What's It All About?

by Charles A. Gimon

Have you ever sent a fax from the beach? It's a futuristic promise in a commercial, but if you have enough money to throw at the idea, you can do it today--a notebook computer and cellular modem will work just fine. Now if you're on a beach in Madagascar, the price goes up a little, but there really aren't any technical problems to overcome.

This is why we're hearing so much "info-highway" hype these days. The technology is here already. What's keeping it out of your house isn't engineering problems as much as business ones. Just what does the consumer want, anyway? Is that consumer willing to pay $10 a month, or $100--and what kind of infrastructure can you finance on monthly fees like that?

If you've watched the computer business at all during the last decade and a half, there's one thing you know--prices always come down. What was $3000 last year will be $1500 next year, and a doorstop not too many years after that. The price of advanced communications is bound to come down too, either due to techie cleverness, or due to your local telephone or cable company using a loss-leader scheme to grab your info-highway dollars before the other guy does. The monopolies of yesterday could become the battlegrounds of tomorrow as cable companies try to sell phone service and phone companies offer video dialtone. ISDN in your home--at a somewhat reasonable price--might only be a matter of months away.

Sure, there's hype, but deservedly so. The future of That Thing (whatever you want to call it: the Info-Highway, Cyberspace, Distributed Computing, Interactive Entertainment, the Net, the Web, the Spew) is bound to be filled with fun and excitement. You could wait for prices to come down, but people who wait too long face that Zeno's paradox of computing: no matter how long you wait, prices could go even lower, and if you wait just a little too long, whatever it was you wanted will be outdated by the time you get it.

Fine. You want to be fashionable, you genuinely want to enjoy what the new tech has to offer, maybe you want to explore the new geometries of relationships people are creating in the virtual world. Maybe you want to do it for the kids. Lord knows, maybe you just want to keep up with the other cybernauts at the office. In any case, you don't want to bankrupt yourself, and you don't want your living space cluttered up with a huge science project. What can you do now, to get on the cyber-bandwagon, to get yourself connected to That Thing, with a minimum of muss and fuss?

Believe it or not, bits of it are already here--have been for ages. You have a phone, don't you? That first step onto the info-highway wasn't even invented this century. Cable TV hasn't been around for quite as long, but it already has rudimentary "interactive" features, albeit tacky ones like pay-per-view boxing and home shopping networks. The reason these two are important to us now is because they have their infrastructure strung through the neighborhoods already. Any competing technologies will have to be sexy enough for a company to pay for whole cities to be wired up at a time. Regular phones lines and cable TV coaxials, for better or worse, have the advantage of already being on the poles and under the street. When the info-highway comes, it's likely to make its first entrance through one of these two wires.

In the past, these services have been monopolistic. You paid the phone company, and you got what they decided you needed. You buy a packaged service from the cable company--you get some channels you want, and a lot of channels you don't want. These relationships between customer and monopoly are changing. As the possibility of competition becomes thinkable, the communication monopolies are offering more choices and more services.

More services may sound like more of the same old thing, but some of the new features reflect the changes in society that new technology can bring. A case in point is caller ID. The first issue that comes to mind when you mention caller ID is privacy; there were years of squabbles over privacy before the phone companies finally were allowed to offer caller ID service. The real significance of caller ID has been missed, though--it takes a service that only businesses or government agencies had access to and makes it available to you and me. Functions that used to be done by phone company operators can now be done by private individuals, given that they're willing to pay for caller ID, and maybe a national CD-ROM phone directory on the side. When the phone companies started offering caller ID to the general public, they gave up a bit of their information monopoly. They did this to make a buck, of course, and to broaden their product line in the face of future competition.

But caller ID is a bit different from, say, call waiting. It reflects the new technology, and the new pathways that information is following as it flows through society. Put simply, it isn't a top-down world of info any more. Information will be more difficult to hoard or monopolize, will come from many sources instead of a few, and will be accessible from many places. The 20th Century was built on broadcasting, the next century will be built on networking.

What I've been leading up to here is the way for complete beginners to enter into this new networked world. You can use a computer and modem to call a bulletin board system, or BBS. A BBS is usually just a computer in somebody's basement, although many of their proud owners will make them sound much larger. You use your computer and modem to call the BBS and use the services that the owner--the "sysop"--has to offer. Your home computer becomes a terminal of the remote computer in that person's basement; you're being invited in to use that other computer, along with anyone else who has access.

Bulletin boards have lots of things for you to do:

Downloading: you can get software for free, or at least on the honor system. Many bulletin boards have free software you can download into your home computer. Many also have "shareware", software you can get on the honor system--you send a payment to the author if you like it.

Gaming: you can play games on the other computer, and compare your score with how well other callers have done. On some fancier BBSes, two or more people can play the same game with each other in real time.

Chat: you can talk to other human beings who happen to be calling the bulletin board at the same time you are. People who don't want their typing skills to come under scrutiny may want to skip this one.

