Writing and the Internet: A Personal Retrospective

I guess I’ve always loved writing.  I wrote, produced and directed my first play when I was around 12.  I would get up at 3 or 4 in the night and sit and write for hours until it was time to go to school – moving the time I got up earlier and getting less and less sleep, until I eventually got caught by my parents due to getting up to write before they got to bed.  I would love creative writing assignments – often starting immediately they were handed out and not finishing before the deadline.  Thinking back, I guess I was a weird kid. Luckily, I got better 🙂

As I grew older, I started writing for the local school paper in primary school (for a large part because it was started by two girls, one of which I had a crush on at the time), continued doing that in high school and university, and eventually became the editor in chief of Mads Føk, the magazine for mathematics, astronomy, computer science (datalogi), statistics, physics (fysik), economics (økonomi) and chemistry (kemi).  Today I have my own blog and can use words such as “retrospective” to give my inane babbling some sense of distinction.  I guess you could say I peaked early.

In the beginning, I was writing mostly fiction.  Like anything made by kids, it was pretty naive and terrible, yet that didn’t stop me from talking about how I was planning on sending in some of my manuscripts to a book publisher.  Luckily, I also had the follow-thru of a kid, which likely saved me a bunch of embarrassment.  I moved on to writing more non-fictiony and satire stuff, and now I’ve reached writing nirvana by posting pictures of my dinner and bragging about the happier parts of my life on Facebook.  As for my publishing dreams, they have turned out differently that I originally envisioned – I have dozens of published papers and book chapters, but also a reader audience of maybe a handful people.

The other day I was biking to work and started thinking about writing.  I’d just published a rather introspective post about happiness and gotten quite positive feedback on that (thanks!), and I started thinking about another similar piece I’d gotten similar positive feedback on earlier.  I’d actually thought about that piece earlier this year, but this time I decided to put in the extra effort to see if I could find it.  Lo and behold, after searching 7 moving boxes stuffed with old notebooks filled with angsty pre-teen incoherent babbling, I eventually did.  Blessed/cursed be my nearly obsessive collectors mentality and surprising archival neatness.

I actually found all 5 issues ever made of Ungdoms-X-pressen (“Youth X-press” because generation X – kids have bad ideas).  I remember the founding meeting where I came with the then preposterous suggestion that we standardize on a typeface to give the magazine a uniform look.  That lasted for just about 2 issues, but just as well, because the default typefdace was set as the ugly Helvetica replica Ariel in a particularly essay-length-enhancing point-size of 14 or something like that.  Even then I knew that was an ugly choice, but didn’t argue the point because I recognized that the argument for the typeface, that is was the default in Microsoft Works, was a good one.

The magazine contains such gems as worries about AIDS, pre-adolescent elaborations about love, sad remembrance of the break-up of Take That, and celebrations of Shannen Dorothy’s 26th birthday. To protect the innocent, I’ll be so courteous to only publish my own writings, though – they are bad enough.  Have a scan of the original, lovingly set in PageMaker (I think the version used was even called Aldus PageMaker) using such innovative features as WordArt titles, Microsofts space- and aesthetics-defying line adjustments, and clip art pictures only a teenager could appreciate.  With youthful thouroughness the last page was forgotten on original publication and unceremoniously thrown in in the following number, so this is from Ungdoms-X-pressen, year 1, issues 2 (February) and 3 (March) 1996.  For those who for some reason doesn’t understand teenager or Danish, I’ll provide a mostly faithful translation afterwards.  Click on a picture to see it in full size.





The piece is written in 1996 by a 15 years (and a half!) old me.  It was written before the internet was a big thing (or even a thing) in most places, and it was written by a nerd who had never used the internet, but only read dozens of books about it. Heck, many households didn’t even have a computer in Denmark at this time, internet connectivity was something you had at universities, and even a BBS was foreign technology to most.

I’ve added some translator’s notes in italics. I’m trying to keep my comments on the contents in general to the text following the translation.


One of the things you as a student on your senior year is thinking a lot about is the future. Education, job, family, etc.

Some days the future seems bright and full of opportunities, and other days the future seems like an animal slowly creeping up on you with murder in its eyes.

No matter whether the future is bright or dark, only few accepts it as-is; everybody wants to know the future – preferably as early as possible.

