It was in 1983 that I bought my first modem. It cost me $150. It ran at 30 characters per second - 300 baud. It was a little brown box with a lever on the top. To make it work you plugged it into something called an RS232 port - something I had to add to my primitive TRS 80 since it was not standard equipment in those days. You dialed the phone number where you wanted to connect. When the telephone answered and you heard the squeal that you later learned to call a carrier signal, you flipped the little lever on top of the modem. That forced the modem to send its own squeal, aka carrier signal, so that the computers could talk to each other. You hung up the telephone handset. You were online.
What did I expect that I was buying with my $150? Why did I imagine that there was some advantage in having my computer communicate with other computers? As I remember through the haze of nearly a decade and a half, it was for reasons quite different than those which bring us together here. What I imagined was that the modem would allow my computer to behave as a terminal to larger, mainframe computers. That is, I imagined that the modem would allow me to overcome the somewhat limited 64k capacity of my own machine. I would be able to write and run some really BIG programs. I would be able to take advantage of the various compilers that were housed on mainframe computers. I ended up getting one program half written not at all debugged.
When I bought my modem, the sales person gave me a list of perhaps about half a dozen bulletin board systems that operated in the greater Vancouver area. So since I did not yet have an account on the university computer that I wanted to use, I began learning about using a modems by logging on to these local systems.
Local BBS, especially the early ones, were not designed to engender enthusiasm. They were basically messaging systems. Since you were limited to conversation with those who already possessed modems, most online discussions were, frankly, rather sophomoric. That is not surprising, since most of the online community were sophomores - or a reasonably facsimile thereof.
For one reason or another, despite the tenor of online chat, I found myself becoming enthusiastic. I remember one of my colleagues bought a modem shortly after I did. He went online, found nothing of interest, and more or less ignored his modem for years afterwards. In retrospect, that seems a quite rational response to the online world of the early eighties. It was not my response. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I responded more to the possibilities than to the realities of cyberspace. I spent hours online, trying to find whatever it was that would match my vague vision of the exciting new world that computer communication would make possible.
A chance encounter with another visionary helped to fuel my online enthusiasm. Shortly after I had discovered the online world, we held a workshop on small computers here at VST. One of the organizers gave me the telephone number of someone in California who might arrange access for us to a major online database called Newsnet. I placed a call to this person, Bob Cramer, and was launched into a very new experience. What enthused me was not so much the impressive collection of religious news that Cramer was publishing online - although that was impressive. What enthused me was the flurry of messages that flowed back and forth between Cramer and myself over those days. It was like being in the same office with someone 900 miles away.
In Cramer, I discovered a kindred spirit. We recognized that something was happening. Something was happening to us. Something was happening to the church. Something was happening to the world. In all of it, we were attempting to discern what this thing was that was happening. We were witnesses to what we did not know. We were witnesses in a world which, by and large, could not hear.
Cramer was a genius in connecting with those who could hear. Once Cramer knew of your interest, he would get on the phone. Wherever there was a church person who took the new medium seriously, Cramer would make another connection. Slowly a network grew around this freelance communicator located in the unlikely community of Windsor, California.
Cramer's network was ecumenical from the beginning. Bob was then an American Baptist, but he took his associates wherever he could find them. By the time that an serious church related networking began - in 1984 and 1985 - Cramer was busy encouraging isolated groups of Methodists, Presbyterians and the two United Churches - the United Church of Christ and the United Church of Canada.
During this preparatory period, I found my expectations changing. The prospect of using my TRS80 to write programs on the university mainframe faded quickly. By early 1984, when asked what I would want in a denominational online service, I answered in terms of access to information: denominational policies, news releases, statistics - that kind of thing. If you could pin Cramer down - and that was not always possible - it seemed that his vision also was also the development of searchable online databases. By late 1984, however, there was a consensus that seemed to be growing that it was networking - community building - that lay at the heart of the new medium.
However, I think that most of us thought in denominational terms. In late 1984 the first of a number of denominational experiments began. The United Church of Canada used a commercial email system - Envoy 100 - for the dozen or so people across the denomination who could be identified as having computer and modem. Within a few weeks, the United Church of Christ launched an experiment on Compuserve. The following summer, the first incarnation of Presbynet was inaugurated, also on Compuserve. Even then, there were cross-overs. Bob Cramer, for example, participated in both the United Church of Christ and the Presbynet experiments on Compuserve. Curt Ackley of the United Church of Christ became infamous as the chief pig at the Presbynet trough (namely, Ackley used more online time than anyone else in that experiment.) And when the United Church of Canada shifted its operations from the Canadian Envoy 100 system to Unison, a small Denver-based online system, Cramer immediately joined us there.
