Confessions of a Net Junkie

The scene: a rented room in a parish hall.

The cast: assorted folk, of all ages, sexes, professions. Somewhere a laptop PC bleeps quietly. The person sat in the nearest seat glares at the machine's user, and they shut the machine down guiltily.

It's a meeting of the Net-surfers Anonymous. A young man in a Suicide Squid T-shirt stands up.

"Hello. My name is Simon Bisson, and, and... I'm an Internet user."

Brief applause.

"I've been a net user for 8 years now. It started out with a little casual student hacking, a bit of DOS, a bit of UNIX, exploring e-mail. Then I found it. Usenet. Back when the net was flat... Those two little letters 'rn' that opened out into a whole wide world. There must have been, oh, a hundred newsgroups. I was happy to read for a while, but soon the urge came upon me: I had to post..."

The speaker looks down at his hands.

"So I wrote my first article. Something about the roots of cyberpunk for the old rec.sf-lovers. But I couldn't post... I didn't have permission... So I asked for a one off privilege, and got it. But it wasn't a one off, I could do it again, and again, and again... All those little words vanishing off into cyberspace, my deepest thoughts, my most casual follow-ups... But it wasn't to last, I couldn't be a student forever, I had to get a job, I had to lose net-access.

"But the gods smiled on me. Within two years I was back at University, and this time, this time they were paying me. I found myself an account on the University computer as soon as possible. This time things were different. The net wasn't flat any more, strange hierarchies, alt groups, flame wars... I threw myself in with a vengeance. Thirty newsgroups and more a day, dipping in to everything that sat in my .newsrc.

"It was that summer that I found alt.callahans. "Callahans Bar for puns and fellowship" say the net-guides today. Back then it was still starting to make its mark, only six-months old, a small quiet gathering of friends. I picked a persona, a cartoon mouse, and began to take part. I soon felt at home. I helped organise RealSpaces, when I put faces to the ASCII. The net was becoming an important part of my life. I started wearing the uniform of a net user, the identifying traits of the news groups I read: strange T-shirts, mountain boots...

"Soon after that Janet joined the Internet completely. Now I could mainline: using IRC, telnet and ftp. Before the term was invented I was a net-surfer, following the trails of Usenet postings to sites all over the world, hunting text, programs, images. It was exhilarating, the world at my fingertips. I sported a customised PC, running the latest shareware, keeping ahead of the technology...

"I met her in alt.callahans. Me, in a net.romance. That could never happen. But it did. Not as complex as some, for Mary lived in the same town as me..."

He smiles.

"But again I had to lose the net. The grant money that paid my salary ran out, and I had to find my way to another job. Horror of horrors. No net-access, just e-mail. What would I do? The withdrawl symptoms were hard, the fingers trembled, my eyes ached, I needed a fix, I needed a net-connection. At work I kept reading how the net would revolutionise the world. I knew that already. I wanted it now...

"Mary kept me up to date with alt.callahans, little packets of laser print dropping through the letter-box every week. Meanwhile I began to save for my own Internet connection, no longer trusting in the whims of employers. It took me 6 months. With the help of a friend on holiday in America I purchased an Apple PowerBook from Shreveport, Louisiana. Buying by 'phone from the States is easier than I thought. Just fax a photocopy of a credit card over the satellite links, and a machine is yours... All you need to do is name it. Remembering an important childhood influence, I called it The Iron Chicken.

"With a quick net-surf from work I was able to buy more memory and storage for The Iron Chicken. E-mail to the States, and a copy of The Mac Internet Starter Kit, a book and the software needed to connect a Mac to the Internet. The home net connection was almost there. Now I needed a modem. The yearly AppleExpo was the stalking ground for a modem hunt, with its myriad trade stands and boxshifters. I came back from Olympia with blistered feet, and a Zoom modem in my carrier bag. Another phone call was needed, this time to Finchley, where Demon Internet Services offer a net connection for their famous 'tenner a month'.

"So there I was,, a Mac, a modem, an Internet site. News, ftp, telnet, IRC, gopher: all pumped down the phone lines to my machine. I was a net.nomad with an Internet site in my back pack, just waiting for a 'phone line to be free. But I needed more: more power, more access, more information.

"A friend whispered to me the magic word 'Mosaic'. A megabyte of interaction, a page of text and pictures that was a window into cyberspace. With just a click of a mouse button on a highlighted word and I could be anywhere. Text, sound, stills, video, files, programs: all linked on the World Wide Web. Hypertext the way Ted Nelson imagined when he wrote Dream Machines back in the '70s: information on tap, an intelligence amplifier pulling us up, up into the Singularity...

"It's all there, all at your fingertips. And it's free! The interface of choice to the Internet, and no money changes hands. The National Centre For Supercomputer Applications in the US provides Mosaic for Macs, for X-systems, and, even, for Windows PCs. Copies available for anonymous FTP at"

There's a rustle of coats, a scraping of chairs. The hall is emptying.

"What did I say?"

The last man out, turns at the door.

"Meeting closed. We're off to log on and net-surf for Mosaic...."

"Hey, wait for me."

He picks up the bag at his feet, hefts it to his shoulder, and runs off to catch up with the man.

"I know this really neat URL..."