A Personal Account
1986 - 2007
Prof. Em. Classics
Stage I: 1986
Before the birth of the Electronic Age nobody had any idea how it was going to change the lives of almost everybody pn thje planet. But I had a suspicion back in the 'eightiesthat something was rumbling and about to erupt in the coming decade. Having taught college Latin among other things for many years, I got the idea of writing a concise Latin Dictionary for computer, which by its speed and instant access, would make make the tedious dictionary thumbing of former generations obsolete. Asking a colleague about this idea, I was answered in disbelief "Why in the world would you do that.. . . .? " But I knew why it would be good and I persevered. The Sloane Foundation agreed with me and funded students for two years working part-time to enter my handwritten MS into the college's UNIX. When I finally learned to use a computer in 1990 I found that the students didn't know how to spell, and I would have to get a computer to go back and fix things. But the computer expert at the college didn't know how to retrieve the files from the VAX to my spanking new Mac Plus, which was waiting impatiently with its vast 1meg memory ready to run, so I set the project aside for a while. But I heard the rumbles still moving around and thought wait for something to surface.
Stage 2: 1992
Now several years later with a second slightly faster computer, I obtained an email address from my college, but was surprised that for a while there was nobody in Academe to communicate with. But the additional idea of a personal WEBSITE brought up a lot of ideas, and I found that I could use the little LYNX browser with its fast access to large 30k word-files, for something new with lots of possibilities. The nine inch screen which LYNX filled to the absolute edges seemed a bright if diminutive eye into the future, but it was only when 15 inch monitors appeared that I began to feel old LYNX was cramped and crowded. In those days there were no pictures, no movies, nothing but words. . . . but LYNX has one thigns which was quite advanced: It could read aloud. Just imagine that!
When I retired from teaching in 1990, I found myself going through boxes of papers stored away in the cellar. I was surprised by the sheer volume of paperwork, which I went through quickly scrapping what seemed inconsequential. But as I read further I saw there was a large amount of serious work which should not end up in the recycling bin. This is always the problem at retirement, we all have projects started, developed and sometimes almost finished, which never got published in the Journals for one reason or another. All that work typing with carbon paper for the three copies, erasures with those gray erasure discs, what a lot of bother. This changed when I got for my new computer the advanced MS WORD 5.1, which could write and format and join and merge anything, from a short paper to a book size study, and it came with a six hundred page illustrated manual, every detail written out in comprehensible English. When I boasted about WORD 5.1's prowess some years later (I admit I still use it), a colleague said "But where is the section on HTML ?". Yes, back then there was no HTML at all!.
In the Publish Or Perish days we all ground out articles which might or might not get published at all. Either the subject was ahead of its time, or the footnotes were not properly arranged, or there was no typed triple spacing as required, or something else in the nitty-picky category. So there were large boxes filled with pages in the hundreds, ideas, projects, commentaries, translations, poems, all decked out but nowhere to go. Now I decided to become my own desk-top publisher with my own website, I could put everything in order, edit and revise on my computer and publish as I wished. With my computer on the desk, phone line access to the college UNIX and some basic information about the classic way of encoding HTML manually, I was in business. The whole body of what I felt would be of interest to the world could be put in order in the evenings of a few months. I was amazed to find how much space the files took, why it took up almost two full megs! Finally I had to ask apologetically for more space. OF course this was a healthy amount of text writing as I saw it then, but an insignificant amount of space in our new electronic world.
Stage 3: 1996
I had been so busy writing that I never stopped to consider whether anyone would be using my materials. But as the web escalated from our academic loan of the unused military ARPA network, to a full scale academic tool with servers in every college in the country and soon in every country in the world, I began to get feedback. People wrote back by email to ask a question, make a suggestion or correct an error of spelling or date, and finally to ask me if they could use my materials in something being put up an another website. Of course not everybody was so polite as to ask, and I found my writing appearing in places unknown to me, which I faced with a smile. After all, isn't knowledge supposed to be universal, shouldn't it be broadcast as widely as possible? I didn't consider this theft, just a reasonable use and it was only when some of my students were thrown out of school for Plagiarism, that I began to see the other side of the coin, made even clearer when I found that teachers do the same thing on occasion. We live in an ownership society, we have to remember that.