As I’m no prophet, I cannot serve the future on a silver platter, but must – like everybody else “predicting” the future – guess, weigh arguments in favor of my theory against those against. What I am right about will in time be viewed as givens, whereas the points where I am wrong will be regarded as comical. It is nothing but my guesses, my vision. [This paragraph had me giggling as I was translating it – I don’t think I ever thought I’d actually go back to this piece…]

Regardless of what the future brings, there’s no doubt that computers will have a great impact on what we do. Some think this will cause problems. I’m less pessimistic.

As I’m a computer geek, I of course see a future where computers play a significant role. My vision of the future has nothing to do with control, evne though there needs to be some control of what we do, also to limit breaking the law, and to give us – the users – more rights. [Your guess is as good as mine – I have no idea what I’m trying to say here; it’s one long run-on sentence of non-sequiturs with no conclusion.]

My vision is roughly about the information super highway [A term for today’s internet popularized in Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead, which was totally an inspiration to me at this time.] A huge computer network connecting everybody, much like the internet, which I’ve already described, except the information super highway has some advantages over what the internet already today offers, while at the same time alleviating all the disadvantages of today’s internet. [In the first issue, I described the internet to people who had never heard of the concept before. It was… something.]

But what is the Information Super Highway?

The information super highway (a word so long it can exhaust anybody – hence I’ll just refer to it as the net in the remainder) is like the phone network a coupling of apparatuses which can communicate. The idea is that not only computers are connected to the net, but also something as common as a regular television or a telephone. On top of this we’ll most likely also see a forrest of new apparatuses which can benefit from the net.

Who is the net for? Also me?

The net is for everybody!

You can compare the popularization of the net with for example CDs. When CDs entered the market, only those with money like dirt could afford a player.

With relatively few customers, only few released music on CDs, and hence even less reason to invest in a hugely expensive player.

Later one of two things happen: either the invention withers and dies, or the sales suddenly explode. [The “nutids-R” mistake in the original hurts me deeply in my heart!]

It happened with CDs and therefore more release music on CDs, which makes more invest in players, growing the market for players and CDs…

The same will happen for the net. Either it slowly dissipated into the sand (I doubt that), or many people wishes “information at your fingertips,” as Bill Gates, who in 1975 founded Microsoft together with Paul Allen, beautifully expressed it.

The entire foundation of the net is that a lot of people are connected, because there’s little fun to be had in exchanging information with just a few, it won’t provide a wide selection and opposing opinions. [Badly worded but the gist is that if the net is not available to all, you only have few options for communicating, few options for entertainment, and only communicate with like-minded – my younger self is talking about critical mass without knowing the term.]

When lots of people are connected, you can discuss exactly the topic interesting you, and even the silliest topics will come to their rights. [I must be talking about weird sexual fetishes :-)]

What can the net do for me?

This is a difficult question, bvecause it depends on that you expect from it. If you seek an article about the fall of the Roman empire, the net will provide you with a list of matching articles and possibly a price for the article.

In addition, the net will provide video-on-demand, which will be a god-sent for the screen junkies. [At the time of writing, I was extremely impressed but stamp-sized, 256-color 3 second video clips grudgingly and choppingly being played back from a CD-ROM. Video on the internet was not near reality.]

Video-on-demans will allow you to select programs you want to see, when you want to see them, and not when some smart program planner thinks you should watch it. You can even take another step and only require payment for what you see, so you don’t have to sponsor the stupid opera for your neighbor, but only pay for what you want to see yourself.

One can even imagine making this system even more refined and let users decide to hoe great a degree a program should be financed by advertisements. On can say that a company wishing to spread a message sneds an electronic cheque, which is immediately forwarded to the company selling the movie you wish to watch, and you see their advertisement.

There’s another advantage to watching movies over the net, which is much lower prices. Today, when watching a movie at the cinema, renting it or watching it on TV, you don’t just pay for what you see; you also pay to several middlemen between the producer and consumer (you and me). All of these links could be removed by purchasing the movies directly from the recording studio – optionally thru a digital version of a TV-channel. This “channel” is responsible for establishing contact to recording studios so we don’t have to search for new movies ourselves. […but instead get offers from the “channel”]

Another thing like news reports would also change for the better. Everybody who is tired of hearing about the war in former Yugoslavia raise your hands. Ok, it probably sucks to be there, but I doubt they get any better because we hear about them till we want to hang ourselves. If you could compose your own news reports once and for all by defining what your interests are, how long time a topic may take up, and let the computer make our news report. The same principle could be used for regular papers (which would also turn electronic) and radio news.

