Wired World

MARK NICHOLS January 17 1994

Wired World

MARK NICHOLS January 17 1994

Wired World



In 1988, Phyllis Smith gave up her job as a political speech writer after suffering a serious head injury in an automobile accident. Convalescing in her Toronto apartment, she began experimenting with her personal computer and discovered a realm that she had barely known existed—the seductive and rapidly growing world of computer networks. By now, she has become a confessed network “junkie.” A subscriber to four different systems, Smith, 46 and single, often logs on to a Toronto-based bulletin board service (BBS) where the emphasis is on social contacts. Other times, she dials up the Rockville, Md.based GEnie network, where she can skim through an electronic version of The New York Times, take part in discussion groups on subjects ranging from science fiction to Canadian politics, or beam electronic messages—e-mail—to network acquaintances all over North America. “It is really amazing,” she says, “to be able to do so many things with a computer—to meet people and learn things. It’s changed my life completely.” Smith is not the only person whose life has been transformed by computer networks. From modest beginnings two decades ago, the networks have spread rapidly to form an enormous and intricate global web. And for the growing thousands of Canadians who have already invaded cyberspace—which is what computer enthusiasts call the conceptual world that lies behind the flickering screens of their terminals—a once-mysterious realm has become a part of everyday life. Many network users log on to Internet, a vast super-system of more than 40,000 networks crammed with scientific and scholarly information and thousands of discussion forums (page 45). Because Internet provides channels for instant electronic communication, it has fundamentally altered the way scientists and scholars do their work. Other network users are hooked on meeting people or searching for romance on locally or regionally based bulletin boards (page 46). By creating far-flung “virtual communities” of people sharing common interests, the networks are making their influence felt in the business world, in politics and government, in journalism and in schools (page 47).

They are also making headlines. In recent

months, police have cracked down on illegal computer-disseminated pornography in Toronto and Winnipeg, while Ontario government officials have struggled to suppress network reports that violate the publication ban on testimony from the Karla Homolka manslaughter trial. At some point in the future, computer networks may be absorbed into a larger electronic data system that telephone and cable TV companies are promoting as the information superhighway—a single, interactive system linking telephones, television, cable and computers over hair-thin fibre-optic lines. But for now, computer networks are the highway—one jammed with traffic and, to true believers, laden with long-term significance. “In terms of revolutionary events in intellectual history,” says Dr. Stephen Wolff, director of networking at the National Science Foundation, which presides over Internet’s U.S. backbone network, “I think Internet and computer networks in general are on a par with the invention of printing. Never before has it been possible for so many people to communicate directly through printed messages.”

According to Statistics Canada, some 2.4 million Canadian households—or 23 per cent of the total—now have at least one personal computer. Some experts estimate that half a million of those households also have modems—meaning that they can be connected to networks. Currently, about 25,000 Canadians use two of the country’s largest networks—Toronto-based CRS Online, and the National Capital FreeNet in Ottawa. As well, hundreds of thousands of Canadians use Internet through university or corporate links, or as subscribers to commercial services that provide Internet access. Thousands more are connected to such U.S. services as Columbus, Ohiobased CompuServe and America Online, based in Vienna, Va., or to the local BBSs that have sprung up in most Canadian cities.

Other Canadians are exploring cyberspace through an interconnected system of community-based, free-access networks called FreeNets that offer e-mail facilities, discussion forums, sports schedules and other information. So far, Free-Nets are up and running in Ottawa, Victoria and Trail, B.C., and Free-Net



committees are organizing systems in 16 other Canadian cities.

As the computer circuits extend their electronic tendrils and the technology that runs them becomes more user-friendly, sophisticated computer networks are demonstrating their power and versatility. Examples:

• Like millions of academics around the world, Louis Taillefer, a physicist at Montreal’s McGill University, uses Internet to communicate with other scientists. In 1993, Taillefer collaborated on a paper about superconductivity with scientists at three other North American universities. Because the collaboration took place entirely over the computer network, the scientists involved never had a face-toface meeting. Internet, says Taillefer, “has really changed the way scientists work. I send e-mail to people around the world—and two doors away.”

• In December, Nigel Blumenthal, a Toronto business consultant, celebrated the eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah by organizing a charity campaign in CompuServe’s religion section. As cash contributions for Jerusalem’s Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital flowed in, candles were added to a computer image of a menorah, the candelabra lighted nightly at Hanukkah. “Once you have a group of people communicating on-line,” says Blumenthal, “a sense of community develops.”

