Do you remember AltaVista?

I am totally enjoying technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s column on The New Yorker from 4 years ago, as she talks about her curiosity, and how she devoured books after books, and finally, talking of her experience as one of the first web users in Turkey. She was, essentially, also me growing up:

I don’t remember learning to read—I’m told that I was about four—but, once I could, I read everything. I read regular newspapers, with their grim accounts of Turkey’s turbulent, violent politics. I read children’s books, of course, and collected every issue of the sole children’s magazine published in Turkish at the time, the amazing Milliyet Çocuk, which featured original art, stories, and comic prose. I read novels for adults, when I could find them. The textbooks we were assigned at school were bland and badly written, printed on cheap, flimsy paper that smudged my hands. I’d inhale them before the first week of classes was over, and then I’d stop paying attention to school for the rest of the year, which freed up time to read even more.

I grew up as an only child, socially awkward (perhaps that never changes) and perpetually taciturn with strangers, but my curiosity knows no bound. My on-brand childhood experience was my youngest uncle locking himself up in the bedroom so he could take a nap while babysitting toddler me because I wouldn’t stop asking him things.

Like Tufekci, I only knew how to use the Internet late in life compared to others (I was an 80’s kid). I remember my father brought home boxes filled with computer parts that he bought separately instead of buying a whole computer, because “it’s cheaper this way”. I come from a middle-class family, and although we were not always struggling (or maybe my parents made sure I never knew), but we were always prudent with our spendings. That whole day, I watched him assemble the parts, eager to find out what I could create out of the walls of the bleached white monitor and its clunky keyboard. I think the first thing I did an online search on (it was on now perished AltaVista) was about Will Smith, as I was a big fan of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air back then.

1995: Captain Marvel, Internet cafes and online searching on AltaVista.
1995: Captain Marvel, Internet cafes and online searching on AltaVista. Credit: Whisky + Sunshine

Like Tufekci, I also had trouble believing that I would run out of things to read. My parents often worked till late, so the library became my refuge as I waited for them to pick me up from school. There was one time I think I practically read almost all the English books in the library. I was itching to read more, to find out more — so what I did if I was out with my dad at the bookstores was to run my fingers on the plastic-wrapped books, hoping he would notice and offer to buy them for me.

I quickly realized that this network would not. I didn’t yet know how to search it, so I wandered from link to link as the pages slowly loaded. I discovered that I could access world news, uncensored, and that there were legions of science-fiction readers across the globe. There was a peasant uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, that was apparently using this newfangled tool to disseminate its views. CERN had its own page. It went on and on and on.

Useless trivia 1: I had never read any of the Harry Potter books, yet. My friends practically wailed at this discovery.

Useless trivia 2: My thesis was inspired by the development of the topic of social media usage during Arab Spring — which leads me to Zeynep Tufekci’s works among others like Paulo Gerbaudo, Manuel Castells, Jaron Lanier​, Ethan Zuckerman, danah boyd, Evgeny Morozov, and many others.

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