Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Proto-Internet?

I check various websites every morning before I go to work.  I am also regularly late for work.  Someone, noticing the possible causal relationship here, asked me if I couldn't just do my morning internet-surfing at work.  And I thought back to a job where I did that... except it wasn't exactly the internet.  And that got me thinking back even further than that.

1988.  Law School.  I did computerized legal research on Westlaw.  It had a dedicated terminal which had really zippy connection speeds like 2400 and 4800 baud.  The terminal was incapable of displaying anything other than text.  When you'd sign on, it would spell out "WESTLAW" in great big letters -- but it only had one font size, so to make the word big, it would make out each large letter in asterisks.  One day, I was teaching a blind student how to use Westlaw, so he activated something that would read aloud everything onscreen.  He loaded up Westlaw and the voice proceeded to say, "Star star star star star star star star...."

1989.  Yes, I was teaching Westlaw.  I was good at it and they paid me to sit in the computerized legal research room and answer questions.  Actually, I liked the job for all sorts of reasons -- I put together lesson plans and taught group lessons.  (And I'd plan them out so that the searches would result in really fun results.)  I had a blast.  The job was also responsible for my very first business trip -- Westlaw had all the student reps in the region travel to Boston for a training session.  While there, I got on well with a student rep from Maine, and we ended up keeping in touch via some really cool electronic mail thing which you could make your Westlaw terminal do if you worked for Westlaw and knew the right keys to hit.  Actually, I don't remember a thing about the rep from Maine, but I do remember how awesome this instantaneous communication thing was.

1991.  Upon graduation, I started clerking for a judge.  By this time, you could get Westlaw (and its competitor, Lexis) on a computer in your office -- no dedicated terminal was necessary.  But, it wasn't exactly the internet yet, either.  You had to have Westlaw software loaded on your computer, but, once it was there, you could crank that sucker up and do computerized legal research to your heart's content.  And not just LEGAL research -- "Lexis" wasn't just "Lexis," it was "Lexis/Nexis," and the Nexis part was a database of newspapers and magazines.  And my boss wanted me in the office at 8:00 -- he didn't actually want me to do anything then, he just (as the secretary put it) wanted to know we were there if he needed us.  So I'd come in at 8:00, start work at 9:00, and spend the hour in the middle searching Nexis.

And it took an hour, too, because it wasn't anywhere near as simple as just clicking on Google News.  It was a big ol' database, and you'd search it with boolean connectors.  I had three or four searches I'd check every morning -- using standard search words to get what I wanted.  Usually I wouldn't hit anything, but once or twice I did, and it was beyond awesome.  I'd heard a concept album for a new musical which I really liked and would regularly search for news on the musical.  Once, I figured a new way to rephrase the search and hit upon an article reviewing a different concept album by the same composer.  Found it in my local music store that afternoon at lunch.  And how cool, I thought, this Nexis technology was, because if I hadn't read a review out of some local paper in the middle of ... not where I was ... I never would've known to look for this second album.

So, it's been about 20 years that I've lived with this sort of tech -- eagerly gobbling up every new advance.  And, of course, each little step seemed reasonable compared to the one before (that 9600 baud was lightning to the 4800), but the overall result is fairly stunning.  I mean, hell, now my phone can do more impressive things than my computer could back then.  (And I'm already thinking of the small steps that will make the next generation of phone even better.)  But 20 years from now?  I can't even imagine.

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