• In November, computer networks became embroiled in a legal controversy over the case of Karla Homolka, who was convicted in St. Catharines, Ont., last summer of manslaughter in the deaths of two teenage girls. After U.S. newspapers defied a court-ordered publication ban designed to ensure a fair trial for Homolka’s estranged husband, Paul Teale, testimony from her trial also started showing up on computer networks. Ontario justice officials issued stem warnings, and most network and BBS operators in Ontario responded by closing down discussion forums carrying details of the case. But discussion of the banned material was still appearing on BBSs, including Toronto’s privately run Magic service, late in December. As well, provincial officials admitted that civil servants and other users of an Ontario govemment-run computer service could get access to files containing the banned Homolka material at the University of Minnesota. “It’s a joke,”



A fully equipped IBM-type personal computer, with a powerful 486 Intel microprocessor, sells for about $2,000. Cheaper units can be bought for about $1,200. Modems, which connect PCS to networks via telephone lines, start at about $75 and range up to $200 for a highspeed performer. As well, network users need communications software for their computers, such as the Xtalk system, which sells for about $95, or ProComm Plus for about $125.


Commercial networks, including U.S.based Delphi, CompuServe and America Online or CRS Online of Etobicoke Ont., can be pricey, but they offer news and financial information, electronic games, on-line shopping, chat lines, discussion forums and varying amounts of Internet access. Costs range from CRS Online's $130 annual subscription fee, including two hours a day on-line (some Internet services are extra), to CompuServe': basic $50 membership, with additional monthly charges starting at $9.

A fast and seamless global link

IOTEK Inc., a Dartmouth, N.S., firm that specializes in defence electronics, uses the Internet computer network to carry on business around the world. One of the major recent contracts for the firm, which employs 40 people and does about $4 million worth of business a year, was to develop a sonar analysis system for the Australian navy. Modern sonar can locate and identify vessels by analysing underwater sound waves. Jim Hanlon, IOTEK'S marketing director, says that the firm uses Internet's e-mail facilities to transmit updates of complex computer programs to Sydney, Australid—in minutes.

"The beduty of e-mail," says Hanlon, "is that it's fast, efficient and seamless."

says Jim Carroll, a Toronto computer consultant. “As soon as one news group is closed down, the story shows up somewhere else.”

• In recent months, police in Toronto and Winnipeg have swooped down on BBS operators who were transmitting pornographic images that included scenes involving sex with animals and children. Experts say that electronic porn is growing in popularity because computer owners with special software can easily receive high-quality graphic images. Some Canadian and U.S. universities have begun restricting access to parts of Internet where legal—and illegal—pornographic images are available, often from European sources with more lenient laws. “Anybody with Internet access can get this stuff,” says Karsten Johansson, who operates a Toronto computer security firm.

The fast-expanding computer world is dominated by Internet, the globe-girdling agglomeration of networks that links more than 2 million computers and more than 20 million individual users in about 60 countries. Besides providing access to huge amounts of information on virtually any subject, Internet also serves as a relatively cheap communications system that allows academics and scientists, business people and other users to whisk electronic messages across the office or around the world.

The mega-network dates back to 1969, when the U.S. defence department, fighting the Cold War, decided to build an experimental computer network that could survive disruption and support scientific and military research in the event of a nuclear attack. The network was based on technology known as packet-switching: messages, put into electronic envelopes, or packets, are broken up into coded fragments that find their own way over high-speed phone lines and reassemble themselves at their destinations. In 1986, the Washingtonbased National Science Foundation (NSF), a U.S. government


Vancouver has about 350 of them, Winnipeg has 135 and Halifax has about 100. All told, there are thousands of computer BBSS in Canada—mostly small, usually run out of private homes and offering memberships free or for as little as $5 a month. Many BBSS specialize in some area of interest— computer technology and sex are popular topics. Other, larger, commercially run BBSS have discussion forums catering to different interest groups, as well as electronic games aijcMext files on various subjects. Some bulletin boards, like Totonto's Web, give advocacy groups a place to post news of community

and international .events.......*.......................