About that time I found I could put pictures in my files, which was fine for me since I had been doing polychrome metal sculpture for years and had a number of slides which could be scanned to jpegs. Now it was clear to me that the web had unheard of potentials. Since I also do music and was a member of a local Composers' Society, I spoke up at one of the meetings and suggested that sound files with our newly composed music could be put on wire or better on a satellite transponder, like the one which the government had formerly been using to broadcast for years with the "Voice of America". What if the Music Schools were to get connected with such a system? They could put new music on a worldwide channel, stuff which otherwise might never get heard. But the assemblage of musical people looked at me as if I were from another planet. "What a weird idea, they were thinking, he is a real dreamer with ideas like that. Imagine music on my computer!". I thought to myself, wait and see, time will tell.
Stage 4: Browsers and Blogs
By 1998 things had moved along in a very fast lane. There were by now dozens of academic sites with pages of obscure studies, there were a few scientific studies appearing online, but the authors who were still conscious of the Journals as a rung in the advancement ladder, and they were not sure. Teachers still told students to go read books and the professional Journals, none of this undated and often anonymous web-stuff, they repeated. But the shift was taking place, and the University Presses which had been publishing costly books which nobody read at a financial loss, were stumped. How could they compete with an information system which could broadcast without paper, ink and binding at almost no cost? They would eventually find out, thye could use this electronic medium for papers and for whole books, the very things which had at first had seened their enemy.
Now things began to get much more complicated, and the browsers kept up or even led the lay with the ability to read anything the code writers could write. Most people went to programs which coded a text page automatically, later page-writers could even accept pictures and lay out fancy formatted text, so most people abandoned the effort of coding by hand. Of course with the automatic coders they couldn't go back and edit or change parts of the text, but that was part of the deal. Some pages came up with colors in the background, a few tried black on red or blue which psychologists know to be the least readable combination. I kept with black on white for two reasons, one being sheer readability and the other the long tradition of book printing since the elegant little Aldine editions of l510. If this webpage looks straight and gaunt, it is by design. I want my writing to look as book-like as possible, so it will have the same clean appearance ten or more years from now. I chose the font I want with a few substitutions, I decide on the length of a readable line, and I have been able to place my text in the middle of a white monitor page. ?
As monitors became larger, twenty and later even seventeen inches, text which went with a page set up for maximum screen width became impossible to read. Who ever saw a book with twelve inch line widths? So I set up my spacing to approximate what a well printed book page will look like and I find people write to my approving my neatly formatted appearance. In a world where everything seems to be changing as a matter of keeping up with the new styles, there is something reassuring to be said for a traditional page.
In the fall of 1999 I started experimenting using my standard-formatted page for a daily or weekly commentary on politics, art, my life or anything that seemed interesting. The new page started with the first day of the year 2000 and ran to a hundred pages quickly. I had no name for this new venture, but when the BLOGs started appearing as a ready-made format in that same year, I saw that this was exactly what I had already been doing. Privately I take satisfaction in saying that I created the bog, but with no idea what a monster it would become, overflowing space and bandwidth and often reason itself. But nothing stays the same, by 2006 the blog evolved into "youTUBE" with pictures and movie scripts, and who knows what comes next? I like the idea of progress and going forward, but a lot of the new e-Rage is little more than playing with new toys, tinkering for the sake of using your computer and your camera and your serve. But why not, this is America, we are the home of congenital tinkerers from way back. For us ew is good and we hate the old!
Stage 4: Now 2007 and on. . . .?
Sometimes it is smart to stop when you are in a new and unfamiliar territory, take score and just look around for a bit. I have been doing this lately and these are the things I note:
When the computer appeared around 1986 it was for the engineering world the way into an entirely different method of running the factory machines which make our hardgoods. The result was NC or to use our words Numerical Control, meaning machines completely controlled by a program separately entered into a computer. Not only fast and accurate, this new NC system did things before impossible, like tracing out irregular curves which nibbling away a giant steel sheet. This was the mere beginning, but it worked right away. In colleges the science faculty was waiting for new programs which could sort data, find unseen seams in the body of hand-done work, and eventually move scientific studies into a world which would have been unthinkable without the electronic advance. For industry and for science, the computer was a new and entirely different kind of tool.
How different was our introduction to the computer in sign-up classes on campus, where we learned to use it merely as a typewriter replacement, neatly called a Word Processor. But it could be edited, erased without a rubber or white paint, it could print out, and for the first ten years this was all most of us on the local level got out of the Computer Revolution . At that time there no sense that this machine represented a huge and profitable global market, that it was going to become for advertising and sales of all sorts of necessary and unnecessary things, a virtual gold mine.
Soon came a second step, when we added new fun programs and a pair of speakers, and re-named our computer an Entertainment Center. Games on the screen first weere designed for kids, then for amateur aviators, then they got so complicated that they had to be put on handheld devices, which opened up another gold-mine. The electronic world was beginning to take shape as a major change in the marketplace, and everyone was interested because it was first of all FUN. And more important secondly, because it was very profitable.
