It was a Monday, 5 PM, in the fall of 1997, somewhere in Canada. I finished my first day of school, grade 10, after a nice two-month summer vacation that never feels long enough. It took me about an hour for the bus to take me back home.
I rushed through my homework. The faster I could finish it, the more Internet time I could get. My parents were both working late, and my sister was gone seeing her friend. That meant I had the house, the computer, and the phone line for myself. It was heaven… reduced in the size of my bedroom, in which I locked myself. I turned on my small TV and tuned it to MuchMusic, just to have some music videos playing in the background.
There was no smartphone, Wi-Fi, 5G, fibre optic, SSD storage, or LCD panels in the time. Connecting to the Internet was a commitment, an event you needed to schedule for which you had to prepare.
First, I had to boot up my slow and bulky computer. A Packard Bell L198 Multimedia IBM-compatible PC with an Intel Pentium 200 MHz processor, 16 MB of SDRAM, a 2 GB hard drive, a floppy disk drive, and a chunky 13" CRT monitor having speakers mounter on its sides. I commonly called it “Packard Hell.” At the time of purchase, I wish I knew the company was caught using used parts to build their computers. Of course what they did was not helping booting time. That Microsoft Windows 95 logo with the progress bar underneath was forever on the screen, making me wait for the desktop to appear. It gave me time to go to the bathroom and make myself dinner. And by dinner, I meant heating up a Pizza Pocket in the microwave.
Second, after I could finally move my mouse and burned my tongue with a bite out of that Pizza Pocket, it was time to connect to the Internet. I fired up the dialler and clicked “Connect.” You first heard the dial tone for a second, followed by a phone number being dialled, then the screeching noises of the negotiation between my computer’s modem and my Internet Service Provider’s network. Once the V.92 56k baud connection was established, all went silent, and the dialler window minimized, telling me “All right. You’re in!”
It’s time. I opened Internet Explorer 4 and browsed to one of my favourite anime chat rooms. Of course, again, that took a while. The hard drive platter were spinning so fast and the head was seeking so rapidly, at times, my computer tower sounded like a wood chipper.
Is that the honk of a transport truck we hear? No, it was ICQ loading. I also started mIRC, but fortunately that didn’t made any obnoxious sounds. While those programs—as we called apps in the time—got ready, I watched the video of Around the World by Daft Punk on TV.
Finally, there I was, on the Internet, browsing sites, chatting with friends, writing email in Hotmail, updating my homepage. For such a slow computer, I still managed to get quite a bit done. My friends online were from all over the world: the US, Japan, Argentina, Australia, France… and of course, back home, with some of my friends from school being on my contact lists.
I spent hours just chatting and browsing sites about TV shows and anime. Actually, most of that time was mostly wasted on waiting for stuff to load. That one chat on the Web, I only liked it for the people on there. For its performance though, I don’t know how many times I had to refresh the page by hitting the F5 key, stare at the screen download its pale yellow background graphic first, then show me the text on the page, often with no new messages in the chat room. I suppose I couldn’t blame the webmaster behind the site—I bet every user was pounding the server with their repeated F5 presses.
“Uh oh!” It was ICQ again, springing with instant messages. There I was, endlessly flipping though windows—browser, ICQ, IRC, mail, browser, ICQ, IRC, mail…—to see if there was anything new.
I must not forget! It was time to change the channel to YTV and watch Reboot. There was always something good to watch in the evenings on that channel: Video & Arcade Top 10, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sailor Moon, Clips, The Secret World of Alex Mack, Are You Afraid of the Dark?… The strangest show was a very short one, Short Circutz, with some 90s 3D animations. I wasn’t sure why that was on there, but I still liked watching them. By the way, shout out to DJ Phil for keeping every watcher company every weekday late afternoon after school.
The fun was soon coming to an end. My sister was coming back home. My parents were also coming back from work. They’d need the phone, so I had to disconnect from the Internet. But first, I said goodbye to my friends and promised to see them tomorrow. I had a good time.
Soon, it was time for bed. I showered, went back in my room, and once everyone went to sleep… connected back to the Internet, making sure the modem was silent, so no one could hear. That’s when I’d start up a download manager to get some large files: music, hi-res photos, short video clips… What they contained, I’ll leave that to your imagination. I minimized the manager window, turned off the screen, and went to bed.
I’m grateful for today’s high-speed, omnipresent, always-on Internet, the devices we use to access it that fit inside our pockets, services that let us download or stream almost any content at any time we want, and all media having practically blurred into a single one. But in those days, I feel every moment online was precious, and every new encounter made in cyberspace was exciting. My mailbox was filled with messages from friends in the time, and not newsletters from businesses or notifications from sites.
Here I am on my smartphone, connected via Wi-Fi, wishing I could go back in front of that old computer and relive the experience of dial-up Internet.