Generation Wired
Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Bytes

By Naeem Mohaiemen

Fifteen years ago, I came to the sleepy campus of Oberlin College. On this first arrival in America, I was entranced not by McDonalds, Cadillacs or split-level housing, but with an odd object called "the Internet." Everything else that the US had to offer, from blonde bombshells to mafia kingpins, had already been telegraphed via television. But the Internet was a strange, new and incredibly useful invention.

These were primitive times. We sat at rickety VAX terminals, typing out e-mail messages on glowing green-on-black screens. Every time you made a mistake, finding the "delete" command was an ordeal. The Internet was considered a luxury, so the college was stingy with its investment. There were roughly 20 terminals for 3,000 students, and communication was limited to the campus network. Access to the outside world cost extra - besides, why would we need to talk to non-Oberlin students? There was no utility associated with any of this. It was just frivolous chatting, procrastination and flirting.

There were eight Bangladeshi students on campus, and we were very early adopters to this new technology. When the computing center advertised student-tech jobs, four of the open positions went to Bangladeshis. I applied too late for these prestigious slots, and was stuck with the less glamorous job of troubleshooting. This meant I went around to busted computers, cleaned the keyboards and dusted the interiors - all in the hope that the green light would come back on. It all felt like a bit of black magic.

In my second year, Bengali student Tushu Rahman hacked into a MIT computer account and gave us access to the real Internet. Now we could view bulletin boards where thousands shared their thoughts. In true Bengali fashion, we bypassed the hundreds of Boards discussing science, philosophy, women, etc, and went straight for soc.culture.bangladesh (scb) - the destination for Bangladeshi students scattered across the country. It seems strange in this hyper-connected age, but back then scb was our first source for breaking news. There was no 24-hour CNN, Google, New York Times Online, Times Square news jumbotron, pager alerts or all the other news sources we now take for granted. Especially for news about Bangladesh, scb was the only place to go. Through this primitive method, we first learnt of political events, strikes, floods, cricket scores, and finally, the fall of Ershad.

By senior year, there were signs of sophistication. Macintoshes with color screens began appearing. A friend of ours, Jacob Attie, designed animations with Quranic ayaats. We were blown away. Another fellow Bengali, Zeeshan Hasan, discovered the world of online game-playing. The earliest online game was a Dungeons and Dragons variation called Nethack. We watched mystified as Zeeshan spent hours in front of the computer, playing against other gamers across the country. Every now and then, he would yell, "Oh shoot, I just got the top score against Princeton" or "Hey, I just picked up a sword, now I can slay goblins." The technology was advancing, but we were still putting it to frivolous use.

My summer job in New York introduced me to an Internet that threatened to disrupt a comfortable green-black VAX world. My boss at NERA was the first person I saw using the colorful, and later very familiar, America Online sign-up screens. "Do you want to try this?" he asked as the computer made that annoying dial-buzz-snowstorm noise. I shook my head. AOL seemed way too gimmicky. Too many colors, noise and frills. I retreated to the computing room, to find my familiar VAX terminal. Pecking out those complicated DOS-based dial-in commands, I was back at home.

Graduating from college, I went to Bangladesh for a year on a history project. I returned to New York to start my first proper job at Mercer Consulting. Coming back, I felt like Rip Van Winkle emerging from a cave. Kurt Cobain had killed himself, and the grunge revolution was dead. But America had discovered the Internet. When I left, it was still a fringe phenomenon - the tiny domain of geeks and techies. Walking back into Kennedy airport, a magazine cover blared an image of a surfboard smashing a computer screen. "Surfing the Net!" it proclaimed. What the hell was Surfing? And since when had it been shortened to "Net"? Like any true believer, I was suspicious of the newcomers coming to invade our castle. The term "newbie," at once derogatory and distancing, came into vogue.

Still, in spite of the growing publicity, corporate America was clueless. Yes the Net was changing American habits, but what did that have to do with efficiency, productivity and money? At Mercer, the company grudgingly gave five of us permission for Internet access. The rest of the office was left out in the cold. We were the new Brahmins of Bytes, our exclusive caste status maintained by a scarcity of modem lines. Gradually business began to embrace the Internet. The go-go years were about to begin. Mercer started diversifying as well. Consulting clients like South African Railroad were no longer hot, everyone was fighting to get on the AOL project. On a Bank of America assignment in San Francisco, I came face-to-face with the next big thing. My friend Shahed Amanullah (founder of AltMuslim.com) met me in a café with his laptop. "Wait, you bring your computer to cafes?" I asked. "Duh," came the very California reply, "It’s a laptop dude, you’re supposed to carry it around." As Shahed sat in the sun and showed me the new website he was designing, I felt the creeping sensation of dot-com fever. I had to get into the business! But how? California was having its second gold rush, but companies like Netscape were only hiring programmers-- business people were not needed (yet).

