Did the Homepage Kill the Internet?
Retrieving the great, big, migratory meta-community of digital nomads
One of things I really loved about the early net was how open and free it felt. Before the internet was even the internet, Al Gore was talking about the possibility of an “information superhighway” connecting educators and researchers with one another as well as one another’s work. We never thought in terms of destinations. It was more about the journey, the search, and the connections.
The “places” online, if you could even call them that, were just repositories of files. One of the first times I was on the net, I was looking for some song lyrics. I did some Gopher searches (simple, command-line stuff) and ended up downloading the files I needed from a server in Tel Aviv. There was no sense of place. I didn’t go there.
The same was true for IRC and USENET, the early chat and bulletin board services online. Even though we were pinging messages back and forth to one another in close to real time, we were all just passing through. The text-only interface helped convey a sense of impermanence — of having created these little temporary autonomous zones in the ether, composed entirely of the people who happened to show up.
There was something that felt itinerant about all this activity. It reminded me of what it was like to be in the theater (my original life and career), where you gather with a troupe for a few months, become co-workers, family, even lovers, and then disperse to everyone’s next projects. We all learned how to recognize one another as part of a great, big, migratory meta-community, capable of forming deep bonds over a single weekend performance and then never seeing each other again.
The early, text-only internet reminded me of Judaism, with its restriction on “graven images” and even of the early Israelites, who were essentially Bedouin, always on the move. I wrote a piece for The Australian in around 1993, naming us “digital nomads” and suggesting we might be “the new Jews.” Something about maintaining a text-only tradition, engaging on a network in provisional ways, and enjoying a culture based on the sharing of data and the exchange of ideas seemed to retrieve the best things about the Jewish tradition. What might a society built on…