It was exactly 20 years ago—either December of 1994 or January 1995, when I was in my first job, at Ragan Communications. Our publisher Mark Ragan had read enough about this thing called the "Information Superhighway," that he felt it was worth the expense of sending his best people to ascertain what exactly it was, and to think about how it might affect our business as a trade publisher of newsletters for public relations people.
Ragan sent us to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, where they had invented something called Mosaic, which had something to do with whatever this thing was that might become a big deal one of these days.
Well, maybe we weren't Ragan's very best team: The crew consisted of Ragan's editorial director who called in sick almost every Monday, a senior editor with his own penchant for the sauce, an insufferably callow young writer in questionable standing (that was me), an assistant editor who wished she were writing short stories, and a junior marketing rep.
We drove down to Champaign-Urbana in one car. We checked into a motel, bought a lot of liquor, and got drunk. Drinking-game drunk. Pants on the head drunk. Break stuff in the room drunk. We would have gotten everybody sleeps with everybody else drunk, except we got too drunk for that, because there wasn't room enough for two on the cool bathroom floor.
The next morning, we went to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.
I don't remember much.*
Unnatural and unfriendly noises: the sound of a dial-up modem.
Cold gibberish: FTP/IP. Browser. Server. E-mail. POP. Sysop. Bandwidth. Node.
Abstract shapes: Cyberspace. The World Wide Web. The Internet. (Were they the all the same? Kind of. Were they different? Kind of. I have always empathized with the senator who described the Internet as a series of tubes.)
After several hours of describing the Internet to us hungover Helens Keller—the aforementioned senior editor recalls "the most profound thing we learned, in the words of one of the instructors that you included in your notes: 'There's just lots and lots of information out there'"—the supercomputing geniuses felt we were finally to see the thing with our own eyes.
They took us to a computer lab.
We gathered around a computer.
They turned it on.
They showed us what they called a "website."
It was blue and green.
I guess there were a couple of links you could "double click," that would show you a list of the Seattle Mariners' players, or a paragraph about their history. Honestly, I don't remember. It was all such a letdown. D-R-I-N-K-Y-O-U-R-O-V-A-L-T-I-N-E.
We feigned amazement, got in the car and drove home in stupified silence. I don't remember what we told Mark the next day. Probably some muffled nonsense designed to make him not feel like an asshole who had just sent five employees on a bender.
I could not for the life of me understand whether the gassy concept we had heard about and the underwhelming screen we had seen would change nothing or everything—and if everything, for worse or for better.
Twenty years later, I feel more or less the same way.