Where would I be without the internet?
I’m a bit of a YouTube addict and one of the channels I enjoy watching is ‘AlternateHistoryHub’ recently I watched a video called ‘What if the internet never existed’, at the end of that video he asks the viewers what their own alternate histories would be without the internet. This seemed like an interesting thought exercise so I got to work. For those who may be interested, here is my own, alternate history.
A bit of real history, for context
I’ve had computers in one form or another since my Amiga 500 in the late 80’s, whilst I’m sure my parents bought me it for educational purposes, I mainly used it for two things, playing games and creating digital art (which is a grandiose term for doodling squiggles with Deluxe Paint).
In 1995, I got my first PC, again my actual reason for wanting the PC was so I could play games (Specifically, Discworld), however, I justified it to my parents as a great tool for productivity. This was the first time in my life that I had a computer which was able to connect to other computers, the internet was brand new at this point and was very expensive to connect to, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t use other networks.
I discovered a local network of computers known as Bulletin Board Systems (more commonly known as a BBS), these were hardly the internet as they were limited by the number of phone lines connected to the computer, most BBS’s had one phone line and so two users tops could be connected: The visitor on the line and the Systems Operator (Known as a SysOp) who ran the BBS.
It didn’t take long before I wanted to be a SysOp of my own BBS, so I created a BBS known as ‘Storm Front’ (I thought the name sounded cool, I had never heard of the White nationalist movement, give me a break, I was 14).
Storm Front became a very popular local BBS, but of course it was only a community, there was never a way to make money, however, I learned the basics of programming and design (even though it was only ASCII design) and when we finally got the internet two years later, I started making websites too. By 1998, BBS’s were dying out, some of the most popular ones had moved to the internet and mine (now called ‘Filtered Reality’ as I had learned about the horrible connection to the ‘other’ Storm Front) followed suit.
This was my first taste of running a real website, before that I had really only done basic HTML coding on sites like GeoCities and Angelfire, however now I had my own website on my own hosting provider, it was a simple PHPBB forum with a few mods added to it, however tinkering with it meant I had to learn how to use PHP, MySQL and HTML to a fairly high degree and so I took my first honest steps into web development.
I won’t bore you with my career history but needless to say it advanced from here, flash forward twenty years and I am now a successful freelance web developer who has built sites for some major UK and international organisations, I live in a beautiful part of the South of England and I am very happily married to a wonderful and beautiful woman who enriches my life in countless ways.
It’s no exaggeration to say that without the existence of the internet, my life would be drastically different. But how different? Let’s go back to 1996 and find out.
Crap, I’m a teenager again
The pimply-faced Alex of 1996, was already a bit of a computer nerd and my friends were much the same, the BBS community of Hull (my hometown) was quite small but stretched throughout the entire city, in my home village (Hedon), there were three BBS users that I knew of, myself, my best friend, Steve and a kid called Danny who we met when he dialed into my BBS and we got chatting.
The three of us spent a lot of time together and had some cool ideas on how we could make our BBS’s better (Steve didn’t run one but Danny did – however Steve came up with some good ideas for both). Danny and I were very technically minded, both of us learned a bit of code an spent huge amounts of times customising our boards, occasionally sharing mods and code snippets around the community.
Without the internet, this likely would have continued and would have advanced with the times, even though the internet didn’t exist, BBS’s were starting to advance further, in 1997 a BBS called ‘Eclipse’ started using new software that moved away from ASCII art and used a real GUI interface, it came out right at the end of the BBS era so as far as I knew, it was the only BBS in Hull that made this advancement, however without the internet to kill it off, I suspect we’d have all become users of this new software.
It was written in Visual Basic, which meant that Danny and I would have started to learn VB in order to tinker with our own boards. At the time, I was just leaving school and was considering my future career, even in our current timeline ‘Web Developer’ didn’t really exist as a career option back then but I knew I wanted to work in computers, so I started an NVQ course in IT support.
It was on some work experience whilst on this course I started tinkering properly with web development which moved my enthusiasm away from computers themselves and onto the World Wide Web, without a web to develop for, it’s likely I would have continued down the path of IT support, eventually going back to The University of Hull’s IT support team (where I did my work experience as a network engineer) as a full time member of staff.
