Weird Ways We Thought About the Internet in 1996

Weird Ways We Thought About the Internet in 1996

There are treasures aplenty just waiting to be discovered in the Farm Journal editorial offices. The most obvious highlight is the archive – from facsimiles of the very first issue (March, 1877) to nearly every issue from the 1910s to present.

And then there’s this gem:


That’s right – in 1996, Farm Journal helped publish a 334-page book to teach you how to use the Internet. Today, the very idea may sound laughable, but the 1990s really were the humble beginnings of the Internet. The U.S. Census didn’t even start monitoring household Internet use until 1997, when only 18% of U.S. households had online access, and less than half of home computers were connected to the Internet.

For a book that is only 19 years old, “The Farmer’s Guide to the Internet” is curiously dated. Here are a few things worth sharing about the state of the Internet in 1996.

1. Al Gore was still highly influential on this topic. By 2015, the idea that Al Gore “invented the Internet” is a well-worn joke. But in 1996, he was still well-regarded as a valued champion of this technology. He was a proponent of high-speed telecommunications since the 1970s. His piece of legislature titled the “High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991” led to the National Information Infrastructure, also known as the Information Superhighway (a phrase coined by, you guessed it, Al Gore).

Then-vice president Gore wrote the forward to “The Farmer’s Guide to the Internet.”

“On the farm … the future will belong to the electronically literate,” he writes. “Farming is not only a fine art, it has always been a knowledge-intensive business …. There is a veritable wealth of valuable information available in cyberspace, but for those just beginning to explore the vast world of the Internet it can all sometimes seem frustratingly out of reach.”

2. We called it a ‘superhighway’ but treated it like a phone book. Calling the Internet the “Information Superhighway” was a bold move, conjuring grand images of hurtling through cyberspace. But more than half of “The Farmer’s Guide to the Internet” is a state-by-state Yellow Pages-esque listing of useful websites with a URL and short description of what you might find there. For someone just discovering the concept of the Internet in 1996, this “phone book approach” made sense at the time. Today, that entire section could be boiled down to one quick sentence – “Just Google it.”

3. It took serious strategy to “surf and save” in rural America. In 1996, the digital divide between urban and rural America was very real. One of the odd ways this was true was just due to long-distance fees associated with connecting to the Internet. If you incurred long-distance fees to log online, those fees were often more expensive than online service provider charges, making rural Internet use much more costly than urban Internet use.

Not to worry, “The Farmer’s Guide to the Internet” had a solution that includes a down-to-the-minute usage strategy that seems utterly obsessive today but was a real cost-saver in 1996. The plan includes:

  • Checking market prices one minute every other day.
  • Browsing the web for a half-hour twice per month.
  • Reading an online magazine for five minutes per week.
  • Sending email (written offline) for 1.5 minutes per day.

In total, this plan had users online for 220 minutes per month, for long-distance charges of $22.00 plus a $9.95 service charge to AOL. Sounds like a bargain.

4. Speed is relative. Moore’s Law assumes computing prowess doubles approximately every 18 months. So what’s cheetah-fast today could seem molasses-slow two decades from out. This is apparent in “The Farmer’s Guide to the Internet,” which describes a 120 MB processor as “blazing” and a 28.8K modem as “lightning-fast.” The book also recommends disabling graphics and only downloading text for a truly supersonic experience.

“If you get a 28,800 bps modem, you’ll probably never have to buy another one,” the book suggests.

5. Internet lingo from 1996 is hilariously outdated. “One thing that seems to keep some people off the Internet is not the cost or the complexity, but learning all the lingo,” the book notes.

Fair enough. Then the book offers some examples, and 1990s nostalgia comes pouring in. “Try Lycos or Yahoo or better yet, FTP PDIAL from Info deli server dot com.”

It’s easy to pick on books like this, but ultimately they are products of their own time and were once quite useful. It will be interesting two decades from now to look back on 2015 and our brave new world of smartphones, tablet computers and even smart watches. Someday, these two will get left in the dust – at least as we know them as they exist today.

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