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Authors: Edward Snowden

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BOOK: Permanent Record
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American Online

It was soon after we moved to Crofton that my father brought home our first desktop computer, a Compaq Presario 425, list price $1,399 but purchased at his military discount, and initially set up—much to my mother’s chagrin—smack in the middle of the dining-room table. From the moment it appeared, the computer and I were inseparable. If previously I’d been loath to go outside and kick around a ball, now the very idea seemed ludicrous. There was no outside greater than what I could find inside this drab clunky PC clone, with what felt at the time like an impossibly fast 25-megahertz Intel 486 CPU and an inexhaustible 200-megabyte hard disk. Also, get this, it had a color monitor—an 8-bit color monitor, to be precise, which means that it could display up to 256 different colors. (Your current device can probably display in the millions.)

This Compaq became my constant companion—my second sibling, and first love. It came into my life just at the age when I was first discovering an independent self and the multiple worlds that can simultaneously exist within this world. That process of exploration was so exciting that it made me take for granted and
even neglect, for a while at least, the family and life that I already had. Another way of saying this is, I was just experiencing the early throes of puberty. But this was a technologized puberty, and the tremendous changes that it wrought in me were, in a way, being wrought everywhere, in everyone.

My parents would call my name to tell me to get ready for school, but I wouldn’t hear them. They’d call my name to tell me to wash up for dinner, but I’d pretend not to hear them. And whenever I was reminded that the computer was a shared computer and not my personal machine, I’d relinquish my seat with such reluctance that as my father, or mother, or sister took their turn, they’d have to order me out of the room entirely lest I hover moodily over their shoulders and offer advice—showing my sister word-processing macros and shortcuts when she was writing a research paper, or giving my parents spreadsheet tips when they tried to do their taxes.

I’d try to rush them through their tasks, so I could get back to mine, which were so much more important—like playing
. As technology had advanced, games involving Pong paddles and helicopters—the kind my father had played on that by now superannuated Commodore—had lost ground to ones that realized that at the heart of every computer user was a book reader, a being with the desire not just for sensation but for story. The crude Nintendo, Atari, and Sega games of my childhood, with plots along the lines of (and this is a real example) rescuing the president of the United States from ninjas, now gave way to detailed reimaginings of the ancient tales that I’d paged through while lying on the carpet of my grandmother’s house.

was about a society of Weavers whose elders (named after the Greek Fates Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos) create a secret loom that controls the world, or, according to the script of the game, that weaves “subtle patterns of influence into the very fabric of reality.” When a young boy discovers the loom’s power, he’s forced into exile, and everything spirals into chaos until the
world decides that a secret fate machine might not be such a great idea, after all.

Unbelievable, sure. But then again, it’s just a game.

Still, it wasn’t lost on me, even at that young age, that the titular machine of the game was a symbol of sorts for the computer on which I was playing it. The loom’s rainbow-colored threads were like the computer’s rainbow-colored internal wires, and the lone gray thread that foretold an uncertain future was like the long gray phone cord that came out of the back of the computer and connected it to the great wide world beyond. There, for me, was the true magic: with just this cord, the Compaq’s expansion card and modem, and a working phone, I could dial up and connect to something new called the Internet.

Readers who were born postmillennium might not understand the fuss, but trust me, this was a goddamned miracle. Nowadays, connectivity is just presumed. Smartphones, laptops, desktops, everything’s connected, always. Connected to what exactly? How? It doesn’t matter. You just tap the icon your older relatives call “the Internet button” and boom, you’ve got it: the news, pizza delivery, streaming music, and streaming video that we used to call TV and movies. Back then, however, we walked uphill both ways, to and from school, and plugged our modems directly into the wall, with manly twelve-year-old hands.

