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1994 – From Cyberia Café to Digital London

September crept up on us this year, with no usual joyful Bacchanalia celebrations of Cyberia Café anniversary, except for a cosy, socially distanced dinner at Noize (French restaurant on the site of the original Café on 39 Whitfield Street). This year the anniversary is different, but also more poignant as in 2020 the Internet has finally taken over the world, with over 70% of Europeans working from home using our beloved Net to work,play, quiz and flirt. 

From CuSeeMe to Zoom and from IRC channels to Slack, Covid has taken over CTOs as ‘change agent’ leading the transformation of our life to virtual and distance-free paradise (or hell, depending on the size of your house).

The opening of the world’s first Internet Café Cyberia in London on 3rd September 1994 marked the beginning of Digital London. Squeezed between the Toy Museum and Europe’s biggest recording studio on Whitfield Street, Cyberia provided a face and energy to this newly fangled way of cyber-connecting people and places. This anniversary is an opportunity to reflect and re-think our Digital Futures. 

In Sept 1994, Easynet Internet Provider just opened upstairs from the Café Cyberia and offered low cost Internet connections for home use.  GreenNetISP put charities online, while Backspace was hosting new digi arts stars. Everyone in town was learning HTML, the new Latin of our digital age. Emerging Web developer-artists from Tomato, Lateral or Anti-Rom were budding digital rockstars, games developers from new Sony’s “Virtual Nightclub” were worshipped like The Beatles. Hyper Jam with Derek Richards  and Digital Diaspora were organising music james with NY musicians, while Artec was the first centre for learning digital music production.

Hyper Jam with Derek Richards  and Digital Diaspora were organising music james with NY musicians, while Artec was the first centre for learning digital music production

Digital was not just cool, it was buzzing and lifting London out of a long and extremely painful recession caused by the housing bust in 1989. We were on the up and Internet was the only show in town, with ISDN connections to the Megatropolis nightclub providing the soundtrack.

As @Hugo Drayton (founder of Digital Telegraph) said:

It was a revolution and Cyberia provided the barricades

The exploding Web building industry carried everyone up with over 100 new media web agencies like WebMedia, Obsolete and CyberiaWeb up and running in the UK by late 1994. Thousands of young people were learning how to create Web pages for charities, personal hobbies and later for advertising and improving access to local council services like planning notices. 

Universities too were doing their bit, with Westminster University launching the first Hypermedia Degree (as in Hypertext) in the same year, led by Dr Richard Barbrook. It was the worlds’ first course teaching New Media and it was creating digital superstars like Jim Boulton, Nik and Tom Roope, Wessel van Rensburg, Niki Gomez and many others to agencies like Leo Burnett, PokeLondon, The Mirror, with ultra-hip Benetton marketing arm Fabrica being led for over a decade by Hypermedia co-founder Andy Cameron.

1994 also marked the beginning of 20 years of liberal politics, with Mandela winning the first multi-racial SA elections, Sweden and soon Finland joining the EU. Russian troops were leaving Germany and Estonia marking the end of the cold war and Sweden recognising same sex marriage. Britain got connected to Europe when the Channel Tunnel launched and the Allies finally terminated the occupation of Berlin. We could smell freedom and victory for democracy world-wide. New Media Age (previously Infobahn) was born, true bible of this new, emerging medium with it’s editor Mike Butcher documenting Internet wars as the Internet was taking over “dead-tree media”. 

Technically things were on the up too, with Linus Thorvalds releasing Linux 1.0.0 (stable version that actually worked in a production environment) that year. It was important as it was an open source operating system – badly needed after Unix got commercialised and expensive. It was also an example of a community of volunteers who could hack something together that could carry mission critical applications. 

Apple released the Power Macintosh, a new and powerful personal computer for creatives who now had a new favourite work horse. It was delivered on a chip created by a co-lab of Apple, Motorola and IBM as big tech companies started working together to speed up hardware development. Collaboration was hot in tech management circles, very much unlike the tech barons’ wars of today.

In networking, AOL, the closed walled garden of faux Internet in the US, was forced to finally open a gateway to the World Wide Web. Prodigy followed and Internet providers sprung up in the US while BBS (closed Bulletin Boards) started declining.

Compuserve, another relic from the closed Internet era noticed the writing on the wall and opened access to the Web thru the Spry Mosaic browser. Even China connected their first node to allow Internet traffic to their long-disconnected population (that foray into open Internet did not last long, but at the time it looked like a revolution).

Dark Clouds

At the same time there were also first signs and writing on the wall for the free Internet. As the UK started it’s small online stores with Simon Murdoch’s “Internet Bookshop”, Jeff Bezos was already dreaming about world domination and building online retail giant.

What started as a small warehouse with a few stacks of books, is today a global monopoly for any kind of online shopping and turning over 88bln, paying minimal tax yet sucking out the data and life from High Streets in the UK, US and Europe. 

India, China, Japan and Russia saw what was happening and closed their markets to Amazon, protecting their local retail and funding local alternatives. EU missed the boat on at least attempting to stop the growth of US-based monopolies, an own goal and effect of excessive enthusiasm for Silicon Valley monopolies. 

Open source tech started well, but as Jaron Lanier says, “a Linux always makes a Google” and supposedly open system eventually contorts itself to Big Tech, creating a new form of centralised (and not very innovative) power, accidentally becoming advertising monopoly.

Today the only independent online shops that have not been replaced by Amazon are in  fast fashion (not something that Amazon ever cracked) and groceries. 

In physical space, Old Street and Brick Lane in London were the hot spots in the 90ies, creating a new Digital London, with Easynet and other tech companies building data centres, converting Brick Lane into Digital Lane. 

Today the ugly monopoly of Amazon has also dominated independent data centres, with an alarming number of EU businesses using Amazon Web Services – governed by the Patriot Act, not just expensive and environmentally unfriendly in many cases, but requiring start-ups and governments alike to lock themselves in with code to suit AWS. We didn’t see that coming.

Google Cloud hosts all UK government’s applications, with our personal data flying out to the world in a non-transparent manner while Google Cloud has taken over German savers, with Deutsche Bank applications hosted in a multibillion euros contract.  Despite EU lip service to data sovereignty, the handover of EU consumer data to US companies is nearly complete.

In 1994 mobile phone companies started getting interested in controlling the Internet– with the early signs that the Mobile Internet would not be anything like as open or as transparent as desktop cyberspace.  Internet Governance infrastructure was getting pushed, lobbied and hijacked by big tech to suit the hardware (handset providers) and network owners instead of the users.

Is it still too early to make a full assessment of those early, breathless, fast moving years of the open and transparent Internet?  Could we have done things differently with Internet regulations and access to UK consumers data to prevent Silicon Valley from owning our data? Would our data have been ours as opposed to Google’s and Facebook’s if third party cookie legislation was taken seriously by Internet governing bodies? When and how can we reclaim our data from global invaders? Is it nostalgic to want to own at least your own medical data? Can the information of our location be protected?

Those are the questions for upcoming Cybersalon.org workshops on data ownership, Bill of Digital Rights and building new Digital Democracy.  In the meantime, happy anniversary to the Internet Class of 1994!

Email me your suggestions for speakers, topics and projects that help to shine the spotlight on works forging this new digital reality in an equal and open way.

About @EvaPascoe

Chair of Cybersalon.org and co-founder of Cyberia Cafe

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