My modest website began to get attention after 1998 by being on the web since the beginning, also because it had lots of varied essays and information which people could find useful. A public web hit-counter placed me at several thousand hits a month, not much for a global but high for an academic site, and a google search will now bring up my website cover page with just my name "william harris". It was just at that item various advertisers asked if they could place ads alongside my text, they said they would pay me a regular sum based on the numbers of hits to the tune of maybe a thousandth of a percent each. Could they put a short ad on the right upper margin of my cover-page and others somewhere else where they fancied, to which l told them about a better place to put their ads. But as you look at the current webpages, you see medical text squeezed into narrow lines so there cam be more Med-Ads and Med-Site links on top and right and left. Some of the text that goes with these pages is lamentable, weak and thin stuff, but that doesn't matter: The page has been on the web for a while and has a good hit-history. That and not the content, is what now counts!.
Sales on the internet is the great new dollar frontier. But you might be surprised to find that even greater activity is attached to Porno which some have said accounts for over eighty five percent of the web use. There is so much porno that Protection Programs must be updated every few months. Where money for pictures and videos of perverse sexuality and child pornography are involved, there are funds galore to be reaped in. When I say down with a group of twenty faculty members in 1986 in a quiet college environment, who would have thought that the same keystrokes and clicks and drags which we were learning would be used by the next generation for porno flicks, for buying drugs, and now at last for making explosives to blow up Federal Buildings. Was the Internet responsible for all this? Of course not, it is just a tool which we have created, and WE are the society which made created this new web scenery. And remember something new always prospers when the is money to be got from it, that is the rule we have generated. We are living in a truly Commercial Society.
Stage 5: Epilogue
The internet is now firmly ensconced in the workings of our commerce based society, in fact it is a prominent tool for commerce but at the same time it also serves for communication outside the largely business-controlled press and media. As of 2007 there are protections for internet privacy from government surveillance, but these are only for a two year period and may disappear if government centralization becomes ever more powerful.
The scale of this is new but the problem has occurred before. It was much smaller then and we have lost track of the fast growth curve of money as it has escalated into the Stock Markets of our world. A modern social satirist might imagine himself as an unnoticed guest in the office of the CEO of a large energy company, where the President is fondling with a self-satisfied smile the financial folder on his desk, which documents the hundreds of millions he has purloined from his company, from the shareholders' returns and from the retirees' benefits plans. It is good to get it all together right now, he thinks to himself, just as I have made final arrangements with the Board for my imminent retirement. But the greedy CEO will go to trial and jail in the next few months., he does not know it but three FBI men have just entered his office and the one with a warrant already has his hands on the incriminating financial folder which is still lying on the presidential desk.
When Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson wrote his scathing play Volpone or The Fox in l600, he was talking about the contemporary abuses in a parallel money-based world. Some men will do almost anything for money, but others will do absolutely anything, that is the characteristic of their nature. Volpone will go to trial at the end of Jonson's scathing play, to the applause of the Elizabethan audience in the Globe Theater. To make the case convincing, I append the first page of "Volpone", which turns out to be the evidence which convicts him at his trial.
VOLPONE : Good morning to the day; and next, my gold:
Open the shrine, that I may see my SAINT.
[Mosca his servant [withdraws the curtain and reveals piles of gold, and plate and jewels.]
Hail the world's soul, and mine! more glad than is
The teeming earth to see the long'd-for sun
Peep through the horns of the celestial Ram,
Am I, to view thy splendour darkening his;
That lying here, amongst my other hoards,
Shew'st like a flame by night; or like the day
Struck out of chaos, when all darkness fled
Unto the centre. O thou son of Sol,
But brighter than thy father, let me kiss,
With adoration, thee, and every relick
Of sacred treasure, in this blessed room.
Well did wise poets, by thy glorious name,
Title that age which they would have the best;
Thou being the best of things: and far transcending
All style of joy, in children, parents, friends,
Or any other waking dream on earth:
Thy looks when they to Venus did ascribe,
They should have given her twenty thousand Cupids;
Such are thy beauties and our loves! Dear saint,
Riches, the dumb God, that giv'st all men tongues;
That canst do nought, and yet mak'st men do all things;
The price of souls; even hell, with thee to boot,
Is made worth heaven. Thou art virtue, fame,
Honour, and all things else. Who can get thee,
He shall be noble, valiant, honest, wise.
Prof. Em. Middlebury College