Project Gutenberg and the early internet

September 10, 2011 at 4:28 pm 1 comment

| Gabriel |

Over at the mothership, Teppo informs us that the founder of Project Gutenberg died recently. Just yesterday I used the Gute to find a passage in Xenophon’s Memorabilia. But I’ve been using it for a really long time, probably the longest of any internet service. A few years before Mosaic came out, I remember buying a few printed directories of internet content at a bookstore (yes, really, this is about 6 years before Google) and reading through them. At the time the entire internet basically consisted of usenet groups and some gopher sites, the only two of which that sounded interesting were Thomas (i.e., the Congressional Record) and Project Gutenberg. This was way back in the extremely early phase of a technology when the hopes tend to be utopian and transformative as a restoration of Enlightenment-era coffee shops as they exist in the nostalgic imaginations of European intellectuals. Such idealistic projects don’t necessarily disappear as seen by Project Gutenberg itself, but they usually are eclipsed by more base or mundane uses that more closely reflect extant technologies. Speaking of which, the first work to really nail how the internet would be both contiguous with and transformative of extant media landscape was Russ Neuman’s Future of the Mass Audience. This book made extremely accurate projections of the broad contours of the internet even though it was written back in the 2400 baud era, back when other projections of the internet were a bunch of nonsense about virtual reality.

Anyone interested in further indulging in nostalgia for the early internet should visit UCLA’s undergraduate library and look for the call numbers beginning “QA76.” There you will find a shelf  full of computer manuals published when our undergraduates were toddlers. I like to think that the librarians maintain this shelf for the benefit of our really excellent history department.

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1 Comment

  • 1. Trey  |  September 10, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    I think I may have discussed this over on the mothership, but here goes. I have fond memories of the early and mid 90s and the rise of the internet. I was a BBS user for years before that. I recently read Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget — despite some of his weirder ideas and his fancy for virtual reality, it is a good discussion about the institutionalization of various aspects of internet communication. He has a good understanding of path dependence and what it means for institutional forms to become taken for granted. It’s very sociological.

    Also, I still have a Commodore SX-64 under the bed that I can’t bring myself to part with despite not having any way to get ROMs onto floppies.


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