When 300 baud was the bomb

Once upon a time there was no Internet. And it was good.

Published May 31, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

Back in the day, there were boards. Bulletin Board Systems. BBS's. No Net, no Web, no cyberspace, nothing. Just boards, and their ugly stepchildren, D-Dials. All strung together with phone lines, hand-rolled software, and 8-bit computers. No backbone, no hubs, no routers, no DNS tables. Just one computer picking up the phone, calling another, and having a little chat.

Back in the day, I was in Jersey. I don't know if it was the center of the BBS world; it was probably the ass-end of it, like it was of everything else. But it felt like the center. I was 12, and hanging out on a board called the Oriental Express, where the average age had to be 25 if it was a day. I lied, sometimes, and said I was 13. Thirteen was respectable; it at least had that 'teen' in it. I was just rounding, I figured. For years, I got used to being the youngest person in any virtual room I entered.

Back in the day my Atari 800 was a power machine. It had, like, 16K of RAM to start. I think I upgraded it with some non-spec card that boosted it to 96K or something. Probably voided the hell out of the warranty. But the 800 rocked. It had player-missile graphics. It also had this weird feature I found that let you execute lines of BASIC code right from the video buffer. So if you had your program print itself out on the screen with a line of code modified, you could set the cursor up at the top and have it re-enter the program. Self-modifying code! It was totally useless, but man it was cool. The Atari crowd was always butting heads with the Apple crowd on the boards. Or those Commodore 64 losers. The Amiga, guys, though ... those machines were pretty sweet.

Back in the day, phone prefixes mattered. Flat rate local calls meant the boards in your local zone were free --- not phree, which was different. I had a list of them posted on my wall, for a while, but soon enough I never really needed it. I knew my zone. 992, 667; 665; 464 --- they were my 'hood. Sometimes when I was feeling adventurous I might go beyond, out to the outer reaches of (201) --- none of that (908) crap back then --- but rarely farther. Go beyond (201), man, and you might, like, fall off the planet. They said the world just stopped out there, a big-ass virtual cliff right on the fuzzy black line in the phone book map.

Back in the day, Hayes ruled the Earth. First it was 300 baud. There was comfort at 300 --- it was a good speed. A human speed. You could read the text as it scrolled down the screen. But then it was 1200, and it was better, sure. But you couldn't really read it; not like 300. But both of them sounded great. The carrier tones were pure, beautiful notes. 56K sounds like a buzz saw. 1200 was music.

Back in the day, I was 15, and I owned a bar. The Shady Dragon Inne. It was sweet. Anybody could show up there --- from Dr. Who to Dr. Strange; Lord Foul to the dark god whose name must not be spoken. The place got trashed a lot; natch. We even had a full-blown war, once. We shipped supplies in via Mos Eisley (My partner had a deal there). Of course, it was just a storyboard; just a string of posts on a single subsection of a single board. Just. And still, it was mine. Not just mine, not exclusively mine, but mine in a deep sense not that it belonged to me, but that I belonged to it.

Back in the day, having a board with more than one phone line was huge. Two lines meant more than one person could be online at the same time. This was heavy. But it was the end of something, too: the end of that amazing solitude you felt when the busies stopped, and the carrier finally screeched through, and you knew the board was yours. And then, for as long as you were online, nothing changed unless you changed it. Everything stopped; frozen in time, waiting patiently for you to peruse it, or ignore it. Two lines, though, and it was gone. It was just one more person, but that was a lot.

Back in the day, there were BBS people, and there were D-Dial people. D-Dials were a freak of nature. They weren't right. Some sick puppy had hacked up code to let you string multiple Apples together, hook them up to a batch of phone lines, and then groups of people could dial in and type messages to each other. People did this all day long. They'd just log in, and stay logged in. Some D-Dials had 8, 12, 16 lines. And then they'd have these special events where they'd link two or three or eight D-dials together, and you could have like 50 people typing at each other, all at once. Chaos. BBS people thought D-Dial people were illiterate savages, mainly because on D-Dials, nobody cared much about spelling, grammar or punctuation. It was all about how fast you could type. D-Dial people thought BBS people were stuck-up assholes.

Back in the day, everything was ASCII. Some cool boards had little line graphics, but that was about it. Text; words; language was all there was. Pure thought: often misspelled, frequently mispunctuated, and sometimes in ALL CAPS. Glorious. But then there was ANSI, and pretty soon things started to get ... pretty. Formatted. You could even make text in different colors. And text that blinked. Sometimes both.

Back in the day, I was 15, and I found myself at parties with people a decade older than me. Real ones, not virtual -- the people, and the parties. The people had coalesced from streams of pure monitor light straining my eyes late at night into actual, living breathing friends. People who looked at not an awkward kid; not even at who I said I was, but who looked at what I thought, and what I said. And found somebody worth talking to.

Back in the day, I found a place where what you thought, and what you wrote, was what mattered. Where a teenage loser could lose himself, and in doing so, end up figuring out he was worth finding. The weirdest thing about that place, though? There were other people there. And they wanted to talk. A lot. About everything, and nothing. Because there, they could, and maybe everywhere else, they couldn't.

Back in the day, something started. Or maybe it was there all along, for some other people, in some other space; virtual or not. Whatever it is, it's still going now, and I'm still trying to figure it out.

By N.Z. Bear


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