Flash forward a few years later and my career would have been going fairly strong, there wasn’t a huge amount of money in IT support but I suspect that by now, Danny and I would have started collaborating on a few software projects and without the internet driving the concept of free software, may have even come up with something worth selling, however, I’m not going to indulge that flight of fancy as I know that – internet notwithstanding – my life would still probably take a few similar paths at this point.
In 2001, I decided I wanted to start my own business, in our timeline, that was a web development business, in the alternate one, I suspect it would have been an IT support business, just like my first business I’m sure it would have failed due to a lack of experience with the ‘business’ side of things and I would have found myself unemployed for a while.
At this point I think that my life path would have been practically identical outside of my career, I think I would have still met my first girlfriend, Sarah and I suspect we would have had a similar relationship trajectory to the one in our own timeline, albeit one with less tension as my lack of a strong career goal (own a web development business) would have given way to lower risk ideas of either building some cool software or rising up the ranks as an IT technician.
However, I know what my mindset was back then and the easy-going nature of my job as a University IT support guy would have been too comfortable to give up. Which means that I’d never have had the years of living on the dole that I had in my early 20’s whilst trying multiple times to make it as a freelancer in Hull.
The big split
In our timeline, 2005 was a watershed year for me, my career in the world of web development was stagnating, I’d spent the previous two years working at print shop in Hull and although we did build websites and as the only web developer in the company, I was the one who did that, running a print-shop mainly consisted of – funnily enough – printing things. I actually enjoyed my time there and even in this timeline, I may have moved down a different path, had it not closed down in 2005. At this point, I realised that my career as a web developer was not likely to lead very far if I remained in Hull. So I decided to leave.
Hull had a low barrier to entry for a lot of things, web development was no exception but other cities would not be as forgiving, so I decided that to bolster my experience, I needed a degree. I went to university to study web development. Ultimately the friends I made at university and my desire to leave my hometown created a rift in my relationship with Sarah and eventually caused us to break up.
Without the internet, none of that would have happened. I loved working at Hull University as a technician, it was a laid back, friendly place and I’m quite confident that if web development had not turned my head, I’d have stayed there for as long as they would have had me, however it was not a challenging job and after 7 years of it, I would have probably become quite jaded, not only that, I imagine I’d have become almost institutionalised by the University way of life, in short, I’d have a career for life and would probably have stayed there until retirement.
This would have had a huge knock-on effect on the rest of my life trajectory, my desire to leave Hull was there before the internet and would probably have still existed in the alternate 2005, however without the feeling that I couldn’t advance far enough in my career, there would be nothing to pull me away and the proximity of family and friends would keep me close.
I don’t think I’d have left Hull, I wouldn’t have met Colette (the woman who became my lovely wife) and I’d never have become successful.
In fact, I can see quite a clear picture of alt-Alex in 2018. He’s been an IT engineer for 20 years, grunting at the apprentices and is probably quite bitter and jaded, he has settled down with Sarah, probably knocked a few kids out and has a truly dull life consisting of working 8 hours and then going home and watching TV until bedtime.
Without the increased income that came from leaving Hull and becoming successful, he’s still struggling with debt. Of course he only has himself to blame for that, even without the internet he is still addicted to technology and would probably still want to own the latest gadgets (whatever they may be in a non-internet world) and without a decent income to support that habit, he’d probably just use debt to buy them.
Also without the major upheavals, my life has had from constantly pushing at my own boundaries, which resulted in a hell of a lot of lows before it yielded any significant highs, I wouldn’t have developed much in the way of strength of character. My life would have remained flat and as a result, I would have never really changed, instead I’d still have low self-esteem and I’d still be meek, however with the stresses of debt, of being in an undoubtedly unhappy marriage and having kids, I suspect I’d have added bitterness and resentment to my character and would have developed a hard edge which would probably come out as being gruff with people beneath me at work and snapping at my family.
I started this article without thinking very deeply about it, I actually thought my path would have taken me down a catering route as I briefly entertained the thought of being a chef when I was at school, but it became quite apparent after looking at my own history with a magnifying glass that I was always destined to be in the IT industry in one way or another and I was surprised at how easy it was to follow the logical conclusions of my alternate path, knowing the mindset I had then and knowing that without real upheaval, nothing would really cause it to change is a sobering thought.
So, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee and the folks at Cern for inventing the World Wide Web, I think it’s safe to say that you gave me a path that is considerably more optimistic than what could have happened and I will be eternally grateful that, thanks to their invention, the ‘what could have been’ became the ‘what never was’.