July 18, 2011
The Thirty-Third Internet Connection in New Delhi
by James McGirk
I never had a problem with Alaskan Senator Ted Steven’s oft-mocked remark about the Internet being a series of tubes. I saw it with my own eyes (metaphorically speaking) as a teenager growing up in New Delhi. The Internet was a feed of information that trickled in drip by drip, slowly increasing as we switched our faucets and eventually tapped into the municipal supply. My father was a foreign correspondent, which meant he had to send stories back home to be published. When we left “on assignment” to India he was issued with a bag of sophisticated telecommunications equipment. We plugged it in and became early adopters.
Our first modem looked like a cross between a swimming cap, a spider, and a rubber truncheon. There were two cups that stretched over the mouthpiece and receiver of a standard analogue telephone. One contained a microphone and the other a speaker. The modem would whistle and hiss signals into the phone, and listen for responses. It was a crude but robust system, the only thing capable of working on lines that were filled with crackling static and echoes, and may well have been tapped. Entire sentences would be garbled by line noise, or more insidiously the changes could be almost invisible. A pound sterling inserted where a dollar sign once stood.
Dad’s squealing octopus of a modem might have made things easier for everyone else, but it tossed a sabot into the gears of my imagination. Before we had left, he had taken me on a tour of his office and the printing press below. Communications made sense to me afterward. The newspaper was like a factory: an office space above filled with glowing amber terminals and stuttering typewriters and piles of important paper being fed to the machines below. The presses were magnificent, booming and huffing and spattering ink at rolling reams of paper. I could easily imagine the process as an unbroken chain extending across the world, see a pale English editor with a phone clenched between his shoulder and ear, transcribing dad’s story click by click into a typesetting machine to be turned to molten lead, slotted into a drum, dunked in ink and pressed onto fresh newsprint a hundred times a minute.
I had seen computers before. In the past Mom and Dad, who were both journalists, had been issued clunky old Amstrads and Tandys, but those didn’t seem that different from the typesetting machines and dumb terminals back at headquarters. Dad’s new laptop was more like a porthole into a parallel universe than a word processor. It had memory, a temperamental beige lozenge that could be switched on and off with catastrophic consequences. The interface was also different. There were programs and applications nested in one another; navigating around the system you got a sense that you were indeed navigating; traversing an alien logic, and each time you learned how to run some program or subroutine it gave you the most satisfying synaptic kick.
We were terrified of change and subject to the home office’s budgetary whims, which meant upgrades were infrequent. But I was beginning to learn a new vocabulary of clock speeds and RAM, and wasn’t the only one. We lived beside Nehru Place, an information technology enclave with a crowded bazaar that sold everything from ink stamps to enterprise-level computing solutions. The market’s advertisements provided me with an easy gloss of the state of the art. Each month the market would sprout new billings touting the latest processors, at first 80286 processors capable of a blistering 16MHz then 386s, 486s and eventually Pentiums. Even the drawings changed. The hand-painted computers and peripherals changed from cartoonish televisions complete with knobs protruding from curved screens to angular, almost menacing monitors and towers and keyboards containing the correct number of keys.
My first direct encounter with computer ‘telephony’ came from a friend’s dial-up bulletin board system (a.k.a. a BBS). I forget what he called his. No doubt something disproportionately macho. A brief Googling revealed “The POISON Den” and “The TWILIGHT Zone” as the names of two of his contemporaries. I would dial in occasionally but it was more fun to see him run it. Several hours a day he monopolized one of the family phonelines to allow strangers to call and log-in. Most visitors were guests and afforded access only to the most banal files and chat boards, while a select few were given special titles and privileges, such as a secret stash of password cracking programs and R-rated pictures of Baywatch star Erika Eleniak. As Sysop, the most exalted of ranks, my friend had access to the entire system, unimaginable power for a 14-year-old boy to wield; and wield it he did, occasionally booting off a lowly user just for the rush.
I started to think of the space inside his BBS, which in real life wasn’t much more than a second computer, as something not too different from Nehru Place. A single road leading into the center that was frequently congested. A ground floor of wares that were accessible to all, even guests, while getting into the towers above was limited to businessmen and others who belonged there. Lording over it all, godlike, was the Sysop, who could tear it all down and build it up again at his whim.
My parents eventually caved and bought us a personal computer (partly this was to contain my experimentation). It was a 386 running a primitive version of Windows. A photographer friend of my dad’s would troubleshoot the thing for us, spending hours at a time installing new software and removing programs that had gone feral and begun destroying files, such as the ones with photocopied manuals I bought from Nehru Place bootleggers. He tried to keep us up-to-date with the latest technologies, particularly those he didn’t have himself and wanted to play with. Naturally I supported his suggestions. And this was how we were eventually convinced to buy a U.S. Robotics brand 14.4K modem and a pricy account connecting us to the Internet.
Family lore has it we that we received the 33rd Internet connection in New Delhi. There are many caveats to this claim, it willfully ignores that the embassies and Indian government had access years before, and was likely derived from our account's name, which we got from Videsh Sanchaar Nigam Limited (then India’s national telephone company) and had the prefix delaac33. If the ‘ac’ stood for ‘account’ then it was indeed possible we had Delhi’s 33rd commercial account. We may also have had the three-hundred-and-thirty-third account, not quite so grand a claim, but an early account all the same.
Our meager connection was text-only. There was a browser called Lynx (which still exists) that launched each expedition from the University of Kansas’ online portal. Images had to be downloaded separately as files and would resolve line-by-line and were rarely worth the hours it took to download them. The Internet was a totally different experience than the BBS, it felt as wide open as a frontier or a mountain forest waiting to be foraged. My focus shifted from trying to make sense of the system to hunting and gathering odd bits of information.
I gravitated toward text files, little nuggets of mayhem containing instructions for pipe bombs, cracking locks, spoofing telephone boxes and sabotaging cars. It was all hopelessly out of date and none of the equipment would have been available in India even if I did try one of those recipes. I grew out of those silly files quickly but I remember them well. I came across a nostalgic database of them a few years ago (someone had assembled it for a documentary called 'Textfiles'.) Reading them again they seemed to represent so much more than their content. They were like flavor crystals, and reading them was like accessing the revolutionary DNA of the Internet, a harbinger of what was about to come rumbling down the pipe. Not quite a series of tubes but glorious in a flickering, monochromatic sort of way.
Posted by James McGirk at 12:15 AM | Permalink