessing the very primitive “World Wide Web.” There was no eCommerce yet, no social media, it was largely garish, flashing graphics, marquee fonts and lots of mismatched colors. Further, finding content was cumbersome, Google didn’t debut until 1998 and using Yahoo or Alta Vista‘s search was more akin to driving around a city looking for garage sales.

The Internet and Voiceless Communication

Perhaps most importantly, even with the newer 28,800bps modems, downloading one picture could take several minutes, a game or application, a whole day. Cable and DSL wouldn’t exist until the late 90s and video wasn’t available until the early 2000s.

The first example of spam as we now know it occurred on Usenet in early 1994 with the title “Global Alert for All: Jesus is Coming Soon”. Spam would soon dominate email inboxes, embodying the seedier side of the internet where nefarious individuals scam the gullible. It worked in part by seeming to be personalized to the recipient and without face-to-face contact, it was hard to know who to trust. New markets emerged to combat spam and protect against viruses and hackers.

Before the explosion of spam and funny email forwards, most email correspondence was somewhat formal, more akin to “sending a digital letter.” It was also far more cumbersome as you’d use some clunky application to read and send email, the most common being AOL, notable for the deluge of install CDs peppering every building’s mailbox area. The first version of Microsoft Outlook didn’t arrive until 1997. Spending even an hour “online” at the time was uncommon, in part because you had to sit in front of a computer to do it. Smart phones were still many years away.

Amazon was founded in 1994, initially selling only books. Through the late 90s, tech stocks went into a fever. Bankers seemed willing to invest in any half-baked, internet-based idea. Referred to as the dot com bubble, the market grew some 400% through the late 90s before contracting in 2000 with further corrections following the 9/11 attacks. The craze behind the boom was sometimes compared to the Dutch Tulip Crash of 1637, a hysteria that seemed almost bacchanalian in nature.

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” -John Adams

Exemplary of the bubble’s burst was kozmo.com which delivered DVDs and snacks, based on availability from near-by bodegas and video stores. Remarkably, they regularly ran specials for two movies with snacks at a fraction of the actual cost, $10 of goods for only $6. More remarkably still, they were delivered within an hour by NYC’s fabled bike messengers, the punk-maniacs that got drunk at 4 and had no care of cars nor your judgements. It was awesome but they were paying to provide you their service and predictably, folded within a few years.

Video Games Enter the Culture

Through the 90s the video game industry saw a resurgence, particularly for consoles and computer games, raking in around 40 billion dollars by decade’s end, beginning what would soon be a meteoric ascent. Wolfenstein and Duke Nukem gave way to Doom, which would dominate the “first person shooter” genre for many years and introduce the first concept of online multiplayer for it. Getting your first game console or computer game became a right-of-passage for a significant share of American males. It would still be a few years before the industry fully bridged the gender gap.

By the late 90s, high-speed internet via DSL and cable became more broadly available. Chat rooms and instant messaging apps brought a new angle to the “instant communication” game, further casualizing online communication, inevitably leading to today’s emojis. Silicon Technology had entered human culture and was spreading like syphilis.

Heavily influenced by the style of anime and Japanese Martial Arts films, The Matrix debuted in 1999. Mixing computer-generated effects, hacking-culture and post-modern philosophy, it purported a vision of the world, heavily influenced by technology, in which there were two choices: acquiescence to the status quo by consuming the blue pill or challenging the system by consuming the red pill.

Curiously, despite the creators’ intent, awkward online communities recast it’s meaning to their own male-chauvinistic beliefs. “Red-pillers” started to brew in the dark corners of the internet, advertising themselves as champions of some kind of “male renaissance” in which the embattled male would no longer suffer the slings and arrows of aggressive feminism.

This one metaphoric choice would soon splinter into multiple bizarre factions, even turning violent and giving fuel and fire to new subcultures further removed from reality than the film itself described.

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Humanity, technology and culture. How it started, how it’s going.

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