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Don’t be fooled by the internet: this week in tech, 20 years ago

Don’t be fooled by the internet: this week in tech, 20 years ago

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1999 MTV Video Music Awards
Photo by KMazur/WireImage

This year marks a lot of big film anniversaries, and this week, everyone is celebrating The Blair Witch Project. Vice collected a full oral history of how the years-long experimental film project became one of the biggest horror movies of all time. You can read glowing 1999 reviews from Roger Ebert, The New York Times, and The Washington Post online, plus a CNN article confirming that the three stars were not actually dead. You can also check out an early AV Club interview with co-directors Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, who agree that “the best way to see this movie is to know as little about it as possible” — so if you still haven’t seen it in 2019, you should probably give all those links a pass.

Either way, read on for some primarily internet-focused news stories from 1999, including a timely reminder from Prince.

“Use the computer, don’t let the computer use you”

Prince had a legendarily complicated relationship with the internet, declaring it “completely over” in 2010. A lot of his commentary involved music ownership and distribution. But this 1999 award ceremony speech is both weirder and more broadly prophetic. As Wired notes, Prince was presenting the “Online Pioneer” award to Public Enemy at the Yahoo! Online Music Awards, which appears to have run for three years. His advice to the audience?

One thing I wanted to say is, don’t be fooled by the internet. It’s cool to get on the computer, but don’t let the computer get on you. It’s cool to use the computer, don’t let the computer use you. Y’all saw The Matrix. There’s a war going on. The battlefield’s in the mind. And the prize is the soul. So just be careful. Be very careful. Thank you.

Wired wasn’t sure how literally to take Prince’s Matrix reference here, and frankly, neither am I.

Rise and fall of the free PC

Throughout 1999, companies experimented with making PCs — and sometimes internet access — free. The push started in February, when a California company called Free-PC offered completely ad-supported Compaq computers and internet service. It sounded like a great deal, but the tradeoffs should be familiar to anybody in 2019: says that Presario PCs will go to the first 10,000 people to hand over their consumer dossier, including age, income, family status, hobbies, and buying habits.

Once they get their computers and turn them on, recipients will have to endure advertisements that will appear whether or not they’re online. The ads will be stored on the hard drive that ships with the PC, and displayed along the side of the screen.

The price for this “free” PC doesn’t end there. The company will monitor how the computer is used, tracking which of its ads are clicked on as well as where users go – and what they buy – on the Web.

A few months later, AOL and Prodigy announced a more conservative deal with the low-end PC manufacturer eMachines, subsidizing a cheap $400 PC for long-term subscribers. None of these initiatives lasted. eMachines acquired Free-PC and discontinued the giveaway model in November — but, Salon journalist Mark Gimein argued, not before the whole project dragged home PC sales to unsustainable prices. (eMachines itself was acquired by Gateway and then Acer, and the name stuck around until 2013.)

So what specifically happened this week? Well, the future for eMachines looked bright, and The Wall Street Journal wrote a glowing profile of their Korea-based supplier Trigem. Trigem would unfortunately file for bankruptcy a decade later.

“Get rid of Jar Jar Binks, he’s terrible”

George Lucas revealed earlier this year that his favorite Star Wars character is Jar Jar Binks — the widely loathed comic relief figure and possible secret Sith lord. So why do so many people hate him? In a BBC interview a few months after Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’s release, Lucas blamed the internet:

“The American press uses the internet as their source for everything, so when people were creating Websites saying, ‘Let’s get rid of Jar Jar Binks, he’s terrible’ and some of the critics were describing him as a comic sidekick, they came in and they started calling the film racist.”

Stories about Jar Jar did mention both racism — arguing that he was a buffoonish stereotype of a Jamaican — and his internet hate-fandom. Lucas said there was simply a group of fans that “want the films to be tough like Terminator, and they get very upset and opinionated about anything that has anything to do with being childlike.” That’s not necessarily wrong... but history has still not judged Jar Jar kindly. versus Tampa

Would you pay $34 a month to watch a half-dozen female college students live together in a Florida house equipped with webcams absolutely everywhere? If so, I’m sorry, because the website of softcore adult entertainment site Voyeur Dorm has been down for several years. But in July of 1999, it was battling the city of Tampa to stay online.

Basically, Tampa officials argued that the house was equivalent to a strip club, which meant they could shut it down under zoning regulations. The company behind Voyeur Dorm then argued that this comparison didn’t make sense and accused the City Council of being “completely ignorant about the internet.” Eventually it prevailed in court, setting a precedent for regulating online businesses — The New York Times wrote that it “suggested that the internet is a place that, in some cases, may be beyond the reach of local government regulators.”

Jurassic Park, New Zealand bird edition

“De-extinction” — or resurrecting extinct animals through biotechnology — has worked in rare and limited cases. Today, it’s a potentially viable way to preserve species that are disappearing at an alarming rate. It was, sadly, not an option for the New Zealand huia bird in 1999.

The last huia were seen in the early 1900s. Then, a group of New Zealand students were inspired by Jurassic Park to explore cloning the animal, and CNN wrote that they secured the approval of ethicists and Maori representatives who decided “efforts to revive the extinct huia bird through cloning should begin immediately.” A group called was supposedly going to provide funding, but the project never seems to have gotten anywhere — a 2006 story concluded that museum specimens couldn’t provide a DNA sample good enough to get started.