I’m not saying that I knew much about what the Internet was, or how exactly I was connecting to it, but I did understand the miraculousness of it all. Because in those days, when you told the computer to connect, you were setting off an entire process wherein the computer would beep and hiss like a traffic jam of snakes, after which—and it could take lifetimes, or at least whole minutes—you could pick up any other phone in the house on an extension line and actually
hear the computers talking
. You couldn’t actually understand what they were saying to each other, of course, since they were speaking in a machine language that transmitted up to fourteen thousand symbols per second. Still,
even that incomprehension was an astonishingly clear indication that phone calls were no longer just for older teenage sisters.

Internet access, and the emergence of the Web, was my generation’s big bang or Precambrian explosion. It irrevocably altered the course of my life, as it did the lives of everyone. From the age of twelve or so, I tried to spend my every waking moment online. Whenever I couldn’t, I was busy planning my next session. The Internet was my sanctuary; the Web became my jungle gym, my treehouse, my fortress, my classroom without walls. If it were possible, I became more sedentary. If it were possible, I became more pale. Gradually, I stopped sleeping at night and instead slept by day in school. My grades went back into free fall.

I wasn’t worried by this academic setback, however, and I’m not sure that my parents were, either. After all, the education that I was getting online seemed better and even more practical for my future career prospects than anything provided by school. That, at least, was what I kept telling my mother and father.

My curiosity felt as vast as the Internet itself: a limitless space that was growing exponentially, adding webpages by the day, by the hour, by the minute, on subjects I knew nothing about, on subjects I’d never heard of before—yet the moment that I did hear about them, I’d develop an insatiable desire to understand them in their every detail, with few rests or snacks or even toilet breaks allowed. My appetite wasn’t limited to serious tech subjects like how to fix a CD-ROM drive, of course. I also spent plenty of time on gaming sites searching for god-mode cheat codes for
But I was generally just so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information immediately available that I’m not sure I was able to say where one subject ended and another began. A crash course on how to build my own computer led to a crash course in processor architecture, with side excursions into information about martial arts, guns, sports cars, and—full disclosure—softcore-ish goth-y porn.

I sometimes had the feeling that I had to know everything and wasn’t going to sign off until I did. It was like I was in a race
with the technology, in the same way that some of the teenage boys around me were in a race with one another to see who’d grow the tallest, or who’d get facial hair first. At school I was surrounded by kids, some from foreign countries, who were just trying to fit in and would expend enormous effort to seem cool, to keep up with the trends. But owning the latest No Fear hat and knowing how to bend its brim was child’s play—literally, child’s play—compared to what I was doing. I found it so thoroughly demanding to keep pace with all of the sites and how-to tutorials I followed that I started to resent my parents whenever they—in response to a particularly substandard report card or a detention I received—would force me off the computer on a school night. I couldn’t bear to have those privileges revoked, disturbed by the thought that every moment that I wasn’t online more and more material was appearing that I’d be missing. After repeated parental warnings and threats of grounding, I’d finally relent and print out whatever file I was reading and bring the dot-matrix pages up to bed. I’d continue studying in hard copy until my parents had gone to bed themselves, and then I’d tiptoe out into the dark, wary of the squeaky door and the creaky floorboards by the stairs. I’d keep the lights off and, guiding myself by the glow of the screen saver, I’d wake the computer up and go online, holding my pillows against the machine to stifle the dial tone of the modem and the ever-intensifying hiss of its connection.

How can I explain it, to someone who wasn’t there? My younger readers, with their younger standards, might think of the nascent Internet as way too slow, the nascent Web as too ugly and un-entertaining. But that would be wrong. Back then, being online was another life, considered by most to be separate and distinct from Real Life. The virtual and the actual had not yet merged. And it was up to each individual user to determine for themselves where one ended and the other began.

