The year is 1999. Microsoft, accused of using its market power to strangle web browser company Netscape, is still embroiled in an antitrust lawsuit. The first sections of the International Space Station have entered orbit. Companies and governments alike are working to fix the Year 2000 Bug, which threatens to crash computers across the world. And email is maybe ruining the English language. Welcome to a new year of This Week in Tech, 20 Years Ago.
This February, we’ll be following how the internet transformed writing, music, and revenge — plus stories about spy satellites and dances with computers.
It was the :-) of times, it was the :-( of times
Analyzing internet slang, The New York Times notes, wasn’t a new field of research in 1999. Regardless, the Times was on it, in a funny and nostalgia-inspiring story about online writing styles. Were you a kid who slipped chatspeak (“Surplus is an excess ... But surplus can also mean 2much”) into school essays? Or one of those iconoclasts who would “regularly type E-mail all in lowercase letters”? Or a traditionalist who felt pretty :-( about the decline of the semicolon, like digital media critic Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies?
“Here it comes! Oh, it’s bright!”
Secret satellites have been orbiting the Earth for decades, quietly gathering images for spy agencies across the world. And for decades, hobbyists have been tracking their paths. The Washington Post reported on the phenomenon of amateur spy satellite hunters, who calculated these satellites’ orbital paths and spotted them in the sky. “People said, ‘If the U.S. is not going to tell us where its secret satellites are, by God, we’ll go out and find them,’” retired CIA scientist Allen Thomson told the Post. “And by God, they did.”
Covert satellite hunting has gotten a fair amount of press since then, including a story in 2018 from Popular Science, written by our current science editor Mary Beth Griggs. As that story makes clear, it’s a tough hobby that requires a lot of dedication — but there’s an obvious, perennial appeal in uncovering celestial state secrets.
“Don’t get mad, get a Web page”
The internet was still young in 1993, when Judy Komaromi was arrested for leading police on a high-speed chase in California. And after being arrested and imprisoned for nearly four months, Komaromi created a website called “Small Town Justice” that would test its legal boundaries, accusing her arresting officer Gregory Mason of roadside sexual harassment. In 1999, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, Mason sued for defamation over the site.
Online defamation cases are commonplace now, but at that point, experts weren’t sure exactly how libel law should apply to the web. It’s not clear precisely how this suit concluded — Komaromi noted that a gag order was lifted in 2000, but there’s not much detail beyond that, and her site went dark in 2002. As another article reported, we do know that another officer lost a defamation case against her, after the complaint was thrown out by TV personality Judge Judy.
Music on the internet: a helpful guide
These days, finding music online is so easy that we’ve got time to argue about whether Spotify’s phone app should hide the “Repeat” button. In 1999, you needed a three-page guide from PC Magazine — covering the process of finding good MP3 software, downloading music files, and dealing with DRM. It also covers an experimental audio player called TalkRadio from Seattle company Conversa, where you could use speech recognition to search a vast quantity of audio aggregated from the web.
“You don’t have to look too far into the future ... to see a world where polished sites and universal high-speed connections make buying music on the internet a painless, near-real-time experience,” concludes the guide. That prediction wasn’t wrong — but it happened after a jaunt through the world of free, pirated music with Napster, which launched a few months after this article was published.
So you think you can virtual dance
And finally, The New York Times wrote about the phenomenon of “virtual dance” — choreographic routines composed with software and performed in virtual space. “I don’t feel we need to imitate reality,” said virtual dance software designer A. William Smith. “Dance, and in fact all art, has been about what’s in people’s minds and imaginations.” It’s easy for software and digital art to get lost in time. But for an example of virtual dance, here’s a video of Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser’s “Ghostcatching,” which is mentioned in the Times’ story.