A 1985 Essay from a Bulletin Board System Admin Eerily Foretold Our Future
From privacy to the dark web, this obscure essay has it all.
Image: Courtesy of Paul Petro, scan by author
Vintage futurists were a wild bunch. Reading their words now—decades after they first aired their hopes and anxieties for a future they couldn't have possibly foreseen—you're just as likely to think, "What were they thinking?" as you are, "Where did we go wrong?"
To get a sense of what I'm talking about, look no further than an obscure 1985 essay written by Michael Inman, the system operator (or sysop) of a defunct Toronto-based art bulletin board system (BBS) called the Pool. The essay appeared in an issue of Nexpress, a newsletter produced by a group of proto-net artists working on a technology called Telidon in the early 80s.
"As we use computers for security, banking, shopping, etc., our privacy is threatened"
Its title is "Reflections from the Pool," and it depicts an eerily prescient picture of our often dystopic present: mass surveillance, hidden economies, and damaging hacks.
I discovered it during my research for a feature I wrote on the history of Telidon art, and honestly, it blew me away. I did some googling and couldn't find any information on Inman, except for some mentions in lists of BBSes of times gone by. But it's so damn good, I can't help but share at least some of it.
Enjoy this unsettlingly accurate 80s vision of our dystopian present.
Watch more from Motherboard: The Lost Art of Canada's Doomed Pre-Internet Web
The Dark Web
The underground economy that is flourishing today will grow as more people become disillusioned with the current governing organizations. I have seen BBS's around town used extensively for barter and there are legitimate barter systems that have been listed with the B.B.B. [Ed note: presumably, Inman means the Better Business Bureau] for the last seven years. For those who are puzzled by the term 'underground economy:' it is a quiet Canadian revolt against the bad management of the government. It is where money is earned but not declared, the existence of organized barter systems and secret businesses; all to avoid taxes. The government does not have a clue to how much money is made, but gives an estimate of five to 60 billion per year.
The wide range in this rough estimate betrays the government's ability to cope with this 'hidden economy.' This trend would be served well by computer data links and it might be a new positive force in our lives in the very near future. There are also certain social forces connected with computers and telecommunications that might not be so friendly. But that is a different story.
This kind of language will sound familiar to anyone who follows the immense drama surrounding the dark web, the sites and services that are only accessible via the anonymous network Tor. Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted of running dark web market Silk Road, often wrote of the site as a libertarian, even anti-government, project.
On the dark web, people can buy drugs, guns, and other illegal goods using Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency that governments are still struggling to regulate. At the same time, it is a place for people to anonymously fight for good causes, and a point of confusion for authorities. In the case of the Toronto Police's investigation into the Ashley Madison hack, the police turned to hackers for help monitoring the dark web.
As for an internet-based barter system, well, just take a look at the Facebook-based Bunz Trading Zone (formerly Bums), which has totally taken over Toronto at this point.
Computer crime, which is on the rise, could cause some interesting effects. The law and commerce forces admit they do not know how many billions of dollars have been taken. They don't know! That amazes me. A professor warned the Government of Canada that computer crime would put the institutions of our economy on their ear by the end of the 80s. We could be in danger of having the old system collapse before a new system takes over.
This beautiful bit of 80s computer hysteria is a gem on its own, a clear product of the era of hokey hacker flicks like WarGames. Sorry, Mike, but capitalism is still a thing in 2015. And yet, it's an incredibly prescient passage now that an instance of computer crime—namely, the Ashley Madison hack—has solidified hacking as a potentially dangerous and disruptive force in the lives of average people.
As we use computers for security, banking, shopping, etc., our privacy is threatened. Detailed files on our political, consumer, lifestyle, and entertainment tastes will grow as we live. We must entrench laws that will give us complete access to these files without any fear of scrutiny or punishment, as well as those laws preventing or at least controlling access to these files by outside parties. These laws protecting our privacy must be created while this new technocracy is being formed; for it will be more difficult after it is established.
This section hardly needs elaboration. Now that constant, ubiquitous surveillance by any number of government or private actors is understood to be a given online, it seems like what Inman feared most has actually come to pass. After years of the infrastructure of mass surveillance being built and fine-tuned—we only learned about it after Edward Snowden leaked his famous files—we're just now playing catch-up with how our digital privacy has been treated by the state all along.
Inman ends his essay with quote from Albert Camus, which is a bit dramatic, but also a nice touch. So, I'll conclude with the same quote here.
We must live,
We must create in the storm
We must stop commenting on our time in order to give it form
- Albert Camus