On top of this, things like books, art, and other cultural products with a general interest will also be digitized, so you can watch Mona Lisa without traveling to Paris, or read the newest book from one’s favorite author (whose existence the computer helpfully alerts you about – it will learn your taste in all areas; it [the computer] must be able to learn).

Phone conversations will also naturally be sent via the net, with the addition of high quality video (higher than what TV delivers today). There’s nothing preventing you from sending the person you speak to a picture of what you would like to look like – perhaps even a live picture following your movements.

There’ll no longer be any geographical hindrance if you work together with somebody living on the other side of the Earth. It will increase competition in several trades and ensure the customer gets better products and service. A product is made so it fits you. Instead of mass production, we’ll have mass adaptation, where all products are standard products made especially for you. [The same year as this was written, 1996, and especially the year after Dell popularized this exact using their famous pipeline of mass customized computers.]

You were talking about the price… How much will this cost?

Good question, and the price will depend on who you ask, because there’s many ways to set the price.

One way that everybody is equal and hence must pay the same. This solution is outdated and resembles how we today pay for television. Same price regardless of whether you actually use the service or just has it to impress your friends.

Another way is to use the model used by telephone companies. You pay a fixed price and for the time you actually use it.

A completely different model used by the tax authorities to take our hard-earned cash. Those who have pay for those who don’t. On top of that, you pay for the services you use and the time spent.

The latter is i my opinion the most flexible and fair since as many as possible needs to be connected to the net. [Holy fuck no! I forgot this part. I was a damn-dirty commie as a kid? Luckily I got better.]

How much it is in euros and cents, I don’t know, but I doubt it will make life much more expensive for anybody. If you add phone bill, cable, music purchases, etc., you get a fairly large amount. This can for a large part easily cover the cost of the net.

Does this mean it will become another great scheme for the government?

[Yeah, I have no idea where this came from…]


The net will be owned by countless sub-contractors, and many service will surely be free, but in all cases he or she who makes a product will fix the price and earn the profits.

Surely, some sneaky secretary of taxation will see a goldmine and tax the net. This will be come the successor of taxation and VAT and other similar unpleasantries.

I think conmputers are ugly – and you can bring them with like for example a book…

That is true and for this reason we will quickly see (actually they already exist) very small computers which can communicate with the net. The cell phone of the future. [Holy fucking fuck?!? I wrote this is 1996?]

This small personal pocket computer can be brought everywhere, but will be sufficiently powerful to understand written and spoken communication (instead of featuring a keyboard) and both communicate visually (on a tiny screen) and speak to you – using a real human voice, and noth the impersonal voice of robots in any self-respecting SciFi movie.

This computer can be used to read a book (or perhaps to have it read aloud to you), as the future walk-/disc-man and stereo when connected to nice speakers.

This computer will be priced from a hundred euros to a fortune (however much that is) and will of course have different functionality built-in [depending on price]. The cheapest models might not have speech recognition, for example.

Aside from this small computer, your person assistant, it is of course also possible to get “real” computers, i.e., computers standing on a table (or hanging on a wall or built into a wall). These will like today’s telephones and TVs be well-designed. Phones haven’t always been equally pretty. [Again shitty formulations hiding the fact that I’m just saying that computers of the future will look nicer than the eye-sores of 1996.]

But I won’t like having to read a book on a computer screen!

It is probably true that in the beginning you’ll rather read the book on paper. Poeople probably said something similar when Gutenberg invented printing; you’d rather have a nice hand-written copy, or hear a story told by the elders of the family. Today, we couldn’t imaging life without printed media.

Radion and TV were greeted the same way; technologies we wouldn’t want to be without today.

It will likely be the same way with the net. You’ll get annoyed if you have to read an “old-fashioned, difficult to handle paper book.”

