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Rushes Sequences - Stewart Brand interview - USA (Video)

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Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 10:24 UK time, Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Stewart Brand is a writer and president of The Long Now Foundation. He was the creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue, an early virtual community, which he discusses here with Aleks Krotoski and the Digital Revolution programme one team.

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(Please note that this transcript is the 'raw data' text we receive from a transcription company. It is a tool commonly used in production to facilitate editing and review the content. We publish it for users in that same spirit, rather than it standing as a 'perfect' representation of the content.)

Stewart    The WELL was just a big bulletin board. For some reason the bulletin board, which kind of preceded the internet in terms of places where people hung out online, had been forgotten, as near as I can tell. When I was paying attention ...... and they're starting to be what was then called conference systems. Like [Eyes] and then we had [ConQuServe] and [The Source] and The WELL was just a very local um kind of jumped up bulletin board that um was cheaper than most and more accessible than most. We invited hackers in and they came in because they got serious access to a serious [unex] machine that they could play around in. They helped us improve the code and all this sort of thing. I gave free accounts to journalists and writers, so the level of discourse online was pretty good from the start. And so was a body of people who turned out to have a lot to say to each other. Um there were a couple of things that we required that made it, I think, work. Not only that it was cheap er everybody knew who everybody was, they used handles but there was no anonymity online. There was the understanding that you owned your own words which means you're responsible for what you say, you're not going to sue us, The WELL, because we don't have any money anyway but, you know, don't mess with it. And users could create topics with-, and conferences the same with a little bit of conversation with management, start their own conferences, and indeed if they ran a conference that encouraged a fair amount of traffic, then they got free access to The WELL. So part of it was kind of a gift economy online um but it became a community faster and more profoundly than I would've expected, frankly. Um it still lives to this day, not only in memory, but as a place where a number of people hang out.

Aleks Can you explain a little bit about the mechanics? So, how did people access it, what visually did it look like? Can you sort of break it down to an audience who may never have heard, or may not even believe that online community exists?

Stewart Well remember, we're talking about 1983, 1984, so personal computers were just barely happening er telecommunications was happening through modems. You go into a hotel room and, you know, you get out your screwdriver and you start messing around with the apparatus that's there to try and get yourself online so you can do email. And to everybody-, it's kind of like your early years of cars, everybody had to know how to fix the car, everybody had to know how to mess with this stuff to make it, you know, even semi-functioning. That attitude came not only because they were doing it with their personal apparatus, they then brought that attitude to a joint aggregate community apparatus at The WELL, so everybody was helping kind of build this little online town. And it was slow, the code we were using, called [Peeklespan] was fairly dreadful but actually functional, and it had some weird capabilities that became somewhat pathological. It became possible for a person to decide to, as we said then, scribble, let us erase anything, everything that they'd ever said in the years that they'd been on The WELL would just go back and be removed. They got really, really angry and one guy actually committed suicide, and before he committed suicide with his real body he did it online by removing all of this existence online. So there was that kind of peculiar social behaviour that emerged in the course of all this. Um so it's a social event, it's a technological event, it was um early, it was pre-internet in many respects, and for the people who got into it, it was the sort of thing people [worry about] in the ...... so addicted to Second Life or whatever it is now. People were spending hours online, which was great for us because we got eight dollars for every hour they spent online. And we weren't coining money but we were staying in business, and that's really all The WELL has every done, it never coined serious money for anybody. It was a place where the Grateful Dead er crowds of Dead Heads went from concert to concert and recorded, you know, freely and wanted to swap tapes and swap gossip and all this stuff. They've been doing that Helter Skelter by email, and The WELL gave them a place where they could conjoin all of those conversations in one place. And basically people discovered that asynchronous communication, that is you log on and you see the things, the comments that had been made on your comment over the last couple of hours and make your comment and this is kind of slow-motion discussion, which for some reason brought out a um I don't know if honesty's the right term, but an intimacy that was surprising to me. I'd first encountered it, some of the early bulletin boards were sex boards, one was called Date-A-Base, you know, database, and it put in your sexual proclivities and then they would be matched up with, you know, a matching set of proclivities from the other side. Which was great, so gays were finding gays and bis were finding bis and on and on. But what I noticed there is that the public conferences and, you know, this is a bulletin board, we're not in somebody's basement, but in public conferences it was a like a co-educational locker room where, instead of just the women telling the women what really happened and the guys telling the guys what really happened, they were telling each other in one joint conversation what really happened last night on their peculiar date. And what they were doing now differently and of, er there was a openness, that somehow-, and you always hear about the distance online allows insult and flames and all those kind of things, it does, it's a problem, but it also involves-, invites some kind of openness that um turned out to be transformative. Um so we got a lot of people fell in love, they got married, they had children and their children are online and this became a world that was deeply connected to the real world. The WELL was a regional system, it was based in the Bay area, so er one of the reasons I wanted to encourage that is so that the real people behind every comment not only that there was no anonymity, but if you're really angry at somebody or really falling in love with somebody you could go find them in ...... or whatever, and deal with them personally. And that was encouraged. So the local and the online were blended in, I think, a way that turned out to be helpful. And you see that, you know, since then with meetups and what not, that the online world wants to not just reference the physical world, but encourage the physical world I think.


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