As Wired magazine turns 25, we remember when email was fun
1993 was an auspicious year in technology. The first Pentium microprocessor and the Apple Newton came out. The massively popular computer game Myst was released. So was Doom. And this new thing called the World Wide Web was competing with Gopher to become the easiest way to access the internet.
Against this backdrop came a magazine called Wired.
This month, Wired celebrated its 25th birthday.
Here's some of their conversation.
Nora Young: What do you remember about digital technology 25 years ago?
Clive Thompson: One of the really exciting things was e-mail. That was when e-mail was just starting to leak into everyday life. If you were, as I was, at an educational institution or somewhere you had e-mail, and you could send these messages around the world. It was the most strange feeling to be communicating with someone essentially for kind of free. All around the world with instant replies. And it's one of the few technologies that really has remained central to life. It hasn't stopped being like a "killer" app.
NY: How was writing about technology different than it is today?
CT: You had to explain a lot in the very early days. I'd be writing about the web and people had not even seen a website yet. That's really not true anymore; people are extremely fluent in a lot of ways with technology, so you can dive in more quickly, more deeply. I think there's a higher level of awareness and social critique built into the average person's interactions with technology.
NY: I remember too there was this sort of sense that writing about technology was like writing about a new exotic species of bird that no had actually seen. It was about reading books about the internet, or reading newspaper articles and paper about the Internet rather than experiencing them in their electronic form.
CT: I think you're exactly right. In the early days, we kept on thinking, 'how are these things online, like websites, similar to things we already know, like a newspaper or a book?' And it was really hard to communicate to people that this was an active and alive medium, where people were constantly updating and posting; that the only way to really understand it was to think about it in terms of things like conversations or being at a party in a bar.
NY: How has your own view of technology evolved over the last 25 years?
CT: It's kind of funny. A lot of cultural critics and literary people were always very hostile and suspicious of technology, because they correctly perceived that it was a challenge to their authority. They were used to being the people that got to speak out loud in public. Suddenly everyone's out there talking like this, and this is awful—like all these people are idiots (laughs).
Over 15 years I actually got way more pleasantly surprised by what communications technologies could open up in people's lives. In the last couple of years, we've had these highly concentrated corporate presences like Twitter and Facebook that have had this oversized effect on civic conversation. I think everyone is now aware that if you create these single points of failure for public conversation, all the trolls who want to screw around with the civic realm will go there and cause trouble.
And I think that's something that I also didn't entirely see coming, because I was always very excited by what people were doing at the grassroots and in this very disparate way. But now that cyberspace is much more like a strip mall, just a McDonald's to go to, or a Nordstrom to go to, we're facing different, new problems that we have to think our way out of.
NY: Maybe it's the nature of public conversation in these spaces, as you say, or the data breaches, but I have to say I'm not feeling very optimistic about our digital future right now.
CT: As far as I'm concerned, the only optimistic things I see are moves where people are trying to break apart from that, to create a greater plurality of places for people to convene and talk. If you wanted actually to feel optimistic about the way people can interact online, you could do what I do, which is I routinely go to weird out-of-the-way hobby sites. These people are having a great time, talking about their hobbies and talking about their stuff, and where they disagree they disagree civilly because they're smaller more intimate places.