Every book will even be ample with so-called “hyper links,” adding the possibility to jump in a document (a document won’t necessarily be just text, but can also be holograms (3D images), video, speech, images, etc.)

Additionally, it will provide people with reading difficulties better opportunities when they can have a book read out to them.

Apropos reading difficulties, how about the school?

When the net becomes a natural part of our daily lives, it will of course take over some of the functions of teachers, but at the same time it will give them new functions and possibilities.

Reed Hunt, the chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission has cleverly said: “There’s tens of thousands of houses in this country with millions of people, which do not have phones, no cable TV, and no reasonable outlook for the information super highway. They are called schools.”

Even if Reed is an American, this is also to some degree true in Denmark, even though many schools have started investing in computers.

This is a impediment for both teacher and student. The teacher cannot quickly find the materials he or she needs, and cannot easily exchange good assignments or experiences with other teachers. Frederiks skole is connected to SkoDa, one of the many predecessors of the net. SkoDa provides some of the same features offered by the net (in a decade or so). [SkoDa, Skolernes Datacenter, or school’s data center, was some public network provided to schools in Denmark which allowed teachers to look up regulations and share some information using message boards and private messages. Unsurprisingly, it was not very good or wide-spread.]

Students also don’t have great possibilities. The video or tape (schools are outdated) used by the teacher cannot easily be obtained by the student, as it often comes from Amtscentralen or is very, very expensive. If the student (m/f) has to write an assignment about some topic, he or she has to hurry to the library, where the book might not even be available, so harsher methods like a larger library or news papers have to be used. [Amtscentralen, or the county central, was a inter-school library for A/V material and books.]

Before I continue, I’dm like to stress that the classroom is connected to the net with a large screen, which can be written on using special pens. This screen can be used for displaying video, diagrams, text, images, etc. The board might even translate the teacher’s less than readable scribbling to a more readable typeface.

When the highway is a reality, the teacher can also search for the topic he/she wishes and obtain a list including information about how good the material is. When the desired material is found, the teacher saves a reference on their computer which can be used the day after. This provides more opportunities than immediately apparent. For example, the teacher is able to transfer all their reference via the net to all students, who can then study the material in peace and quiet.

Looking at the net from the point of view of the student, it will provide endless opportunities for presenting an assignment. He/she can for example make a document (which still doesn’t have to comprise text only) on their own computer, add some music, some video, and then just start the document. In case of an interruption, the document can be paused, or even be shown on the individual computer of each student at the leisure of the student. This is mass adaptation.

That all sounds very nice… But when is the net a reality?

Every day we hear about fusions and cooperations being hyped as the foundation of the net.

There are many companies that wants to build the net to harvest the billions and billions it can earn, and all of these companies see the net differently.

The phone companies (including AT&T) see the net as an extended telephone using the wires of the phone companies.

IBM sees the net as a couple gigantic super computers (made by IBM of course) running the entire net.

Microsoft sees the net as many “small” computers (thousands of times more powerful than what we have now) connected using Microsoft software – “a computer in every home and on every desk, running Microsoft software.”

Novell sees the net as “some computers” running Novell NetWare.

I see the net as a lot of computers, from the most expensive DEC and IBM super computers to the smallest terminal, together with a lot of telephones and televisions, and perhaps even all other electronic gadgets so you can tell the coffee maker to make 750 ml of coffee at 3.23 pm from the other side of the country or another continent if you happen to be in the US and want the coffee ready when you get home.

All of these devices are still at the research stage, but given the speed of development it will not take many years before the right equipment is available.

But when the net is ready is not easy to answer, as it depends on many things.

First, all of the previously mentioned companies need to agree to work together; they cannot build the net alone.

Second, people have to get used to using a computer instead of a phone, which isn’t necessarily easy when watching the “aunt Ada show” – which you can talk to. The concept of a phone will be completely redefined. [This is about getting used to changes in technology, and the show mentioned is a spin on the difficulty of getting used to seeing people while talking to them – a problem people mostly haven’t gotten around as of 2014.]

The last factor is how we see the net. The net is actually already here to some degree in the shape of the internet, which will be expanded month by month until we obtain the speed we desire. When this happens, we can start using it for video-on-demand and phone conversations (this is actually already being attempted).

