Having the internet for Christmas

Earlier this week, I spent an hour or so tipping some cold ones with two computer techies, and sharing reminiscences about the early days of internet in the Yukon.

Earlier this week, I spent an hour or so tipping some cold ones with two computer techies, and sharing reminiscences about the early days of internet in the Yukon.

It was 15 years ago this month that the first internet connection in the territory sparked to life – a 56 Kbps link to BCNet in Vancouver, with a bank of 20 14.4 Kbps dial up modems on line for testing purposes.

In those days, my two drinking companions were still fresh, sparkly eyed little Unix munchkins, in their late teens and early 20s.

Now in their mid-30s, they are well-heeled, professionally comfortable, and more or less domesticated.

They have inherited and fulfilled the future opened to them by that feeble, unstable little connection made in December, 1994.

The difference between them and me is that they saw that future coming; and I, though I was an active player in making it come, did not.

I thought I was doing a short-term volunteer job, so that the schools and Yukon College and some government departments could get some of this internet stuff.

Then I would go back to my day job as a writer and desk top publisher – an occupation I thoroughly enjoyed, even as it slowly starved me to death.

I was not even involved in the beta testing of the network, back in December of 1994.

For one thing, though I had a leading-edge NeXT computer, I only had a 2,400 baud modem – way to slow to even talk to those lightning-fast 14.4 modems at the other end.

For another thing, though my NeXT was indeed a Unix machine, and I was relatively skilled at using it for my desk top publishing purposes, I knew next to nothing about Unix, and even less about modems and other such hardware thingies.

I was an artsy dabbling in technology, not a techie who dabbles in the arts, as I have become today.

My initial involvement with the YukonNet Operating Society (the volunteer group that spearheaded the internet project) was in fact in my artsy capacity: I did the desk top publishing, and some editing, for their irregularly published news letter, the Northlink.

It was only because I was using the NeXT computer, in fact, that I had any connection with the YukonNet group at all.

As it happened, the core of that group were all users of that very obscure, now long-forgotten computer system; by buying one of those computers, I inadvertently found myself involved in a mini-coven with some very forward-thinking computer geeks.

The NeXT User Group, Yukon Territory (NUGYT), in fact, was the first organization to secure a domain name in the Yukon: nugyt.yk.ca.

My very first e-mail address was buck@nugyt.yk.ca.

(Buck was my nickname, in those days, and also the name I had given to my computer.)

Every evening, I would dial with my 2,400 baud modem to another local NeXT machine and collect my email.

That central “post office” machine, operated by the NeXT guru, Richard Lawrence, made daily late-night long distance calls to the University of Alberta, where one of their computers stored the emails sent to the nugyt.yk.ca domain until Richard came to collect them.

Only the “post office” computer had a real internet connection; the rest of us (I think at our highest point we numbered perhaps a dozen computers) all connected to the post office machine using Unix to Unix Copy Protocol (UUCP).

Essentially, we were just a local area network, using phone lines rather than Ethernet cable to communicate between machines.

Once I saw the e-mail flowing, though, I was hooked on the internet thing.

Thereafter, through the process of “obligation osmosis” familiar to pretty much anybody who has served on a board or committee, I found myself over time taking on more and more duties, some of which were right at the edge of what I actually knew anything about.

From being a volunteer publisher for the board, I became a board member; from there I became vice president; and from there I became project manager.

After the internet opened to the public in January of 1995, I became interim office manager as well, nursing the system through some pretty exasperating teething and growing pains.

With the project complete in the early spring of 1995, I actually did step down from the YukonNet board and get back to business in the writing and desk-top publishing trade – but not for very long.

The fascination of seeing this new technology and industry take root was too much for me, and I was soon back in the YKnet office, minding the phones and learning the techie tricks I needed to now to help make it all work.

I have never had so much hassle or angst in all my life, or so much fun.

My involvement with the information technology world is now less intense, since I moved on to my career at the more broad-ranging Yukon Technology Innovation Centre.

Like my drinking companions, I am now older, well-heeled, professionally comfortable, and even relatively domesticated.

But the memories of the old days of internet adventure are good ones, and the fascination with the possibilities of the digital future remains.

The internet was the best Christmas present I ever gave myself.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie

who lives in Whitehorse.