Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"What (Good) Is the Internet, Anyway?"

This is a story that could not be written, or understood, back in 1994, when hardly anyone, including the hosts of the Today show, knew what the internet was.

(Watch Bryant and Katie try to figure out what email and the internet are)

In those days, for example, my department at work had one or two computers for a staff of 10 or 11, and they were not connected to anything but a printer. A dot-matrix printer. (Look it up, younger readers). We had one CRT terminal, connected to the Bank's mainframe. where we could look up rudimentary data on customers that was updated in batches each night. Obtaining a credit report on someone involved inputting a specific sequence of data (Last Name, First Name, Social Security Number) separated by various punctuation marks into a machine, then using the telephone line to dial into the credit bureau, and waiting for the machine to print out a complicated report that loan officers would have to decipher. We didn't know any better, we thought we were cooking with gas!

Flash forward a decade and a half, and our technological life is on a completely different plane from 1994. My husband and I often remark, "The internet is amazing." Just think what we can do on the Internet now - check the local library's catalog to see if a certain book is on the shelf, locate a photo of Christmas cake, look for a replacement part for the refrigerator, or figure out what the #1 hit song was in 1978 ("Shadow Dancing" by Andy Gibb).

So, try to imagine this story taking place in 1994. In January, I was reviewing our credit card activity online before downloading it into our personal finance software. (See, right off the bat, that sentence is unintelligible to the 1994 reader). I noticed a small $5 charge to the Disney Movie Club of Canada on there, plus a foreign transaction fee. My husband was working on his computer upstairs, so I Instant-Messaged him and asked him about the charge, since our kids are past the Disney movie stage, and, more importantly, we have never lived in Canada. We've never even been to Canada. We don't even like hockey. (Although we did come perilously close to visiting it last summer, but for the fact that we lacked passports).

He replied back that it wasn't his charge. A minute later, after searching his hard drive, he forwarded to me an email he found in his Spam folder, welcoming him to the Disney Movie Club of Canada. Huh? The email listed the account as being in his name, but at an address in Toronto, Canada! He Googled the Disney Movie Club to find its website, and from there was able to Live Chat a customer service rep, who, in the end could not give him any more information on the apparently fraudulent account.

Meanwhile, I pulled up Google Maps and input the Toronto address. In a flash, I was able to see a map of the what I will refer to as The Perp's neighborhood. Cul-de-sacs and swimming pools were visible in the satellite photo. In the lefthand portion of the Google map page, a close-up photo of The Perp's house was conveniently displayed. I Instant-Messaged a copy of the photo upstairs to my husband.

I could see a nicely kept single-family 2 car garage house in a residential neighborhood. By scrolling with my mouse, I could look up and down the street of tidy homes and late model cars and vans. "Thief!" I wanted to yell at the photo! Who commits fraud to buy movies for their kids? I would have had much more respect for him had he used his own cash to enroll in the Movie club and nicked our Visa for the Beer of the Month club.

Upstairs my husband was calling our Visa card company to report this suspicious activity. They told him they had to immediately suspend our account, cancel our number and would overnight us 2 new Visa cards. Frustrated by the whole situation, my husband added a Status Update to his Facebook account, briefly mentioning that some guy in Toronto had gotten our Visa number and used it, and remarkably we had his address and list of movies. ("The Rescuers" in Wide-Screen? Really?)

Within a few minutes, one of my husband's friends posted a reply saying that he had to go to Toronto on business that week and would be happy to pay a visit to The Perp. Not wanting this to escalate into Dirty Harry territory, we decided to leave justice to the fraud department at Visa.

This entire exchange took place in less than 10 minutes. That quickly, I was able to see evidence of a crime, report it, and pull up photos of the criminal's home, in quite the "Big Brother" fashion. The final piece of the story that could not be understood in 1994? Posting the whole episode to a blog for the world to see, of course.

Just for fun, I highlighted in purple those phrases that I thought would be unknown to a 1994 era reader. What do you think? Do you agree? Let me know in our Comments section~

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For another blog post that would be entirely incomprehensible to our 1994 follower, check out Carol-Ann's essay on Social Suicide, posted here just about a year ago.


  1. Dear Open Spaces,
    WOW - what a lot of purple -- and such an interesting idea to compare a time that is not that far away, but which seemed to have been in a purple haze :-) I detected at our move to Berlin how much I use - and need - a computer/Internet etc, when for 14 long days I had no access. Felt deprived! And remembered the beginning, when at work we were forced to use all this "stuff" - now I am glad they forced us... I am on Facebook - though the younger ones still react surprized when I tell them - it is not so common as in the USA or GB. Of course sometimes one is a bit concerned when I do Internet banking (most of my friends don't do it). And at the week-end I told Husband, that I still copy a lot of "important" things on paper - you never know :-) (Come to think of it: I am a visual type and like rearranging papers in front of me, not on computer - though that has virtues too).
    Thank you for your post - it is really remarkable how quick everything changed! Britta

  2. Enjoyed remembering what life was like in 1994, pre-Internet. I think someday, the future will marvel at us knowing pre-Internet days, just as we marvel at those pre-automobile days...

    PS: Found you via Mark/The Bricoleur, glad I did!

  3. Flashback to the 80's - in the bank where I worked Customer balances used to arrive daily on microfiche film. We had 2 computer 'terminals' which linked via a modem to the big computer in another city. Depending what you wanted to do you fed 'programmes' into a hole at the side using rolls of tape with holes punched in (which could be repaired with sticky tape if accidentally ripped). I remember the excitement of getting screens for the terminals in 1989! It's fun to be old enough to remember what is was like before, but young enough for it to be really useful for most of your life, isn't it?

  4. I enjoyed that! It's hard to believe how far we've come technologically! I remember the 2- computer offices with dot-matrix paper (how hard was it to get that continuous paper fed into the computer correctly!?). Back then it was less trouble to type customer information on an index card than it was to access the green screen! ;-)

  5. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, WOS! It's hard to believe that less than 20 years ago we lived in a world where a personal computer perched on a lap would have been the stuff of science fiction - heck, I sold finance for computers that took up whole buildings (not that I had a clue what they actually were!)

  6. If I think I might deal with a company I always look them up on Google maps to see what kind of area they are based in.

  7. So, I realize I'm probably the only person in the world who has never seen that 1994 video. It is amazing how much the internet has come on since that time. The purple font links were a brilliant touch to illustrate your points.

    Of course, blogs themselves are predicted in some quarters to be on losing ground, at least among the younger set. On that score, I take heart from this quote used in a recent NY Times article on the subject: “If you’re looking for substantive conversation, you turn to blogs,” Ms. Camahort Page said. “You aren’t going to find it on Facebook, and you aren’t going to find it in 140 characters on Twitter.”

  8. Hi Raining Acorns .. congratulations on recognising Banbury over at Khalanie's ...

    Love this internet video - I too hadn't seen it .. love the thought of no phone line to connect, and how in '94 in the previous century .. the internet is just getting bigger and bigger .. and there's no dot ... or thank goodness the American stop between .ge.com - isn't it incredible how far we've come or gone ..

    Have a great week .. Hilary

  9. Was that really only 1994?! Oh, I am getting so OLD!


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