Picture for a moment the 80s. Personal computers were only available to a select few, the web didn’t exist, and the early internet was for gaming and other obscure (at the time) pursuits. Engineers weren’t cool. A file still lived in a cabinet. While digital technology was on the periphery of society, early internet adopters laid the groundwork for the world as we know it today.
Many of these digital innovators have since stepped aside, letting younger generations take over with multi-billion dollar smartphone apps and global social networks. One of these early adopters just so happens to be my dad, Ken Milbrath.
As a young entrepreneur, my dad saw the growth of personal computing as a great opportunity. In 1986, the same year I was born, my dad turned the nascent internet into a thriving business, providing the first access in Victoria, BC. He had hundreds of customers dialing-in to his Bulletin Board System (BBS), the precursor to the web and social media networks, where users could share files, play games, and chat over shared interests among the online community. But, once leading the charge alongside hundreds of small community-based Internet Service Providers (ISPs), my dad is almost entirely offline today.
I, on the other hand, am a digital native and a member of Generation AO or “always on.” Because my dad is one of the internet’s early adopters, I asked him to share his insights on what he knew then, that we’ve perhaps since forgotten. Here’s what he said:
1. Human Desire to Connect Drives Innovation
“Social media is just a new description for that basic human desire to connect. Bringing groups of people together will continue to drive future applications.”
The very first Unix kernel was shaped to support our human desire for social interaction. The few dispersed Unix programmers out there wanted to connect and play games with each other. This desire to connect lead to the TCP/IP protocol where data flows in two directions, forming the basis of the internet, web, email, texting, and social media today.
“My business started as a BBS where users with modems connected to the BBS in order to interact with each other. Groups of like-minded people would discuss, chat, play games. Once the BBS’s figured out how to connect with each other over FidoNet, a precursor to the Net, these “global villages” or online communities just took off.”
2. Everything in Moderation
If you’re downloading apps to block blue light for sleeping better, this is probably for you. Find a happy balance between your time online and off.
“I’m an old school guy, moderation for the nation. While it’s very exciting to see new technology and new applications, the direction we’ve gone has its good and bad points. To me, being ‘always on’ is extreme. I don’t use Facebook or Twitter. My time is too important to add more distractions. I think the pendulum will swing back to a more balanced approach to life.”
While my dad practices moderation and knowing when to “turn off,” he makes sure that his time spent online is productive. Unlike many of us, who tend to linger online and in apps all day, he allots part of his day to handle business online – and then turns off. Our CEO Ryan Holmes recently wrote a LinkedIn article on how moderation and breaks help prevent burnout and increases productivity. Taking all of this into consideration, everyone has some variation of a work life balance. For me, scheduling social messages, going mobile (but silent), and making time for downtime is key.
3. Never Lose the Startup Spirit
Community based ISPs of the past, like entrepreneurial businesses today, were the necessary movers and shakers in technology that disrupted the status quo. Businesses of any size that preserve this startup mentality strive toward innovation, excellence, and progress.
“When you were one of our customers and had a problem, you called us up. We’d even pop over. Soon the telcos realized that small community based ISPs were making money off their business phone lines. They introduced a new charge, Data. This drove a lot of small ISPs out of business. When telcos introduced their own connection services, it wasn’t hard to see the writing on the wall. Today, power is centralized.”
Net neutrality over who has access and who “owns” the internet has been an ongoing debate since the beginning. Much like turning on a faucet today, we don’t always think of the infrastructure, entrepreneurs and businesses it takes to produce a commodity. From this insight there’s a pearl of wisdom: Our experience online today formed organically. Over the last several decades, businesses built upon businesses; entrepreneurs learned from the successes and failures of others. Staying agile and innovative is where fast growth and progress stem from.
Life online has changed a lot since my dad bought his first 1200 baud modems, but there are some things the internet’s pioneers understood in 1986 that are just as true today.