Week 3: 1973–1990
Services: Afronet and the Digital Divide
Before AOL and other national service providers, before the World Wide Web and web browsers, users accessed the internet through local networks called bulletin board systems, or BBSs for short. People would dial in using their home telephone line, in the early days using an acoustic coupler, a type of modem that translated the phone’s dial tones into data, and connect to a server that offered message boards, chat, games, and other services. Because of the costs of long-distance calling at the time, most BBS users were local, which resulted in a wide and diverse collection of communities, with as many as 17 million regular users and more than 60,000 BBSs at their height in 1994 (Metcalfe 1994).
Afronet was a collection of BBSs offering internet services with specific interest to Black communities. The network brought together systems that began as early as the 1980s, showing a history of Black internet use concurrent with the rise of commercial services such as AOL, back when it was still known by its platform-specific names PC-Link and Apple-Link. As Charlton McIlwain shows, the idea of the “digital divide,” a term meant to call attention to unequal access to the internet, has had the side effect of occluding the story of these networks. Cybersecurity expert Fredrick “Flee” Lee recalls growing up in rural Mississippi and finding inspiration for his later career in a 2600 story about the Black hacker known by the alias “Corrupt” or “John Threat.” As with radio before it, computers and the internet were hobbies for young amateurs that quickly became a way of life.
This week we’ll take a deeper look at how different communities used the early net, from cultural projects aimed at fostering Black culture to comic books and magazines meant to attract young people to computers, while considering how television and film represented life online before the Web.
• Charlton McIlwain, “Making Space For Black Software,” Science Friday, October 25, 2019.
• S.C. Stuart, “Tech History Is More Than Just ‘White, Male Wizards,'” PC Magazine, November 1, 2019.
• Kevin Driscoll, “Social Media’s Dial-Up Ancestor: The Bulletin Board System,” IEEE Spectrum, October 24, 2016.
Primary Sources and Artifacts
• 2600 Magazine, vol. 1, no. 10 (October 1984). An issue from the first year of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly with an opening article on hacker encounters with the FBI (a theme going back to the very first issue) and a number of letters to the editor explaining the BBS experience.
• The TRS-80 Computer Whiz Kids, cat. no. 68-2030 (1984 ed.). A RadioShack comic book featuring a computer terrorism plot, an acoustic coupler, and a helpful tutorial on the Tandy computer.
• Paul Andrews, “Afrolink Software Inc. — First of Its Kind, Afrolink Software Puts Issues On Line,” Seattle Times, September 24, 1990. Early local newspaper coverage of Kamal Al Mansour’s pioneering bulletin board software.
• Anita M. Samuels, “Making a Difference; Black Culture, Computerized,” New York Times, February 28, 1993. National coverage of Al Mansour’s expanding business.
• Mary B. W. Tabor With Anthony Ramirez, “Computer Savvy, With an Attitude; Young Working-Class Hackers Accused of High-Tech Crime,” July 23, 1992. A contemporary account of the New York City hacker wars of the 1990s, with the paper’s first mention of John Threat.
• Charlton D. McIlwain. Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter. Oxford University Press, 2019.
• Michael A. Banks. On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Founders. Apress, 2008. [PDF]
• “Charlton McIlwain with Kamal Al-Mansour: Black Software,” Seattle Civics Series, December 2, 2019.
• “Black Software with Charlton McIlwain,” Digital Mindfulness, January 21, 2020.
• “Chapter 3,” Internet History Podcast, April 2014. Part 1. Part 2. Supplemental.