Case study #5 (and final) from the Media Archaeology Lab: On OTHER NETWORKS and "the internet."

Assistant professor of English, as well as the founder and director of the Media Archaeology Lab, at the University of Colorado at Boulder

#MALcasestudies is a weekly blog series featuring treasures that exist in the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Media Archaeology Lab. See links to previous posts below.

It’s been a privilege to blog here over the past month about artifacts in the Media Archaeology Lab. And while most of my posts have been related to how I used the Media Archaeology Lab to write Reading Writing Interfaces—using the MAL to experiment with dead-ends in interface design as well as interface designs that embodied certain ideological notions of what constitutes “user-friendly”—this last post dips slightly into my next project, which is a network archaeology called OTHER NETWORKS. In short, I’ve gone from looking at the hardware and software affordances of interface design in personal computers to looking at the hardware and software affordances of both defunct and dominant networks before or even outside of the reign of “the internet.”

One of the first books I read after I finished Reading Writing Interfaces was Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community (published in 1993), and this was where I noticed his strange use of “internet,” without the article “the.” Over the coming months, as I worked through manuals on internet protocols, especially TCP/IP (which was created in 1983 as the standard language for networks to communicate to each other) I could see how, despite all the shoulder-shrugs in the literature about where exactly the term “the internet” came from, referring to the singular, monolithic network that defines most of our waking lives now, “the internet” had emerged from decades of heterogeneity. From “the internet” (introduced as far as I’ve been able to find in the bible for TCP/IP called Internetworking with TCP/IP from 1988), to “internet,” to “internetwork” (with the emphasis on being a go-between among networks), to “internetworking” as a verb, to “internetworking” as an adjective to describe the process of transferring packets of information to and from any kind of telecommunications network. So then the question became this: what were all these different networks that directly or indirectly caused the creation of TCP/IP and later “the internet”? What are the affordances of these networks? What sorts of communication spaces did they make possible or impossible? In other words, how do these networks work and for whom do they work? And, more difficult to pin down, why do histories of the internet almost always move directly from the ARPANet of the late 1960s, to the creation of the personal computer in the late 1970s, to the creation and eventual widespread adoption of TCP/IP in the 1980s, and then right to Tim Berners-Lee’s “invention” of the World Wide Web in the early 90s? What’s gained and what’s lost from this astonishingly inaccurate, lopsided narrative?

The first part of the OTHER NETWORKS project I’ve been focusing most on is titled “50 Years of Other Networks, 2015-1965” and is in the lineage of a few critical-creative hybrid media studies books. “50 Years of Other Networks,” then, will be a catalogue of networks existing outside of or pre-dating the Internet. Consisting of a stack of unbound, loose sheets of paper packaged in a box, each sheet—beginning with the present and moving back into the past—will provide metadata of a sort, a description, and short analysis of an “other” network so that the material form of the project allows readers to actively dig through a network archaeology.

Even though the project is in its early stages, it’s clear to me already that a significant part of it will have to be dedicated to Bulletin Board Systems (BBS). In short, the first BBS system, called a Computerized Bulletin Board System, was created in 1978 and was originally conceived as a computerized version of an analog bulletin board for exchanging information. CBBS soon gave way to BBS, each of which had a dedicated phone number, which generally meant that only one person could dial in at a time. Also, most BBSes were communities of local users because of how prohibitively expensive it was to make long-distance phone calls; these local users could use it to share files, read news, exchange messages publicly or privately, play games, and even create art.

A BBS I’m particularly interested in is The Thing—a BBS that New York artist Wolfgang Staehle started in 1991, just one month after Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web. It was used as a kind of online community center for artists and writers, a virtual exhibition space, and later a node in a network of international The Thing BBSes. But what particularly fascinates me about The Thing is the way in which the network itself was conceived as an artwork rather than any individual pieces of content that were uploaded to it. As Staehle writes, “The whole meaning of it would come out of the relationships between the people and not the modernist ideal of the single hero artist that the market loves…”

An advertising card for The Thing network.

The MAL is particularly fortunate to now house a good portion of the The Thing hardware, which Staehle donated to us earlier this year. While all the machines are password-protected and all passwords long forgotten by Staehle, the material traces of one of the most important digital art networks are still, I think, meaningful—from the filth of the keyboard on the SGI Indy from heavy use by its system administrators, to the BBS number affixed to the front of the machine, to the oddity of The Thing’s eSoft IPAD machine which bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Apple iPad but instead stands for Internet Protocol Adapter. ESOFT is actually a Colorado-based company that was still in existence until December 2013 just a few miles down the highway from Boulder, and one of their accomplishments was their creation of the IPAD—a wonderful kind of liminal, technological object in that it tried to straddle pre-internet networks and the internet itself. eSoft started out making a BBS system called the TBBS for the RadioShack TRS-80 computer and later for IBM PCs; in fact, before the Internet, Microsoft used TBBS to provide technical support for their customers. In 1993, ESOFT created the Internet Protocol Adapter as a means to provide access to TBBS using Internet protocols. The IPAD soon turned into what eSoft called an “internet in a box” appliance that gave companies a way to have a presence on the Internet with just one piece of equipment. So while The Thing network is itself profoundly important to the history of social media networks, The Thing hardware also makes “radically present,” once again, that crucial transitional moment in time when “the internet” was not yet dominant and when one could still choose from competing networks with profoundly different affordances.

In short, my hope is that OTHER NETWORKS will help uncover and even reconstruct all those “internetworks” that existed throughout that crucial fifteen to twenty year period before the launch of the World Wide Web—a period which is on the verge of being lost, if it hasn’t already been lost, and which reminds us of a time before “the” internet.


Lori Emerson is author of Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. She is assistant professor of English, as well as the founder and director of the Media Archaeology Lab, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

This concludes the #MALcasestudies series. Thank you for following.

Previous posts:
1: Introducing the Media Archaeology Lab.
2: The Altair 8800b from 1976.
3: The Vectrex Gaming Console from 1982.
4: George R. R. Martin, WordStar, and Media Archaeology in the Media.

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