the internet then and now

I watched the Internet change.


have been witness to the evolution of the Internet since it was unassumingly introduced into our homes in the early ’90s. We had a personal computer, the PC. It was jammed into a makeshift closet office just outside of the family kitchen. I can’t recall what make or model. It was not of the expensive fruit variety. I’ll surmise that it was a generic model my parents would have purchased from the computer department at London Drugs. It was square, very bulky, and had a decent amount of weight to it, framed in a chalky white, plastic surround, synonymous with the ‘90s itself. New, awkward, and symbolically shiny in what it promised. To connect you to information. To become more efficient. There it sat waiting to evolve.

The only thing more ‘90s was the oddly overstuffed executive desk chair that dwarfed everything else in the room and was impossible to move. The chair is where you sat and waited for the modem to do its thing. Netscape was the browser of the day and you had to dial in through a landline telephone modem to connect. A cacophony of oddly official sounds screamed from the dial-up modem. A series of screeches emitted during the modem’s ask-answer protocol, that made no sense to me at the time. The screeching signified to me that I could eventually connect to this thing called the Internet and that was all I needed to understand back then.

Before my best friend went away to law school, she was taking 1st-year Anthropology at UBC in the Okanagan. Her first introduction to the Internet was through school. It was 1996 and the assignment was to find someone with a home computer and the Internet and log on. Imagine that. You had to, first of all, find someone with a computer.

“We didn’t have the world in our pockets in ‘96. You had to saddle up with one of those nasty, big desk chairs and enjoy the soothing sounds of dial-up.”

I was the only one that she knew of at that time who had access to the Internet. In fact, I was the only one that I knew of too. 

It wasn’t until 1998 that home Internet usage really started to become more mainstream. It was faster. You were getting top speeds of 56 kbps through dial-up which was considered blazingly fast. And it was also becoming more user-friendly. By 2000, early adopters began shifting to cable Internet and over 78% of North Americans had some form of home Internet be it dial-up or cable. This new form of entertainment took off like a rocket and look at us now. 

The reason we were discussing Anthropology and the first assignment was because of my daughter. She’s now taking the same course, at the same University, but two-plus decades later the curriculum is much different. In fact, her first assignment in Anthro101 was to do a written media analysis on how social media affects the social environment of which we are part. In 96, the assignment was to find someone with Internet access. 25 years later, the same assignment was an analysis of what the hell have we done to ourselves at the hands of our own beast.  

Over the course of two long, and recently unprecedented decades, I’ve witnessed the Internet change. In 1996 I used the Internet to research information on political science for my application to Journalism school. Everything I researched and noted on my application back then was incorrect. There was no Wikipedia, it didn’t come around until 2001.

1996 internet usage

The family computer in 1996

Hard Drives & Floppy Disks

The information I was diligently researching related to the Oklahoma bombings, The Yugoslav Wars, etc. at that time was gathered from random GeoCities websites and weird basement news blogs. There were no blue checkmarks to indicate you were reading a reliable source. Worldwide there were 45 million Internet users in 1996. 30 million of them were in North America. 

“Being part of the Internet in the ‘90s was a little like being the first one at a music festival.”

You logged on and walked around aimlessly with a drink in your hand, pretending to seem interested in the warm-up bands. In reality, you were just waiting for more people to show up and better bands to play. Now the Internet is everything and everywhere. 

It forms how we work, how we engage with each other, and how we entertain ourselves. I can’t think of any other invention that has evolved as quickly or robustly as the Internet has. Who would have thought that two decades later we would be mining an online frontier for currency? What was once a place to explore and gather really subjective content is still a place to explore and gather really subjective content. But back then, we kind of expected that the information might not be right. We checked other sources or we took it at face value and had our applications to Journalism school rejected. Now, we have deliberate bad actors flooding the Internet with, well, literally anything they want. Clickbait runs rampant, there’s good, there’s bad, there’s ugly and it’s a variable melting pot for the whole world to gather and overshare.

And gather we do. 75% of the world uses the Internet on a daily basis today. 6 billion of the 8 billion people on the planet. Are we addicted? Yes. I would say we have developed some unhealthy dependencies when it comes to instant gratification.

“Whatever you want is at your fingertips. Experiences, shared experiences, fake news, conspiracies, shopping, and not to mention your future anxieties.

NFT’s, crypto, and the dreaded or celebrated Metaverse. Our cars are connected to it. Our wallets are connected to it. Almost all of our homes and businesses are connected to it. We can’t live without it in the present day and that’s a far cry from where it was in 1996 when the assignment was just figuring out where to log on. There was never the assumption that in the near future we would never log off. Nor did we assume that the Internet would consume us the way it has.

I would call myself an early adopter of tech and the Internet. Atomic 55 was founded in 2001 and like all good dot-com startups, it started in my then-boyfriend, turned husband, and business partner, Mom’s basement. Our kids are digital natives. They’ve never known the world without a handheld device. I still remember when my 3-year-old walked up to his grandmother’s TV and tried to swipe the screen like an iPad. The Internet is like water to them. It just is. It always was. The question now is what does the next 25 years look like with the Internet? 

Will we continue to evolve with it or will the Internet out evolve us? Time will tell, and if Anthropology 101 is any indication, then we should buckle up for the virtual ride into the future of connectivity.