Why did you first get online?
1982. I was working in telecommunications and I came across what were then
called electronic bulletin boards systems, aka BBS’s. I explored them for a
while, but they were filled with teenage boys, and while they were occasionally
charming in a “Big Bang Theory” way, they weren’t places I wanted to keep
coming back to.
Then in 1986 I entered the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at
NYU. We were given an assignment to call an online community in California
called The WELL. For me, that experience was nothing short of mind-blowing.
For people under a certain age, the extent of The WELL’s mind-blowingness is
going to seem incomprehensible, because this kind of access it utterly routine
now. But in the 1980s very few people were online, it was mostly guys, having
mostly technical discussions, (or the kind of youthful discussions I’d found earlier)
and there was simply no place like The WELL. On The WELL I had daily access
to a diverse group of smart, funny people, people I’d never meet, or even know
existed otherwise. Mind. Boom.
When did you first get involved with digital/tech and why?
I was in my twenties and I wanted to be a writer, but I needed a job and a way to
pay the rent, like now. There was an ad in the paper that went something along
the lines of, “Someone who is as comfortable with machines as they are with
people.” I had zero experience with machines besides a car, or a tv. Wait, is a tv
even considered a machine? Anyway, I couldn’t resist that ad.
The position paid more than any other I’d applied for, and they offered to each
me about computers and telecommunications. I took the job. I’d never touched
a computer before. Turns out: I am good with machines. Turns out, I love them.
How would you describe your work and professional interests in the
1990’s (or 80’s etc).
Well, I still wanted to be a writer, and after the newness of my experience
wore off I started to get depressed. That’s why I went to grad school. I felt
trapped and I was looking for a way out. ITP offered this wonderful new media
playground, where you were pretty much ordered to explore, risk and play. I
spent a lot of time trying to make interactive fiction work, but this was 1986 –
1989 and the tools were very limited. I tried to use something called Knowledge
Pro and then Hypercard came out, but neither could do what I wanted them to
I was in my last year and while I’d had the time of my life, I still needed a way
to pay the rent, like now. I was on The WELL one day and someone said, “I
heard you were going to start a WELL-like service in New York.” I’d never
contemplated any such thing, but the minute I read that I was kicking myself for
not thinking of it first. “Yes,” I immediately typed back in, “I am.”
I spent my last semester writing a business plan, then in the summer I
incorporated, and by the fall the new online service I’d started, Echo, was up in
running. I opened it to the public in early 1990.
What do think the future will hold internet/digital/tech?
For better or worse (mostly better) the internet and all the applications that go
with it have broken down a lot of boundaries. One of those boundaries is the
boundary of power. The United States will become less and less important, but
not in a bad way, I don’t think. It’s just that the rest of the world has risen and will
continue to rise in importance, and in power and influence.
No one gives up power without a battle, or accepts change without resistance.
For instance, the divide between liberal and conservative in this country is at its
most acrimonious right now, just as America is slowly becoming more fair and
more just (black president, increased civil rights for gays, etc.) So there are
going to be problems all over the world, as we all start to blend into each other a
tiny bit, and then more and more, some rising a little, some falling (or perceiving
that they are falling).
We’re going to lose some things in the process. For example, NYC has lost a lot
of its uniqueness over the last two decades. That is going to continue happen
on a world-wide scale. But loss is inevitable. And the gain, which I can only
compare to my initial WELL experience, except on a global scale and more
slowly, is absolutely worth it.