The Early Internet: Teleinformatics and Computerized Bulletin Board Systems

article image
Before the emergence of the World Wide Web, computerized bulletin board systems were the popular way to connect people.  

Not long ago, I suddenly realized that my personal computer now gets a good many more long distance phone calls than I do! And, to be honest, I felt a bit put out at first. After all, the beast’s only attraction is that it contains the latest New Directions Radio On-Air Bulletin. I guess it’d be pretty foolish to actually be jealous of a computer . . . especially since I built the thing myself and typed in every letter it contains. Still, I’ve been quite impressed by the whole phenomenon!

I suppose novelty might be a factor, or just plain curiosity … but frankly, I suspect that we humans are information freaks, whose desire for knowledge is just as real as are our cravings for specific foods. The fact is that most of us want what we want when we want it, and — when the urge is for information — some folks are clearly willing to pay the price of a long distance call to get it.

My second suspicion is that the future has already arrived at my house, and that what’s happening here is beginning to take place in many other homes, too. “Teleinformatics” is the new umbrella term which covers the marriage of telecommunications and computer-controlled data retrieval. It may eventually become a household word, and if it does, it’ll be accompanied by the names of such commercial information utilities as Prestel, Telidon, Telenet, MicroNet, The Source and Infotex.

Of course, large corporations are working to create a boom in this area — and cash in on it, as well. And, where the information in question is of widespread interest, they’ll no doubt succeed. I, however, find the blossoming of individual and club activity in this area particularly exciting. Literally hundreds of small personal terminals have already been turned into group-access information banks.

Computerized Bulletin Board Systems

Many such devices are set up to serve as computerized bulletin board systems. These data storehouses work on the same principle as does the bulletin board in your local supermarket: You can look at messages left by other people, or leave your own. Ads, notices of coming events, poems, and almost any other type of special interest material can be posted. A “menu” on the terminal screen (or, sometimes, a more complex indexing scheme) is usually provided to help a user find items of interest, and screen instructions furnish information about how to leave messages.

Each CBBS has a particular focus and a “personality,” which emerges as the various users make their contributions. Since many people who own data terminals today are electronic hobbyists, it’s not surprising that computer hardware is frequently the topic of discussion. But there are many other subjects dealt with by CBBS users too, including astronomy, commodities, ham radio, music, aviation, genealogy and more.

Long-time readers of this column may recall a report I wrote that described Berkeley’s Community Memory system . . . a general-purpose bulletin board setup that used a large central computer for storage and retrieval. It was a darn good system at the time, too . . . but the plummeting cost of computers and computer memory has since made a more decentralized, specialized approach feasible. Today, almost any interested group can afford to establish its own CBBS, which allows the avid computer hobbyist to turn his or her “toy” into a socially useful tool.

The ongoing computer conference is simply a variation on the CBBS theme. In this case, the object is to share ideas with other people on a particular subject. Someone will start the ball rolling by entering a statement. Then others add their comments. If the topic is stimulating, and if enough interesting people get involved, the process can go on indefinitely. If not, the conversation simply ends. It’s a totally honest procedure, because boring conferences dwindle away as a result of their own dullness!