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Getting wired without the coffee

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 5, 2002
(Issue 2027, Computer Hobbies)

It's probably no surprise to anyone reading this particular column, but San Diego and Denver were both recently named among the nation's "most wired" cities.

The ranking in Yahoo! Internet Life magazine's May issue placed San Diego at 8th, and Denver 15th.

Now, these rankings are utterly subjective – taking into account how many domains are hosted in each city, how good the local governments' sites are, percentage of residential broadband usage, and other questionable statistics that don't necessarily have any bearing of how cyber-savvy a city's residents really are.

As early as a decade ago, before the explosion of the Internet and World Wide Web, there were at least 1,400 Bulletin Board Systems, or BBSs, in San Diego County, making this one of the very largest hubs of early online activity in the world. As I recall, Boardwatch magazine listed Denver as one of the leading BBS communities as well.

Ironically, because of San Diego's early online savvy, Boardwatch ranked San Diego very low as a wired city. Their argument was that because the commercial online services of the day – AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, GEnie, et al – had so few subscribers from San Diego, it must mean that there weren't very many people venturing online with their personal computers.

The opposite was actually true, though – San Diegans had so many local options for going online for free that they couldn't see paying money for the privilege. Which shows just how useful such "studies" can be.

Hidden high-tech hubs

Still, San Diego and Denver were both clearly populated with a lot of early emigrants to the online community – and I think the two cities share some common characteristics that account for this early and prevailing interest in using our computers to telecommunicate.

And both Denver and San Diego are different from other cities with a strong online presence (like San Jose, San Francisco and Boston) in that neither has a national reputation as a high-tech epicenter. Yet the two cities' low profiles nationally belie the reality.

Both San Diego and Denver have a combination of strong universities, a local (or at least neighboring) military presence and enough of a technology sector to create a large pool of residents with an interest in and ability to use personal computers.

Today, that might not sound very unusual or impressive, but in the late 1970s it was cities like San Diego and Denver where the first personal computer manufacturers could find paying customers. College students and professors, particularly in engineering and science programs; technology professionals; and military personnel, especially from the Navy and Air Force, were all used to using computers in school or work. The idea of purchasing a computer for the home didn't strike them as particularly alien.

When inexpensive modems, allowing computers to communicate over telephone lines, came along a few years later, they, too, found interested adopters among the above groups.

Military's role overlooked?

In the early '90s, I wrote the Online San Diego column for ComputorEdge, covering the local computer bulletin board systems, or BBSs. What I recall finding intriguing even then was how many local BBSs were run by Navy personnel – and often enlisted, not officers.

But the Internet was originally developed for military research, and the military's exclusive .mil domain was one of the first to be created. So even in the 1970s, you had enlisted men and women who were comfortable with the idea of "being online," who had e-mail accounts at work, and who undoubtedly wanted to find a way to bring these tools into their personal lives as well.

Of course, most large universities were on the Internet by the mid-'80s, a full five years before the Internet was opened to the general public. So both Denver and San Diego university students had access to e-mail, telnet and ftp while in school – and giving it up at graduation wasn't easy.

Combine that with enough of a local base in high-tech companies to employ these young people when they graduated or left military service, and you can see how both Denver and San Diego achieved the critical mass necessary for the early creation of a BBS-based online community – an online presence that has continued into the age of the Internet and the Web.


Still, even accepting as a given that both San Diego and Denver are heavily wired cities, full of people who are knowledgeable of and immersed in the online world, what does that really mean for those of us who live in these cities?

When the economy is going good, it may mean that both cities are in a good position to nurture the kind of creative experimentation that can drive even greater economic growth.

After 15 years online, though, I'm still not sure if there is any real-life benefit to cyberspace. It's convenient and it's fun, but does it make the world a better place? Is a great web site even remotely as important as, say, a field of wheat or corn?

Despite all the advances we've seen and all those we're going to see, I guess I'm yet to be convinced that those on the other side of the mythical "digital divide" aren't really the winners in all of this.