How Newspapers Wrote About the Internet in 1988

"Once upon a time computers were for thinking... That's no longer true. Computers are for communicating now, and networks allowed that to happen."

That's Harvard astronomer-turned-computer expert Clifford Stoll, quoted in the November 20, 1988 edition of the Washington Post. And yes, that's the same Cliff Stoll who just a few years later would proclaim that the internet's potential to transform the way we live was largely just a bunch of hype.

Barton Gellman's 1988 article about the internet for the Post is quite a fascinating artifact. We see the introduction of terms that hadn't yet entered the national lexicon, such as "snail mail," "virus," and "netiquette." And we see the writer slowly introducing the public to the idea that this network could be something important to their lives in the future.

We also see the warnings that a more connected world will have its downsides, as in the case of computer viruses able to spread at lightning speed.

From the November 20, 1988 Washington Post:

Using Internet and overlapping networks, thousands of men and women in 17 countries swap recipes and woodworking tips, debate politics, religion and antique cars, form friendships and even fall in love.

But the networks that link tens of thousands of computers 24 hours a day also allowed the computer virus to spread much more rapidly, and with far greater potential for damage, than any previous electronic invader. That frightens many network visionaries, who dream of a "worldnet" with ever more extensive connections and ever fewer barriers to the exchange of knowledge.

"The Internet is a community far more than a network of computers and cables," Stoll said. "When your neighbors become paranoid of one another, they no longer cooperate, they no longer share things with each other. It takes only a very, very few vandals to ... destroy the trust that glues our community together."

The article was published before the privatization of the internet's backbone network, and hints at the ARPANET work accomplished in 1969 that gave rise to the modern internet.

The metaphor of a community is apt. Internet, which began as a Defense Department link between four research computers in 1969, is still officially limited to universities, research facilities and government offices. But it has evolved its own language, social norms and "netiquette," even as its sprawling growth has outrun the ability to map it.

No one can keep track of how many people use Internet, how many machines it can reach or even how many sub- and sub-sub-networks form a part of it. The "backbone" of the network — major electronic corridors established by the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation and others — is obvious enough, but like the interstate highway system, it leads to successively smaller local byways and obscure private roads.

And while committees exist to set technical standards, and unclassified Defense Department systems form its core, no one really "runs" the network.

"The content and direction is really up to the people using it, which makes it kind of a grand social experiment," said Eugene H. Spafford, a professor of computer science at Purdue University.

Gellman, of course, would go on to become one of the reporters to help expose the NSA's illegal domestic surveillance programs.

You can read the entire article over at the Washington Post.


Photograph: A London office circa 1990 via Getty Images