I appreciated Jon Udell‘s tweet the other day tracking a quarter century of making websites. In fact, it oddly coincided with the final stretch of my re-watching of The Sopranos —a lockdown past time turned obsession.
It’s 25 years this month since I first built a website.
Still learning, doing, and enjoying.https://t.co/thhMWgvkli
— Jon Udell (@judell) July 3, 2020
You see, I started watching The Sopranos for fun on VHS as part of an archiving project for my VHS tapes masquerading as an excuse to play with my evolving video recording setup. As I watched, however, one of the many subtexts in the series jumped out at me: the role of technology in the popular imagination of the late 90s and early 00s. This was a time the web was emerging as increasingly central to popular culture. In fact, this series starts filming a few short years after Jon’s first website, and web technology from 1998 through 2007 marks an interesting moment in its evolution. And, as I learned over the last few months, the series is chock full of tech and web references from that time period. So much so that I started collecting quotes and clips, and even started imagining a blog series wherein I would dedicate a post to each clip related to the internet/web and then link it back to my own experience, rounded off with some research to fill in my own gaps in knowledge. A fun, silly project that would keep me happy, but then Reclaim Cloud happened and my attention was necessarily shifted. I may still get back to this blog idea, but in the event I don’t there was one scene (and by extension a host of other associations) that Jon’s tweet reminded me of, so I wanted to share it and then track back to the Spring of 1994 at UCLA.
But first, let me set up the clip. The moment comes from episode 17 of Season 6, “Walk Like a Man,” so almost the very end of the entire series. It features Patsy Parisi giving Tony Soprano an envelope with the week’s takings from sports gambling. More specifically, Patsy notes the spoils were particularly good thanks to his son running a book at Rutgers University, with the joke being while at first Patsy didn’t even want his son to go to college, now he wants him to do his Ph.D. given the steady action. But he gets a bit more serious and notes:
Now don’t get me wrong, he’s learning stuff too. The shit this kid knows about computers; he set his mother up with a whole website for her ceramics business.
There’s obviously a lot in this scene, and more than a few times the various mobsters in the show complain about paying for college, but they seemingly do it gladly. There is a sense of a necessary investment in their kids going to college to escape the lifestyle, or at least remove themselves from it via white collar crime—a theme explored earlier in the series as the mob went to work on Wall Street in the 1990s.
But the timing of this for me is also deeply personal. In 2007 I was just starting to provide students and faculty access to “next generation” Web 2.0 tools for publishing websites more easily. Patsy’s son, Jason Parisi, could have been using a site like WordPress thanks to an ed tech at Rutgers, not unlike me 🙂 This quote by Patsy made me think about the perception of college for a whole generation of parents who never attended or finished, the idea that this whole new world of technology and the web is something college is going to help their kids wrap their heads around which, in turn, justifies the cost. There is also the class divide between state school in Jersey versus the ivy leaguer in NYC, namely Meadow who is exploring issues her parents are not comfortable with, such as queer readings of Herman Melville. I guess what strikes me most is that college in the web/tech frame is understood as a skill which helps justify the cost of admission, and Patsy’s framing of the whole experience as a god send, literally, is met with a sense of concern and shame by Tony given AJ has flunked out and has absolutely no prospects without the promise of higher education. Oddly enough Patsy Parisi, of all people, becomes a proselytizer of sorts for the values of university while handing over the scarola to his boss that was, at least partially, funded by higher learning 🙂
Now, let’s head back 26 years, roughly a year before Jon started his first website for Byte Magazine. It was 1994 and I was taking a spring term course in Russian Literature at UCLA with professor Peter Hodgson. He must have been in his late 40s, early 50s at the time. He had a tall, wirey frame and walked with a modified crutch that he would use as a makeshift seat (like something you’d see at a campsite) while holding his Russian edition of the Dostoevsky novel we were discussing (he never opened or read from the book that I can remember). He sat there, asked questions, became animated, quoted the text, and generally was a fascinating figure that I have thought about often since. He was also a bit mysterious, I went to visit him in office hours one day, and his office was in the basement of Kinsey Hall, one of the mainstay buildings on the gorgeous UCLA quad. The office was full of industrial grade piping, and was a mix between a janitor’s closet and a study, but it was big and there were no rooms around it. What’s more, there was a military-style bed in the corner, and he suggested in so many words that was where he lived. Given my own minimalist living situation in a 100 square foot bachelor apartment with my girlfriend in Culver City, I thought it was fairly normal.
But that’s not my point, this is. Like Jon, 1993 and 1994 was a moment of discovery for me when it came to computers and the internet. I worked at Audio Visual Services (AVS) delivering VCRs, TVs, video projectors, and the like to classrooms all over campus (I’ve always been edtech!) and moved up from tech to manager where I scheduled folks. That gave me access to a Pentium computer and Windows 3.1 along with my introduction to the internet with relatively high speed connections and access to increasingly faster computers: peaking with the Dell Pentium 133 which meant Doom and Duke Nukem LAN parties. It was also my first exposure to Mosaic and then Netscape, and eventually Internet Explorer. Those were heady days and there was even mention that this whole thing started on the other end of campus in Bolton Hall, who knew?
At the same time Hodgson brought the class to a computer lab and asked those of us in his Dostoevsky seminar to transcribe pages from Notes from the Underground so that we could collaboratively create a hyper-text version of the novel. The idea was we would select passages, words, historical references, etc, and link them to a page that more fully explains the reference, historical context, etc. An annotated version of Notes. At the time I thought it was bizarre, but given my interest in all this stuff had already been peaked by my job at AVS, I was all in. I loved learning how to write HTML, and it was a skill I have never regretted acquiring early on. I handed in my few pages of annotations as text files (that I believe I still have on a zip disk somewhere in Virginia) but never did see a website come of it. However, that experience pushed me to get a site on Geocities in the Literature neighborhood and begin creating a website about Modernist American Literature. I never finished that project either, but I got far enough that by the time I turned my attention elsewhere I was overly confident about my “programming” capabilities.
But I think of this in regards to Jon’s remembering his first website and I think how my experiences with the web in higher ed go back a-ways, and while I know there is something transactional about Patsy Parisi’s idea of his son making a website in 2007, it was transformative for me in 1994, and sometimes I wonder if that is the buzz I am still chasing all these years later.