Discussion: you can call a BBS and leave a message--a "post"--for other callers to read. Someone else can leave an answer to your post. Put a bunch of them together, and you've got a discussion. It's a little bit like ham radio, a little bit like talk radio-if you're lucky, there's a bit of the corner bar thrown in for good measure. Some discussions can be thought-provoking, some are tired arguments, some will eventually slide into bad jokes and general silliness. On any particular BBS, there are likely to be regular callers who appear to dominate the conversation at first. If you don't like the atmosphere on one BBS, though, there are plenty of others to check out. Discussions on bulletin boards may be called "message areas", "forums", "rooms", or "newsgroups". They should be labelled with a title or subject for discussion, so everything stays somewhat organized.

E-mail: you can send a message to another person who uses the BBS. Unlike discussion posts, e-mail messages are private, although technically the sysop of the BBS could have the ability to read them as well.

The last two features are the ones to keep an eye on. Most bulletin boards belong to networks such as Citadel, Fido or WWIV. Just as you can call the BBS over a regular phone line, BBSes can call each other at regular intervals and share mail and discussion posts. If a BBS is on such a "dial-up" network, you can send mail from the BBS you're using to any other BBS on the network, across the United States and Canada, and in some cases around the world. It may take a couple of days, but it will get there. Discussions become much more interesting, too, as people on several different BBSes can join in the same debate.

This may start to sound to you like the Internet, and there are some similarities. The BBS scene has been around for well over a decade now, the same period of time that the Internet has seen its exponential growth. The division between home-brewed BBSes and the big Internet is fading away today; more and more BBSes are offering Internet e-mail and Usenet newsgroups as well as their old offerings, while national online services like America On-Line and Compuserve (which are really just Godzilla-sized, corporate run BBSes) are hooking up for full Net access. Most small BBSes that connect to the Internet use a method called UUCP that doesn't require a big, expensive digital dedicated line. Your Internet mail from a small BBS may take a couple of hours to get on the Internet, but once it's on the big Net, it'll travel as fast as anyone else's stuff. A couple of hours from Joe's basement to downtown Minneapolis, then a couple of minutes from Minneapolis to Australia.

What the older BBS scene has in common with the Internet is the participation by individuals and small groups. In some ways, BBSes are more like the Net than the Net we hear about in the hype. The Internet is supposed to be anarchic, with no central authority. In practice, news administrators at universities and commercial sites have some power over what happens on the Internet, as do the owners of the commercial backbones--companies with names like Sprint. Basement BBSes answer to their sysops upstairs. BBS networks are slower, but they are genuinely many-to-many networks, where each site might have 20 regular users instead of 200 or 2000. The broad diversity of BBSes gives plenty of room for diversity of opinion. The "dial-up" nature of the network gives each site the freedom to deal with crises as they come up; the spamming-and-cancelbot wars of Usenet couldn't happen on, say, Citadel. Broadcasting doesn't happen. BBSes have a many-to-many structure that discourages one person or site from monopolizing the system.

There's what you can do. What's needed? You don't need any more than a computer, a modem, and a list of places to call. Even an old IBM XT or one of the first, early Macintoshes will do. Keep in mind that the other computer will be doing most of the work. Your modem speed can be 2400 baud for text; if you have a nice monitor and want to use BBSes that offer graphics, you will be much happier at 9600 or higher. Still, if you're just getting started, you can get by with an old computer that a friend might be willing to give you just to get it out of the house. If you already have a computer and modem, you don't need anything else--you're ready right now.

You will need varying amounts of patience to get onto the various bulletin boards. Some will let you do anything on the first call, others will use an automatic callback to verify that you're calling from where you say you are, others will make you answer dozens of questions, but won't let you on until the sysop calls personally to verify that you're a real person. Don't let this folderol bother you. You'll only have to go through it once. The people who run BBSes have legitimate worries about people trying to share stolen software and such on their systems; they try to limit their risk by putting users through this initial "application" process. If a BBS asks you too many questions for your taste, just hang up. There's plenty of others to call.

Some BBSes will ask for a fee or donation. Many sysops just want to defray the cost of running their system, others have the wild idea that they might eventually make money off of running a BBS. Again, you'll have to judge for yourself whether that bulletin board has enough features to justify the amount that they're asking for. If it looks like a waste of money, there are many, many free places to call as well.

The BBS habit can stick to you quickly, and it can be a steppingstone towards the Internet, and to whatever form That Thing takes in the future. You'll be an individual dealing with other individuals in a many-to-many network, with no central authority and no monopolistic control. In the future, as much of our life reshapes itself to fit this new geometry, you'll have a headstart, because you got familiar with That Thing way back when, dialing up little basement BBSes back in the 1990s.


Charles Gimon teaches an Intro to the PC class at the English Learning Center in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at gimonca@skypoint.com.


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