Twenty years in cyberspace

This is our 20th year on the web. Ten years ago we posted this:

Sam Smith, 2005 – This fall marks the Review’s tenth year on the web – and our 11th year of sending out email updates. In the last quarter of 1995 we got all of 388 page views, and in 1996, we got 27,000. This year we are approaching three million. [In 2014 we got over 6 million]

How early was 1995? Well, the number of Americans using the Internet was still less than the number who were watching TV in the mid 1950s. And the Washington Post hadn’t yet found a way to stay on line and be happy with the results. Some other papers, however, had gotten into the act. Fredric A. Emmert writes that, “In 1992, the Chicago Sun-Times began offering articles via modem over the America On Line computer network, and in 1993, the San Jose Mercury News began distributing most of its complete daily text, minus photos and illustrations, to subscribers of America On Line. The first multi-media news service in the U.S., News in Motion, made its debut in the summer of 1993 with a weekly edition specializing in international coverage, with color photos, graphics and sound. In 1994, the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service began distributing news to its newspaper customers via computer before their morning editions arrived, and The Washington Post has created a Digital Ink subsidiary, providing an electronic newspaper research service for clients, who can buy custom-made reports on subjects of their choice.” The Post dropped the fee-based Digital Ink in favor of its current site in 1996.

Although shorter items from our first year remain online, only one feature story does: America’s Extremist Center. From 1996, only the still popular Mission Creep: The Militarizing Of America remains online.

Our earliest email update included with this September 1994 story:

“Strip away the hyperbole and you’re left with yet another American occupation of a small Latin American country for time and purpose uncertain. This occupation, however, can be presumed to have as much to do with restoring democracy in Haiti as the Panama invasion had to do with eliminating the drug trade there — that is to say, practically nothing. Everyone from the 82nd Airborne to CNN went on full alert, but bear in mind that the Haitian military is about the size of the DC Metropolitan Police plus the Executive Protective Service and the National Zoo Police.”

Your editor’s interest in the internet was not all that surprising, since he had long ago discovered that keeping up with advances in technology helped compensate for his own deterioration. The Review began as a hot type magazine, The Idler, in 1964 and over the years used such novel technology as Press Type, IBM Selectrics, Radio Shack’s TRS-80 (or Trash 80 as it was fondly known), the Model 100 – an amazing battery operated laptop with a six line screen, and Exxon’s Qyx, among many others.

Before all that, however, were other influences, starting with Alice Darnell, my high school math teacher who went to Harvard in the summer of 1954 to learn about this new thing, the computer. She returned reporting that she had almost been locked up in a computer overnight, as it needed an entire building to do the work of a present day Mac, and she introduced us to the basics of Boolean algebra.

It would be twenty years, however, before I actually touched a computer: an 8K Atari purchased for my sons. As I fleeted up to 16 and then 32 K it occurred to me that these things might have some journalistic use. In fact, if you wasted a whole Saturday you could already program them to do little things like write messages and keep addresses.

It was a time when an earnest father such as I sent his son to computer camp where he learned to write programs that in just a year or so he could buy at the local computer store. It was a time when a computer expert came to speak at that same son’s school and, at the end, the headmaster arose and said, “This is all very well and good, but I’m not running a goddamned secretarial school.” Within a year he had purchased an impressive array of computers.

It was also a time short on computer expertise. The Review was blessed with two high school students who came by to empty our floor’s office trash who were also seminal cyber whizzes. They shall remain nameless to preserve the security clearance of the one who now works for a major defense contractor, but the latter still provides occasional assistance such as his suggestion that I repair a computer suffering from too much atmospheric moisture by putting it in an oven at 150 degrees for an hour. That was a year ago. It worked and the computer still helps produce the Progressive Review.

Some years back I went to a Shaker village in Maine. While on the tour of this vanishing sect I noted a TV antenna atop the dorm. I mentioned this jarring departure from my image of Shakers to our guide, who explained that the Shakers saw no conflict between technology and their faith. After all, she said, their furniture was technologically advanced for the time.

It was not unlike the Quakers who do not shun change but merely apply their faith to it. About a year and a half after launching our website I tried to give a sense of this approach in a book I was writing, The Great American Political Repair Manual:

“The first rule of media survival is use it; don’t let it use you. We must ignore the role the media has prescribed for us — audience, consumer, addict — and treat it much as the trout treats a stream, a medium in which to swim and not to drown. The trick is to stop the media from happening to you and to treat it literally as a medium — an environment, a carrier. Then you can cease being a consumer or a victim and become a hunter and a gatherer, foraging for signs that are good and messages that are important and data you can use. Then the zapper and the mouse become tools and weapons and not addictions. Then you turn the TV off not because it is evil but because you have gotten whatever it has to offer and now must look somewhere else.”

WEB WATCH COLUMN, APRIL 17, 1995 – An “ecology of information” is how we need to view the Internet, according to Apple fellow Alan Kay. In his keynote address at the Third International World Wide Web Conference, he said that the old “clockwork” model of systems thinking was obsolete. The complexity of systems today is so great that we can no longer manufacture them. Rather, we need to grow them organically. . .

Alan Kay said that it is the author, not the technologist, which innovates in the new medium. For example, it took 65 years after the invention of the printing press for an author to think of numbering the pages in a book, so that he could cross reference the pages.

Public access to the web will increase dramatically. Microsoft demonstrated their Internet Explorer product, which will be integrated into their forthcoming Windows 95 desktop. Users will be able to access web pages very simply, and drag or drop them onto the desktop, documents, or folders. . .

A new language called Java was introduced. Java safely allows programs, not just data to be exchanged. These small applications, or “applets” allow a new generation of client/server sophistication. One simply clicks on something of interest. The network would install any necessary software automatically, as well as the billing chores.

A REPORT FOUND THAT BETWEEN 1995 and 1996 there was a dramatic shift: “The biggest and perhaps most significant change since 1995 is the increased use of the World Wide Web. Nearly three out of four (73%) report having used the Web, compared to only 21% then. Web use also appears to be more frequent: 51% said they used the Web either yesterday or sometime in the past week, compared to 12% last year. . .

1995 also saw the introduction of search engines.

JON KATZ, WIRED, 1995 – So far, at least, online papers don’t work commercially or conceptually. With few exceptions, they seem to be just what they are, expensive hedges against on rushing technology with little rationale of their own. They take away what’s best about reading a paper and don’t offer what’s best about being online. That’s the point of a newspaper. . .to filter the worthwhile information, then print it. . . . The newspaper needs to reinvent itself. . . . The object is not to replace, or put into a different format, but to gain a toehold in cyberspace and even absorb some of its values.

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