The Kids Are Back

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 November 1998

So, am I, like, the last kid on the block to get my Hotline server up and running? It sure seems so. Not since I logged onto the Internet for the first time, back in 1988, and encountered the already-populated chat rooms, bulletin boards, and hacker groups, have I been so overwhelmed by the rate at which a community can grow into an entire world – without anyone in the over-ground, workaday reality ever finding out.

A teenager from Australia named Adam Hinkley said the requisite “let there be light” for this thriving network of networks to be brought into existence. Tired with the way that Web browsers had become the default standard for navigating the Internet, exchanging files, and even conducting chats, Hinkley sought to create a simpler, more elegant set of tools to do the Internet’s non-browsing functions. (That’s right, there’s a whole lot of stuff to do out there besides clicking through Web pages.)

In the “good old days,” we used to collect and exchange files through a protocol called FTP, chat with one another in real time through one called IRC, and post messages on a set of bulletin boards called USENET. Then, along came Mosaic, Netscape, and the World Wide Web – really just a way of navigating the various sites where files were being stored – and most of the Internet’s more interactive functions seemed to fall by the wayside. Those that have been restored now operate on top of the World Wide Web, which is about as clunky and inefficient as running a simple word processing program over an operating system as needlessly complex as Windows. (Oops.)

Hinkely wrote a suite of extremely efficient little programs and bundled them together into a compact suite called Hotline that takes up less than 1 meg on my hard drive. Through the simple interface, I can hop from server to server, download files, engage in chats, post messages to discussion boards, and upload files I want to share. But wait. This isn’t the Internet, or is it? Whose servers are these, anyway?

That’s the innovation, or the disastrous threat, depending on how you look at it. Hotline lets anyone – you, me, the kid upstairs – turn his or her Internet-connected computer into a full-fledged server. When the computer is up and running, one or more of the many “Trackers” will detect it and list the server for others to find, along with a brief description of what’s to be found on it – discussion, beta versions of software, illegally duplicated digital files of music CDs, pornography….The good old Internet, indeed.

Unsupervised, so to speak, the young people who both created and use Hotline are developing a universe of file exchanges that would make a parent or record executive shudder. (Look out for a spate of articles in the near future about how this illegal ring of dangerous criminals must be stopped.) Like the Internet before it went mainstream, this is a place where you can find almost anything, and generally for free.

Hotline also lets servers hide themselves from law enforcement or other unwanted scrutiny. Users must get to the right Tracker in order to find a server, and some of those servers require passwords for entry, or directions to find. Getting onto the server you want can be as tricky (and ultimately rewarding) as finding an underground party from the map point on the flyer.

Once you learn your way around, however, you come to rely on a few favorite Trackers, as well as a few programs that work like search engines. Better still, you make some friends out there who don’t mind showing you around. That’s because when you pop onto a server, you’re showing up on a real person’s computer. Unlike the rest of the Internet, where users all log onto big, institutional machines running server programs, the Hotline Universe is made up of real people’s machines. You log onto someone else’s home computer, and that person sees you there. You chat with the host or others who are also logged on with you, poke around for files you might want, leave a message or a file of your own, and take off.

Because so many of the visitors are themselves hosts, everyone learns how to behave. Requesting multiple files at one time, for example, is a major offense because it hogs the abilities of the single machine. But occasional crashes and intermittent problems are part of the fun, and they occur far less frequently than they do on the Web.

It’s nice to fill up a few zip drives with my favorite music for free, and it’s nice to have a way of chatting that doesn’t involve waiting as banner ads refresh across the top of my browser window. Still, the real joy of Hotline comes from a deeper place.

It’s the joy of being part of a network of machines that isn’t controlled by any business, government, or institution. It’s the freedom to say or exchange anything I want to without fear of censorship. It’s experiencing my own, simple technology as a way of leveling the playing field of media.

Oh yeah – it’s the Internet.