Returning to New York, I realized the difference between the Coasts. California had Stanford and Caltech. Companies that were founded there were unabashedly tech-centric. By contrast, media dominated New York’s Internet industry and there was a serious lack of tech-savvy recruits. Suddenly, my youthful appearance and geek habits were a big advantage. Before I knew it, I was in HBO’s New Media group. A few years later we even convinced them to fund our idea for an Internet startup - Volume.com, the voice of "generation hip-hop." At this point, companies like Amazon had overheated the market. Everyone wanted to be the next dot-com millionaire. We talked about bringing the Internet to the black community, but people kept seeing dollar signs. Would the two agendas co-exist or collide?

The rest of the story is familiar from the pages of BusinessWeek. In spring of 2000, the bubble economy of the stock market cratered, taking with it most of the high-flying dreams of Internet startups. Being funded by AOL Time Warner, we had stronger legs than most. The group bravely soldiered on for another year and half. Then on the morning of September 11, we interrupted a staff meeting to go the windows and watch the Twin Towers crumble. Suddenly technology didn’t seem so invincible. A group of fanatics, armed only with box cutters, had brought the nation to a standstill. They couldn’t build planes, but they could bring them down. Optimism was now in short supply. In the country’s new somber mood, no one at Volume.com wanted to continue being the "voice of generation hip-hop" - time to retreat and ponder life’s bigger questions. Three months after the attacks, we accepted the inevitable in a Board meeting and shuttered the company. Just in time for Christmas.

Everything goes in cycles. After a few years of regrouping and licking our wounds, technologists are back. Although many of the Internet age’s high-flyers are gone, a few like Amazon, Yahoo and Google have survived the toughest years and emerged stronger. The biggest business impact of the Internet is certainly in the explosion of outsourced business to India, Philippines and Thailand. When I call American Express at night, the operator picks up in Bangalore, and I hear the distinctive Indian accents coming down the phone lines. Could any of this be possible without the Internet and high-speed communication?

In the political space, the Internet is causing convulsions. Especially for grassroots activists with small budgets, the decentralized Internet model is a perfect fit. During the recent antiwar campaigns, activists used the Internet to organize demonstrations that brought out 400,000 people in New York and 10 million people all over the world. On the eve of the Iraq War, MoveOn.org used the Internet to organize a candlelit vigil in 130 countries and 50 US states. With 1.5 million e-mail addresses, MoveOn has emerged as the behemoth of Internet-based activism. Expanding beyond rallies, they raised millions of dollars online for national TV spots, delivered a petition with 1 million signatures to the UN and organized 20,000 calls to DC Senators in one day. MoveOn is run by 23 year-old Eli Pariser, but their work has attracted national respect. Billionaire financier George Soros gave them $5 million, making them a factor in the 2004 US elections.

On the election stage, Democratic candidate Howard Dean proclaimed the Internet the cornerstone of his grassroots, outsider candidacy. Without any help from the Democratic establishment, Dean built a huge following based on an Internet campaign. Volunteers used MeetUp.org to set up meetings, and hundreds of people who don’t know each other converged for these events. Just as Roosevelt and Kennedy were the first candidates for the radio and television age, there will soon be a candidate for the Internet age.

I recently completed an entire project where there was never a face-to-face meeting. Everything was over e-mail and phone. At night, when I go to listen to DJ friends play music in clubs, they’re hunched over laptops connected to iPods-- turntables and stacks of records are no longer necessary tools for music. In my daily life, there are two compartments--political activism and media consulting. For both, technology is indispensable. Laptops, WiFi, Ipods, PalmPilots - our houses are a plethora of cables and connections. In an average day, I may spend twelve hours on my computer and the Internet. My friends say I am technology over-exposed. They may be right. But then I look at them sitting passively in front of the TV and I wouldn’t want to trade places.

Did we ever imagine how completely the Internet and related technologies would change our lives? I certainly didn’t when I was pecking away at that VAX keyboard in Oberlin. But we’re only version 1.0. Generation 2.0 is coming up fast. When I see teenagers multitasking with three new gadgets that I haven’t mastered, I start to feel my years. Recently, the CEO of Atari told a story about encouraging his son to learn Chinese. The precocious boy’s reply was, "By the time I master Chinese, we’ll have computer phones where you’ll be able to talk in French or English and it will be translated into Chinese in real time!" Is the young futurist right? Who knows, anything is possible!

2005 should be really interesting.

Naeem Mohaiemen present at PixelACHE - read Disappeared in America