a sixteen year old's look at the net
Where else in the world can you find the latest update on Frank Zappa's prostate cancer and read about problems of modern bisexual females? Recently I have had the opportunity to tour some of Northwestern University's Vax computer network. This network, called the Internet and connected to Bitnet and Telnet, is connected by the phone lines to all major universities in the country and most small colleges. Mail, programs, text files, news, stories, poems, whatever, they are all carried from college to college by students talking to one another.
Published 14 December 1991, this is the first piece I wrote about the Internet, specifically USENET Newsgroups. This appeared in my high school newspaper the Parker Weekly.
And as is the atmosphere at most educational institutions, it is all free and open to all. I can read any news group I want to, write to people, post a message and get a file relating to any one single event. Any problem, any idea, any organization, anything is in these newsgroups. There are groups for Celtic, Arabic, and Nordic culture. There is a group for pagans, for bisexuals, musicians, animators, poets, narcs, Deadheads, ZappaHeads, computer geeks, speed freaks.
In the Frank Zappa conference alone, someone had found a study done by the U.S. Veteran's administration on the effects of smoking on prostate cancer on Korean War veterans and had posted it. There were set lists from the recent tribute to Frank at Radio City Music hall, information on where to order limited edition vinyl editions of his records, guys looking for one rare bootleg or another, anything. There were transcribed lyrics from his songs, including his rare spelling of the common household pet name "Phydeaux."
The organization EFF, Electronic Freedom Frontier, a computer rights organization, runs itself entirely off of the Vax network. My friend recieves a copy of their newsletter regularly in his mailbox, free of charge and I can join their discussion of the 26th amendment anytime of the day and read bulletins about the "Sixth Annual Conference on Computer Security" or the like. They have transcriptions from the conference, along with minutes and speechs from the experts.
Then there is the Anime conference, one of my personal favourites. Here one can find discussions of AKIRA, Warriors of the Winds, Robotech, Battle of the Planets, anything, from people in England, Israel, Japan, San Jose and U. Mass Amherst. Transcribed lyrics (in Japanese and English) of the songs from the movies are always around, and even discussion of the best stores in San Fransico and directions to the best stores in downtown Tokyo to buy this form of Japanese art. I once wrote a letter on the public boards and recived a reply from someone in California a minute and a half later! In this conference alone, there are 34,000 subscribers (people who regularly read it) and they average 44 postings a day, so there's quite a bit of information available out there.
There are some interesting and unuasual periphery newsgroups, as well, I once discovered a group where students were discussing their personal experiences of sex with animals and another group where students compared their favourite types of synthetic drugs.
But no matter what you find yourself reading, you find you're in good company. Reading through the news group of Cyber Punk fiction, I saw a post by famous SciFi author Bruce Sterling giving his Electronic Mail address for people to write him on one thing or another. When you begin discussing some rare translation of a novel or comic book, you may find a public reply from the man or woman who translated it. Ask a question about the phone lines, a AT&T related person may respond. Ask about a certain band, a roadie or backup musician may answer. The opinions and discourse range from the civil to the "flaming" and from common typed english, german, and french to coded japanese, flemish, and hebrew. Reading messages from people accross the globe is nothing special either, it is not unusual to see a post from someone at the "University of Bonn, Germany" or someone who calls themself "Elf" from Japan. All the major groups and special interests are represented, and the minor ones too! From the NRA in the Guns conference to the Association for Boisenberry Jam in the Gays/Bisexuals/Lesbians/Friends conference.
My single problem with this would have to be the same problem I had with the film Akira, that is, that it is unavailable. Unavailable to a normal high school age person, like myself, who wishes to peruse and take an active role in discussion. When I called Northwestern University and asked whether or not they offered accounts to students not currently enrolled in any of their schools, their answer was a flat out no, not even for money would they let me on. I have heard though, that one may enter these conferences through the Compuserve Information Service, but few of those computer hackers that I know can afford their phone bills, let alone paying for Compuserve at at least 10$ an hour. So I must resort to looking through my friends account (illegal), hacking an account (illegal and difficult), or waiting for college (legal, but requires patience!). All three are frustrating options.