Agrowing number of firms specialize in providing subscribers with access to Internet. For $99 a year, Vancouver's Mindlink! offers customers one hour of free on-line time a day (additional time costs from $1.08 to $2.40 an hour). HookUp Communications of Waterloo, Ont—for an annual fee of $3ÓÖ^rtovides“fuïl Internet access with 50 hours Of on-line time a month (additional time^bO cents an hour).


Over the years, Internet has developed its own abrasive code of behavior. Newcomers are expected to "lurk" silently, learning about the system before joining news group discussions. Rather than ask about the system, neophytes should consult lists of FAQS (frequently asked questions). Network users who espouse unpopular positions in discussions risk being "flamed"—or subjected to violent verbal abuse, often in capital letters.

agency, used the same technology to link five supercomputing centres across the country, which in turn acted as hubs for regional networks linking universities and research institutions.

With traffic growing rapidly on the network, a consortium of universities and private corporations was formed in 1987 to operate the Internet backbone. Over time, other computer networks, including public and commercial networks in North America and Europe, forged links to parts of the NSFNET, and the sprawling giant known as Internet was bom. Internet is not owned or controlled by any single organization, but a body called the Internet Engineering Task Force sets standards for the network.

The Canadian component of Internet began to take shape during the mid-1980s when universities in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec formed links with the U.S.-based network. Then, in 1990, the National Research Council designated the University of Toronto

A new Pacific Rim partnership

Michael Hasinoff, a physics professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, is involved in a project that typifies the way science is done in the computer age. In an experiment aimed at testing theories about fundamental aspects of the universe, scientists plan to examine the decay of a subatomic particle called a kaon next year at the Laboratory for High Energy Physics 50 km outside of Tokyo, Japan. Currently, scientists in Canada, the United States and Japan are running computer simulations of the experiment and transmitting the results to participants over Internet, the worldwide computer network. "Without the network," says Hasinoff, 'There is no way we could carry out a project involving scientists thousands of miles apart."

and Toronto-based IBM Canada to set up CA*net, which links provincially run computer networks across the country and acts as the Canadian segment of Internet.

Until three years ago, Internet was virtually the private preserve of scientists, academics and university students. Now, word has spread, aided by Washington’s promotion of the “Net” as a prototype of a future information highway—President Bill Clinton is the first U.S. chief executive to have an Internet address. As a result, curious private citizens and businesses are crowding onto Internet at a rate that is doubling its size every year—and at a time when the Net may be facing fundamental changes.

Currently, the NSF spends about $24 million each year to operate Internet’s backbone network for the U.S. research and academic communities and, in the process, indirectly subsidizes much of the other traffic in the system. But last April, the foundation asked telecommunications firms to submit proposals spelling out how they would I operate parts of NSFNET. Roger g Taylor, a former senior official at I Ottawa’s National Research I Council and now an executive of| ficer at the foundation, says “the I feeling is that it is time for government to get out of the connectivity business and let the private sector take it over.”

Proposals have poured in from some of the same large corporations—including Tele-Communications, Inc. of Denver and Philadelphia-based Bell Atlantic—that are now gearing up to supply American homes with interactive systems to deliver movies-on-demand, video games and financial services. Similar changes may be in store for CA*net. A consortium of corporations and educational institutions called CANARIE (for Canadian Network for the Advancement of Research, Industry and Education) has launched a $10-million upgrading of CA*net—with some government support—as part of a twoyear, $115-million program to expand and improve Canada’s electronic infrastructure.

Some Internet users fear that if parts of the Net are taken over by cable operators or telephone companies, Internet’s informal, almost anarchic character might be altered. “The culture of the network will begin to change,” says Toronto’s Carroll, co-author of The Canadian Internet Handbook, which will be published this spring. “It’s already beginning to change as cyberpunks and business users encounter each other on the network.” Discouraged in the past from using Internet, businesses, including Canadian firms, are now finding reasons to do so. Despite an informal ban on advertising over Internet, dozens of computer and software companies make their presence felt on the network by providing free software and technical information in discussion forums dedicated to their products.

A Halifax bookstore has already demonstrated how an Internet connection can bring in new business. In August, bookseller Roswell James decided to list the 4,500 volumes stocked by his store, Roswell Computer Books, which specializes in computerrelated literature, on the Nova Scotia Technology Network, a

system accessible through Internet. “We were trying to find a way to serve all of Atlantic Canada,” says James. ‘We didn’t realize that our listing could be seen all over the world. Half the inquiries that came in were from overseas.” Since then, James has sold hundreds of books to customers in the United States, Europe, Australia and Japan.