My guess is that you can get connected to the net in around 10 years (for a high price) and in 15 years is is economically viable for everybody. In 20 years everybody is connected, or at least the outsides will be few, like the people without a telephone today.

What about me? I don’t know anything about computers; hat do I do?

As long as you have a good education and the will to perform a piece of work, you’ll definitely be needed. The world is not going to be run by tech-nerds who knows everything worth knowing about the innards of computers (and a lot not worth knowing).

If you do not wish to know a deep understanding of computers, there is no need to.

You can compare a computer to for example a telephone. Only few knows the intimate details of the insides of the phone, but a large percentage of the population uses one. If you have problems with your phone, you have somebody quickly (?) fixing it. It will be the same with computers. There are tools making it easier to be a human. There will be a small group of trained specialists who can fix them. On the other hand, users just need to know where the on switch is and with a delicate touch switch it on after which the computer is working. Computers have an air of being hard to use, a perception stemming back from the 1960s and 1970s where they really were.

Now, even small kids can use computers (my baby brother at 6 has used computers for at least 3 years now), and they have become a tool doing as the user asks.

A last boring stream of words…

I’m still worried about the future, but I’m also an optimist.

But there is a danger. If too many people thing the public sector has to design the net, we risk they do so, and this is not in anybody’s best interest. [Go mini-me, Ayn Rand evangelist!] The net has to be there for the user, hence designed by the users, and we do not wish to be looked over the shoulder (like in China).

But exactly how everything exactly will work on the net I cannot guess; there’s too many factors in that computation. You are one of those factors; you are a part of Europe, and it is also your future. Cherish it, because throughout the history, not many have had the opportunity to gain such a huge influence as we do now.

Discuss the net with your friends, state your own opinions, and don’t let the government take control. That never ends well.

Looking back, the piece is much less about the future than I thought. I was certain I had more about education and my own hopes and wishes for the future. On the other hand, I’m surprised by how much it predicts accurately: smart phones, the internet as used today, ubiquity of computers. A lot of it is of course the horoscope effect, but aside from company names and the fact that the internet was never replaced by a new network, I don’t see a lot of actually wrong predictions. I see a lot of childish naivety – the piece does have a bit of independent thought, but it is to a large extent a retelling of Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead.

While the title seems very cliche today, it was actually decently innovative back then. The internet was very little knows, as were URLs. The idea was to use a common headline style, which lasted for all of two articles (the first being the mythical predecessor to the above piece, titled computer.internet.dk, in which the blind (I) explained to the deaf (fellow students) about the internet). I was writing the computer column of the magazine, about a topic (the middle part) in common Danish. computer.topic.dk. While the use of URLs is quaint, I also used them wrongly (much like Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the WWW); the appropriate name would have been internet.computer.dk and fremtiden.computer.dk (or in the translated version future.computer.com).

I’m a lot less ashamed of the writing than I expected I would be – in fact I think my current writing also suffers from many of the same problems as the above piece, such as non-sequiturs, unclear formulations assuming insight into the writer’s brain, and a lack of clear direction. Most of it is just because I’m too lazy to do proper copy editing. There’s a few typos and grammatical errors, and best of all also a bunch of stupid Microsoft auto-capitalization after abbreviation errors which seems to have been a problem for more than 20 years then.

As I was biking to work contemplating the above piece and the present post, I was thinking about how there’s clear threads from our past to our present and most likely future. I’ve always enjoyed writing, though I’ve mostly taken the step from childish and poos fiction to more analytical or even academic writing (and I won’t be caught dead thinking about participating in NaNoWriMo, the yearly November tradition even dumber than Movember, where people who didn’t learn that their fiction sucks spend a month writing books nobody ever reads but at least have fun doing so). In the same vein, I’ve also always been entrepreneurial (I made a business plan for commercial space flight around age 11, applied to the city council for a computer to make a computer club/internet cafe and totally not because I wanted free stuff for sharing pirated software at age 14, and had a large part in jettisoning one of the smallest most nerdy student bars into one of the largest and most influential ones at university) and into music (played the flute and sang in a choir around age 9). Then again, I also used to enjoy wood-work and crafts, so I guess the theory only works if you cherry-pick your examples.

In the end, I think it was a fun look back. Probably only for me, but who cares? I write every bit as much for myself as I do for others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.