What we lost with the dial-up internet connection

There was a quality in its slowness that we sacrificed in the move to broadband

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The Independent Online

BT have just retired the dial-up network. For an early user of the US Robotics “Sportster” 14.4kbps modem, the metallic hiss and shrill tones of an internet connection in the early nineties was the sound of adventure, the noise of the electronic door creaking open to a new world of communication. This was the age of text-based bulletin boards based in California, where you could go and discuss DOS “shareware” games like ZZT, a game whose central character was a smiley, and whose baddies included the symbol for pi.

Whilst the pre-graphics internet was a niche space, the pace of information on the dial-up network was manageable and comprehensible. US statistician Nate Silver cites numbers from IBM in his book The Signal And The Noise that some 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are produced now every day, an estimated million times the storage capacity of the human brain. Back in the early nineties, a music album would take over four days to download. The narrow bandwidth of a dial-up connection meant that rather than live-tweeting your every move, the internet was a slow, ponderous place, in which it was almost impossible to be swamped with information: you could sit and watch a picture appear one line of pixels at a time, at 0.05 per cent of the speed of a good broadband connection today.

It’s impossible to be nostalgic about the speed of the dial up network: leaving the connection live for long enough to download the latest text-based computer game could push your phone bill up into the hundreds of pounds, but as the internet has sped up, dial up has become for many a more affordable way to get online. In 2011 AOL signed up 200,000 more users of dial-up services in the USA, and this is generally attributed to the higher cost of broadband.

It’s safe to say that children weren’t watching much pornography on 14kbps internet connection, cyber bullying (if it was even taking place) would’ve been rudimentary, and it was impossible to troll with the speed or aggression that it is now. Hours went past when nobody could call, because the only telephone line in the house was busy. We waded in the shallow stream of information, rather than drowned in an ocean. That constantly replenishing ocean of vines, pins, dating apps, and instagram photos feeds the opportunity paralysis of the internet today.

You would think twice about uploading a picture of your food, or a baby photo when it took you a quarter of an hour. The end of the dial-up internet in the UK is a landmark moment, the retirement of a technology which was excruciatingly slow, but had a quality in that slowness which the internet has lost.