Other firms are plugging into Internet to gain access to the network’s inexpensive e-mail system. According to Michael Strangelove, an Ottawa entrepreneur who launched the monthly Internet Business Journal in May, thousands of Canadian businesses now use Internet and the number will increase rapidly, “because it’s an extremely low-cost and efficient form of communication.”

Networks are also starting to change the way journalists work and the way newspapers and magazines reach their audiences. Some reporters have broken stories by analysing data collected by public institutions. In February, journalist Parker Barss Donham, on assignment for the Halifax Daily News, used a spreadsheet—a number-crunching program— on his home computer to discover information that the Nova Scotia government did not want made public. Starting with raw data that gave the results of tests carried out in unidentified Nova Scotia high schools, which he obtained under a freedom of information request,

Parker used his computer to rank school boards and determine which of them were performing well or badly.

Like a growing number of journalists, Donham, who lives near Sydney, N.S., has also begun locating information sources by posting inquiries in Internet news groups, where experts in almost any field can be located. “You just go in and say, ‘I’m looking for someone who knows about whatever the subject is,’ ” says Donham, “and you’ll get quite a few hits.” Last month, Bill Doskoch, a reporter for the Regina Leader-Post, placed a request on two commercial computer networks while working on an article about, appropriately, the electronic revolution sweeping the information and entertainment industries. “Within three days, I had five replies,” says Doskoch.

In another development, electronic versions of such publications as The New York Times, the Toronto-based Globe and Mail and a number of magazines are now available to libraries and businesses through databases that store issues going back at least five years.

There is access to those databases through computer networks—for a price. Typically, a corporate subscriber in Calgary pays at least $120 a year, as

well as on-line charges of around $2 a minute, for Infomart, which carries the texts of 75 newspapers and magazines, including Maclean’s, and other information.

Some news is available at a much lower cost. About 20 U.S. and Canadian newspapers, including The Hamilton Spectator and The Ottawa Citizen, use inexpensive, or free, local computer networks to make limited amounts of editorial material available, and to promote themselves by encouraging discussions of local issues in network forums. Dennis Concordia, the Spectator’s assistant human resources manager, says that the newspaper’s SPEC Link service— which provides subscribers with a selection of news from the daily paper and 30 discussion forums—may become the nucleus of a future Hamilton Free-Net system. “We got into this,” says Concordia, “because we didn’t want to see anyone else being a primary information source in the community.”

Computer networks have also begun to play a role in politics. During the run-up to the Oct 25 general election, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals operated a nationwide bulletin board to distribute information and get feedback from party members and campaign workers. “Canada-wide

discussions about campaign issues would get going on the board,” says Reg Alcock, who won the riding of Winnipeg South in the election. Three years ago, the Liberals’ British Columbia wing became the first—and so far the only— provincial party to set up a bulletin board, which carries news releases and policy papers and runs discussion forums that are open to the public. During debate over the proposed Charlottetown constitutional accord in October, 1992, B.C. Liberal party officials reported about 40 calls a day on the BBS. “You can tell what the hot issues are because they are the topics that get hit in the discussion conferences,” says Floyd Sully, a member of the party’s executive council.

Looking further ahead, some communications experts foresee a time when interactive electronic communications will merge and everything from movies-on-demand and home shopping services to electronic texts and network television will be available over the same “telecomputer,” or TV-computer set. “Let me make a bold prediction,” says Michael Binder, an assistant deputy minister at the federal department of industry. ‘Ten years from now you won’t know or care where your data is coming from. The distinction we make between telephones, television and computers is going to disappear.” In the meantime, the rapidly expanding computer networks, by helping millions of users to work, learn and have fun on-line, are providing a fascinating preview of the electronic future. □

Making music by computer

In early 1991, Saskatchewan-born folksinger Buffy 1 Sainte-Marie worked at her home on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, performing music on synthesizers and other electronic instruments. Converted into digital signals and fed into a Macintosh computer, the music was transmitted via computer network to CB Sound in London, England. Because most networks cannot transmit the full richness of the human voice, Sainte-Marie's singing was recorded separately and mailed to the studio. Then, the singer flew to London for the final mixing of music and vocals for the album Coincidence and Likely Stories—-released in April, 1992.