It was precisely this that was so inspiring: the freedom to imagine something entirely new, the freedom to start over. Whatever Web 1.0 might’ve lacked in user-friendliness and design sensibil
ity, it more than made up for by its fostering of experimentation and originality of expression, and by its emphasis on the creative primacy of the individual. A typical GeoCities site, for example, might have a flashing background that alternated between green and blue, with white text scrolling like an exclamatory chyron across the middle—Read
First!!!—below the .gif of a dancing hamster. But to me, all these kludgy quirks and tics of amateur production merely indicated that the guiding intelligence behind the site was human, and unique. Computer science professors and systems engineers, moonlighting English majors and mouth-breathing, basement-dwelling armchair political economists were all only too happy to share their research and convictions—not for any financial reward, but merely to win converts to their cause. And whether that cause was PC or Mac, macrobiotic diets or the abolition of the death penalty, I was interested. I was interested because they were enthused. Many of these strange and brilliant people could even be contacted and were quite pleased to answer my questions via the forms (“click this hyperlink or copy and paste it into your browser”) and email addresses (, provided on their sites.

As the millennium approached, the online world would become increasingly centralized and consolidated, with both governments and businesses accelerating their attempts to intervene in what had always been a fundamentally peer-to-peer relationship. But for one brief and beautiful stretch of time—a stretch that, fortunately for me, coincided almost exactly with my adolescence—the Internet was mostly made of, by, and for the people. Its purpose was to enlighten, not to monetize, and it was administered more by a provisional cluster of perpetually shifting collective norms than by exploitative, globally enforceable terms of service agreements. To this day, I consider the 1990s online to have been the most pleasant and successful anarchy I’ve ever experienced.

I was especially involved with the Web-based bulletin-board systems or BBSes. On these, you could pick a username and type out whatever message you wanted to post, either adding to a
preexisting group discussion or starting a new one. Any and all messages that replied to your post would be organized by thread. Imagine the longest email chain you’ve ever been on, but in public. These were also chat applications, like Internet Relay Chat, which provided an immediate-gratification instant-message version of the same experience. There you could discuss any topic in real time, or at least as close to real time as a telephone conversation, live radio, or TV news.

Most of the messaging and chatting I did was in search of answers to questions I had about how to build my own computer, and the responses I received were so considered and thorough, so generous and kind, they’d be unthinkable today. My panicked query about why a certain chipset for which I’d saved up my allowance didn’t seem to be compatible with the motherboard I’d already gotten for Christmas would elicit a two-thousand-word explanation and note of advice from a professional tenured computer scientist on the other side of the country. Not cribbed from any manual, this response was composed expressly for me, to troubleshoot my problems step-by-step until I’d solved them. I was twelve years old, and my correspondent was an adult stranger far away, yet he treated me like an equal because I’d shown respect for the technology. I attribute this civility, so far removed from our current social-media sniping, to the high bar for entry at the time. After all, the only people on these boards were the people who could be there—who wanted to be there badly enough—who had the proficiency and passion, because the Internet of the 1990s wasn’t just one click away. It took significant effort just to log on.

Once, a certain BBS that I was on tried to coordinate casual in-the-flesh meetings of its regular members throughout the country: in DC, in New York, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. After being pressured rather hard to attend—and promised extravagant evenings of eating and drinking—I finally just told everyone how old I was. I was afraid that some of my correspondents might stop interacting with me, but instead they became, if anything, even more encouraging. I was sent updates from the
electronics show and images of its catalog; one guy offered to ship me secondhand computer parts through the mail, free of charge.

told the BBSers my age, but I never told them my name, because one of the greatest joys of these platforms was that on them I didn’t have to be who I was. I could be anybody. The anonymizing or pseudonymizing features brought equilibrium to all relationships, correcting their imbalances. I could take cover under virtually any handle, or “nym,” as they were called, and suddenly become an older, taller, manlier version of myself. I could even be multiple selves. I took advantage of this feature by asking what I sensed were my more amateur questions on what seemed to me the more amateur boards, under different personas each time. My computer skills were improving so swiftly that instead of being proud of all the progress I’d made, I was embarrassed by my previous ignorance and wanted to distance myself from it. I wanted to disassociate my selves. I’d tell myself that squ33ker had been so dumb when “he” had asked that question about chipset compatibility way back, long ago, last Wednesday.

BOOK: Permanent Record
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