Cybergypsies and the Net's wilderness years

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The Independent Culture
ONCE UPON a time, on our lumpy centrifuge two rocks away from the sun, many squillions of milli-, micro-, nano-, pico-, femto- and attoseconds before the Net, there was, well, um, there was sort of a Net.

I've just read about it in a truly extraordinary new book called Cybergypsies by Indra Sinha, published for some mystifying reason on paper rather than in any virtual form, but none the worse for it. It is an account of life in cyberspace, in that wilderness decade between the Internet's UK arrival and the time it began to download itself into our nation's consciousness.

I first entered the portals of cyberspace on a snowy December evening in 1970. There weren't many sites to visit - to be precise, there was just one. You could travel down a phone line from a computer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to another at Berkeley, California, and back - subject always to the serendipities of Ma Bell. The machine at MIT was a mainframe the size of the Isle of Wight, and used the combined output of nine nuclear power stations, so when the other computer, 2,500 miles away, was online no one in America could make toast.

We played Space War, written by an MIT student as a term paper, which might have been the world's first computer game. You steered a spaceship armed with 15 missiles across the solar system, fighting another steered by your opponent at the far end of the flaky line at Berkeley. My opponent was Dave. In those days no one hid behind cybernames and cyberspace was still a green-field site. There was no porn, hacking, spamming or chat rooms.

Sitting in that MIT computing sciences lab, I still remember my glee at discovering that these soulless multi-million-dollar number-crunchers had an alter ego - you could do really frivolous things with them. You could play games on them! And you could get them to talk to other machines - all over the world. The human interface, the anthropomorphisation of computers, had begun.

Although it was officially launched in the US in 1976, it was 1984 before Janet made the Internet accessible in Britain - at least to anyone who spoke Fortran, dreamt in Unix and held a C-2 programmer's ticket. It was to be a further decade before anyone outside a closed club of academics, techies and computing sciences students heard of it, or attempted to make it remotely user-friendly.

By then it had become the private domain of a fiercely entrenched subculture, difficult to access, vigorously defended and openly hostile to entrepreneurs. The early commercial pioneers of the Net in Britain - of which I was one - were subject to scary abuse on newsgroups. How dare anyone try to make money from the Net? We were pirates to be blown out of the water, we were trolls, demons, warlords, triple-headed monsters. We were the evil avatars in a cyberinferno of diminished reality. But we needed to be killed in real time, by real weapons. Postings went up on newsgroups instructing people to make letter bombs and mail them to us. At Pavilion, we disconnected them in a kind of virtual castration, which made them even madder.

Just what had been going on down those phone lines since that December evening back in 1970? Sinha's book taps into the Zeitgeist and has brought me up to speed with those missing years. Sinha, an eccentric, talented advertising copywriter with an aptitude for computers, found himself a member of a disparate band of cybergypsies travelling a digital dirt-track that was a decade south of what would become the information superhighway.

It was, in his words, the cybergypsies crouched over the phosphorus crucibles of their screens who invented virtual sex, who ran up phone bills the size of national debts living out role-playing games, who traded in computer viruses, who hacked state secrets, who brought multinationals to a grinding halt, yet who also raised untold millions for the Kurds and for the victims of Bhopal, who gave a life to thousands of disabled or immobilised people who formerly had had no life, and who gave a voice to the silenced of Tiananmen Square.

These cybergypsies were the true unsung pioneers of the Net. A hundred years ago, if you sought fame, fortune or merely adventure, you provisioned up and pointed your boat or your horse west. Now, cybergypsies booted up and pointed their mice at cyberspace. The lawless old Wild West had become the weird-wired virtual west, and the cybergypsies the virtual explorers and conquistadors of our modern world. In the kingdom of the geek, the one-fingered typist was king - or at least, maybe a wizard, all the time his computer didn't hang.

The Net is becoming a quieter place now, both richer and poorer for it. Sinha says that old-time cybergypsies rarely talk of "surfing the Internet". They regard present-day netsurfers as tourists, flown in their millions to the gaudy electronic resorts of the Web by package tour operators such as Compuserve and AOL.

Nowhere stays unspoilt for long.

Peter James is a writer and the co-founder of Pavilion Internet, one of the UK's first Internet service providers. His latest book, `Denial', is published by Orion at pounds 16.99