The first crisis in ecumenical online relationships happened in the fall of 1985. UCHUG, the United Church of Canada network, had been operating on Unison as a private network since May of that year. A few "outsiders" had joined us there. In addition to Cramer, there were Donel McLelland of the United Church of Christ and Houston Hodges of the Presbyterian Church (USA). All three were accepted as honorary UCHUG participants. While UCHUG proceeded to blow its whole year's budget in two months of online frenzy, the Presbyterians were having their summer of online frenzy on Compuserve. When the Compuserve experiment was over, however, a large number of Presbyterian refugees, looking for a new online home, descended on Unison.
I can only tell the story of what transpired from my own perspective. As the organizer of UCHUG, I felt my stress level skyrocket. We had established ourselves as a private network. The Presbynetters came on to Unison as a public network. As the Presbyterians established their "beach-head" on Unison, I got the impression that they regarded our presence there as irrelevant. They had arrived to continue the fun that they had been having all summer on Compuserve. They hadn't come to Unison to meet us We felt pushed aside by these Presbyterian hordes. So for our part, we tried to welcome the Presbynetters, not sure whether these newcomers particularly wanted to be welcomed. We began to explore with the Presbynet leadership ways of sharing our meetings without violating UCHUG's desire for privacy in the midst of Unison's largely secular user base. We wanted to negotiate the ways and means to build an ecumenical community online.
In all of this, questions of turf were involved, whether we were willing to admit it or not. As we began to explore our options, tensions began to build. It culminated in a very public "flame war" between me and one of the Presbynet leaders. If there can be a shocked silence online, there was one then.
The situation was saved by St. Houston of Hodges. Those of you who have heard Huston speak may find it difficult to believe, but I can assure you that it is true. Houston, in spite of his origin in warmer climes, was once a staff member of the United Church of Canada. He was well prepared to interpret each side to the other. Huston took me metaphorically out into the "hallway" where we discussed some of the tensions that had surfaced. With Houston's mediation, aided by his understanding of both the ecclesial and national cultures invoved, our ecumenical hopes were rekindled and we began the work of building an ecumenical community online. The conversation in the hallway, as Houston and I described what we were doing, was one of the ways we were learning to exploit the new medium. Online, it was always possible to step out of the public gaze, to conduct confidential matters confidentially. That was one of the realities that the Participate software offered us. The other fact about the medium, we were beginning to realize, is that for most of our conversations - given the way that Participate allowed the endless branching of meetings - is that denominational identities were not terribly relevant to life online. So as we got used to each other online, it did not take long before we began to see the building of ecumenical community as the main thing that we were about. In most of our conversations, denominational identities were blurred or, in some cases, completely invisible. Less than a year later, when we began to actually use the word "Ecunet", this shift of our understanding became fully explicit. For all of us, the modem had become an instrument for building a new kind of community - a community without place, without boundaries.
Let me retrace, then, the transformations in my own attitude to the modem. There were, for me, four stages. In the first stage, the modem was a means to allow my computer access to mainframe power. In the second stage, the modem allowed access - at least potentially - to valuable databases, sources of information. The third stage involved the recognition of the potential of modem technology to facilitate conversation between individuals and within existing groups. Finally, modem technology became for me a means for the creation of new communities - communities which had no pre-existing counterpart in the analog world.
What we were involved in, we have come to realize, was nothing less than the creation of a new ecclesial culture. It was ecclesial for obvious reasons - we were together online because we were "church." We were a culture in the making because we were involved in the creating of new ways of being together, new social structures, new symbols, which distinguished us from other forms of ecclesial culture.
Let me try to describe some of the characteristics of the culture we were creating. The first characteristic, of which I think we were all quite conscious, is that the medium taught us that we need no longer accept constraints of space and time. That is, we learned to accept the fact - the wonderful fact - that our community could be built through near instantaneous communication of people who were physically located at great distance from each other. The magic of the medium was demonstrated for us by the now legendary Memorial Service. This was our online response to the Challenger disaster in January 1986. Four pastors collaborated in planning an online service in memory of the people who perished that day. They were Gordon Laird, United Church of Canada, Vancouver, Curt Ackley, United Church of Christ, Pennsylvania, Michael Henderson, United Methodist, South Carolina, and Jim Collie, Presbyterian, Texas. At a preannonced time the service was opened online and a community stretching across the continent and beyond (I participated from Hawaii) joined together in this observance.
The daily repetition of entering into a community that was not bound by space and time changed us. We gained a different perspective of who we counted among our neighbours. Physical separation had little to do with our view of the world. We became less and less patient with our friends and colleagues who took the limitations of the analogue world as absolutes that governed who we were as communities.
That did not mean that we did not appreciate those occasions, like our gathering here this week, when we actually encountered each other face to face. We came to appreciate how face to face community energized our digital community. Nevertheless the occasional necessity for us to synchronize our calendars and to cope with the inconveniences of geography served to enrich our digital life together. It was not the other way round. That is, we were not using the digital media to compensate for those time that we could not be together face to face. Ecunet was a very different kind of community, a different kind of culture to the one in which most of our contemporaries lived.
