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The old internet has its familiar charms, from the screeching dial-up sound to the winsome screen names of its users. But what I find most fascinating about the internet, as it was more than 20 years ago, is the voice that people used when they talked to each other on it.
There is a dreaminess to their language, from posts on Usenet to AOL chatroom exchanges. Anonymous, usually, and communicating with strangers often, unmoored from real world identities; users spoke to each other in language that was strange, vulnerable, vivifying, and often deeply confessional.
Here are seven texts that capture the emotional charge and atmospheric qualities of the internet, especially in its early years. These authors express what it felt like to be present and part of the free-ranging internet populace that was cyberspace and is the internet now—sometimes—in its more secretive corners.
Cyberville by Stacy Horn
I tore through this memoir by the proprietor of Echo, an online conferencing service founded in NYC in 1990. Horn is outrageously funny and the book is full of stunning insights about online communities that remain relevant. Cyberville does something no other writing about an online community has done before: it makes me wish I could have been there.
The Metaphysical Touch by Sylvia Brownrigg
This novel is a unique for its depiction of cyberspace in literary fiction. Although it is set in the early ’90s, the internet here already feels like a grounding presence instead of something science fictional. The technology isn’t presented as extraordinary; rather it is the intense confessional spirit of its users that takes center stage.
Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life edited by Alondra Nelson, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, and Alicia Headlam Hines
A wide-ranging and consistently fascinating anthology of texts that adds complexity to notions of the “digital divide.” One of the highlights is an interview with Vivek Bald about his 1996 documentary “Taxi-vala.” He talks about immigrant taxi drivers hacking CB radios to create channels for discussion as a “virtual community,” using technology to form safe spaces not unlike the kind of backchannel group texts and Discord chats favored today.
The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age by Allucquère Rosanne Stone
A bizarre and poignant work of personal essay, theory, and gossip, that goes to show that NSA surveillance and online harassment is nothing new. Written at a time when the online service Prodigy could be criticized for focusing on e-commerce while failing to notice its users actually paid to connect with each other. (Thanks Riffraff Bookstore for the recommendation!)
Cybertypes by Lisa Nakamura
An eye-opening academic account of race and representation on the internet. The author is careful not to conflate the erasure of race in cyberspace with lack of access, and does not over-idealize commercial spaces built for communities of color.
Love and Information by Caryl Churchill
This feel like a cheat because it’s a play and I haven’t even seen the play, just clips on Youtube, but Churchill has such a handle on the polyphonic experience and voiceyness of internet users. An exquisite depiction of how the ambiguities and uncertainties of human experience are flummoxed by machines designed to collect data.
The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee
An enigmatic recent work of science fiction rendered in technical and aching prose. This wash of curious language makes me feel, as I might, in moments in front of a monitor at 4 a.m.: baffled and intrigued.
More great books about technology considered broadly: Ellen Ullman’s Close to the Machine, Katherine Losse’s The Boy Kings, Simone Browne’s Dark Matters, Alice Marwick’s Status Update, Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression, Ursula Franklin’s The Real World of Technology, Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen, Sadie Plant’s Zeros + Ones, Joy Lisi Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States, J.C. Herz’s Surfing on the Internet, Janet Abbate’s Inventing the Internet, and Amy Wibowo’s BubbleSort zines.