The British academic network in 1989 was tauntingly close to its sister nets. There was a trickle of email traffic across the divides, but I didn't have an email account. There was a transcontinental sprinkling of Usenet feeds: but I had no way to read news. I was studying non-science subjects, and humanity students weren't allowed to touch the computers then. Why would they want to? What possible use for this technology could non-experts have?
One June weekend, I smuggled my own home computer, an Atari ST, into the college computer room. When everyone had left, I unplugged a dumb terminal, and plugged my smart one into the serial ports that hung from the walls.
(Read on for more after the jump.)
The ST could batch transfer files from another UK university site: a site that archived them from a wider Net. I could download source delivered from across the divide. Code I could run. Guides that would tell you how to build a network of your own. Glimpses of ongoing conversations too: archived Netnews, international mailing list collections.
It never felt like I was imprisoned in a backwater. There wasn't some larger Net world "out there" that I felt held back from. From what I read, it was hard work for everyone else too, struggling with their crappy stacks, line-eaters, and protocol wars. You felt, instead, that you were listening to world waiting to happen. You heard no birdsong; just whispered voices, banging out morse code on pipes.
I read and read and read and it was only when I stretched that I realized how long I'd been crouched over the monitor. I'd been reading what there was of the Net traffic for over twenty-four hours, at least. Leaving my computer, I walked down the stairs onto the street. The pavement on my way home scrolled beneath my feet.
It was daylight outside, but the Chinese bric-a-brac shop underneath the computer room was still shut. Still early, I thought.
Then I read the sign on their locked shopdoor, explaining what had happened the night before in Tiannamen Square, and why they were not opening today.
The students were my age, campaigning for democracy and free speech and debate. They had met and argued and been beaten and killed by their countrymen, who had been lied to by their leaders; whipped by those lies into believing these young people, and the Beijing citizens that protected them, were monsters.
To me, the horror of that massacre is always blurred in that weekend with my first look at the Net. They've always seemed to be part of the same motion, the same gestures.
You're lucky in this world if you're not beaten for trying to talk to others who are not like you. You're even luckier if you hear enough from those far-off strangers to triangulate, and know when you're being lied to, or are too taken with your own lies.
One thing that can help increase our luck, I think, is building better tools to connect with those who can help you: help get the word out, help sharpen your thoughts, help correct your mistakes. And the only way you can do that is build better water pipes, and better tools to bang on them. And while you're at it, try and calm those neighbours who complain about the racket all that noise is making.
I never heard the Tiannamen students that weekend. On the Net, I've listened for them ever since.