I would like to say that in the building of a new community and a new culture we had discovered the destiny that the modem had opened for us. I would like to say that in my journey from imagining connectivity as accessing mainframe power to understanding connectivity as a call to build community, I had discovered what the modem was really about. However, our online experience did not end in 1986. In the meantime, the modem has found a new destiny in the form of the World Wide Web.
Let me say at the outset that I like the World Wide Web. I enjoy browsing. I appreciate the avenue to information of all types that the Web opens to me. But while the Web is not totally devoid of community building, those places where community happens are hidden away in dark corners. The culture that we were beginning to construct in the formation of services like Ecunet has become something different, something distorted, something of a caricature of culture.
Let me try to characterize the world as I experience it on the Web. It is first, a culture of isolated individuals, wandering in what seems like random paths through Cyberspace. When I journey on the Web, I journey by myself. On the way, I encounter people, but we are as ships passing in the night. Occasionally, I discover a fellow traveller, someone whose Web page reflects some of my interests. For a few days, we might exchange e-mail. We might cross link our pages. But very soon we pass on, left only as traces in the form of entries in our respective e-mail address lists.
To what shall we compare the culture of the Web? I imagine that if we were to conduct a kind of free association brain storming, the list of our comparisons might well go on for ever. The image that has impressed itself on me lately, however, is that of the Carnival midway. A glitzy veneer hides a content of questionable quality. The entertaining competes with the sleazy and the grotesque. And behind it all seems to lurk an endless array of gigantic egos - carnival performers, if you like - each with their own "home page." One stall competes with the other to be today's "hot spot." Technique abolishes substance. And the web surfer wanders up the midway, pausing at some attractions and ignoring others, quite indifferent to the faces of the crowd who wander the midway with him and not usually interested in the faces of those who work the carnival stalls, either. That is not to say that there is no community on the Web. But what the Web constructs is a community and a culture of perpetual strangers.
Like a carnival midway, the Internet has become a place where people have to compete to be noticed. So Websites collect "Top 5%" awards and post them where they will consume the most bandwidth when surfers access their sites. Usenet newsgroups and Web discussion forums become places where people compete for attention, either by raising their level of obnoxiousness or through the sheer volume of their postings.
So what has happened to the modem in all of this? I have sketched the stages in my own expectations of the modem. It started as a means to connect to mainframe power. It became for me, a participating in a new kind of community and culture. But what has it become?
I think the answer is that the modem is becoming invisible, a process that is being hastened by the Microsoft/Netscape wars but probably made inevitable by the logic of the medium itself. We hear that with Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 and with Windows 97, the distinction between the desktop and the net begin to disappear. That, I venture to say, would happen without Windows 97. It is a consequence on increasing bandwidth. The experience of opening the Taylor Centre, with its T1 connection to the Internet, has made that clear to me.
Let me try to be clear about what the difference is. At home, going online is a conscious act. That is, I have my modem dial up my Internet provider. A little red light near my computer comes on to signal that the telephone line is in use. That little red light is a reminder - a constant reminder - that there is a difference between what is on my hard drive and what is on the net. I need to get online, find what I am looking for - a web site, my email, a shareware program - and then disconnect lest the clock run out on my Internet account.
With the T1 connection it is different. I don't tie up any telephone line. There is no red light to be watched. It came as a shock to realize that, after accessing whatever it was that I was looking for, I did not need to disconnect. Indeed the idea of disconnecting has no meaning. The T1 connection is always there. I am always connected to the net, even when I am not. The boundary between my desktop and the net has become more and more difficult to draw.
I think that I am only beginning to think out the consequence of that. I venture to suggest that, as the modem blurred for us the hard realities of physical space, unlimited bandwidth is blurring for us the concept of virtual space as well. In the past, I had to "go" to Unison or NWI or Ecunet to find the virtual location of my online community. But now, I don't think that the notion of going somewhere, even virtually, is a helpful metaphor of my experience. There is nowhere that the community is. It just happens, spread like a holographic interference pattern at every point in cyberspace.
That thought worries me. It worries me because having a virtual location was so important to the genesis and growth of Ecunet. We had the sense of there being a virtual place where we went to gather with the community that we were committed to building. But now, there is no virtual geography. There is no virtual gathering place - or, there may not be much longer.
What that says to me is that in the future it will be necessary to be very intentional about what we are about. Unless we are content to become the culture of perpetual strangers, the wanderers of the virtual carnival midway we call the net, we have to take the responsibility for ourselves. If the technology, the hardware and the software, provides no stability, then are only option is to accept the stewardship of community for ourselves.
Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid."
In the chaos - the spacelessness and timelessness - of cyberspace, these ancient images may still hold some wisdom for us. It is not that cyberspace can be changed from a carnival midway to the peaceable kingdom simply by wishing it so. It is rather that the salt that gives savour, the light that shines in the darkness, is our real concern. We will not build Jerusalem in cyberspace's pleasant land. Yet in the chaos, there remain possibilities to be dreamed. Among those possibilities is the vision we discovered as we followed the trail where our modems led. The trail has disappeared with the virtual geography. May the dream remain.