Furby hell: this week in tech, 20 years agoNovember 24, 2018
Half-Life is one of my favorite video game series, and in honor of its 20th anniversary, I spent a week replaying the first game — which feels incredibly refreshing in 2018. As expected, Valve Software didn’t make any surprise Half-Life 3 announcements to commemorate the milestone. But the team behind Black Mesa, an unofficial remake, released an evocative trailer for their game’s final levels. Those levels are due next year, keeping Half-Life growing even after two decades.
The rest of this week in 1998 had a few noteworthy moments too. Read on for Will Smith, the International Space Station, and the year’s creepiest animatronic toy.
The big toy fad of 1998 was Furby, and as holiday shopping got underway, adults were alternately annoyed, bemused, and a little creeped out by the “cuddly stand-alone animatronic pet.” In late November, The Washington Post came out with an emphatic anti-Furby broadside:
What is a Furby? It’s a hideously homely stuffed animal, like the icky issue from a marriage between Chucky and an Ewok. It’s a Gremlin without the movie tie-in. Its voice is obnoxious, anxious, whiny, whimpery and often frustratingly unintelligible. It makes Urkel sound like Cary Grant. It has long, creepy RuPaul eyelashes. It eats pretend food. It speaks an insipid language, Furbish. It needs lots of attention. Sometimes you just can’t seem to shut it up. It’s pushy, spoiled, mindless and flatulent.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times relayed the sad tale of a defective Furby that could do nothing but beg for food and hugs. If you were slightly ghoulish, you could visit the then-new website Furby Autopsy, which offers precisely what its name suggests. And CNN noted how inexplicably difficult the toy was to get online, even as internet shopping grew.
Furbys (no, not ‘Furbies’) were everything the Post accused them of being, but their weirdness has given them cultural staying power — and sometimes they’ve been used for genuinely awesome projects, like a 44-Furby musical instrument.
I’ve covered Netscape’s legal war with Microsoft before, and the “browser wars” were far from concluded by the end of 1998. But this week marks a particularly big milestone: the day Netscape announced that it was selling out to AOL in a $4.2 billion deal. (This was later upgraded to around $10 billion.) Microsoft’s Internet Explorer had drastically slashed Netscape Navigator’s market share. And while the Department of Justice had taken notice, Netscape was — as attorney Gary Reback later put it — “already in the morgue.”
The acquisition was made public on November 24th, and it was completed in 1999. AOL said it was interested in Netscape’s web portal, not the fading Navigator browser, and a ZDNet report suggested that Netscape’s former employees felt painfully adrift. AOL repurposed the name for a discount internet service — and since ultimately death comes for all ‘90s internet brands, AOL itself was later sold to Verizon, which merged AOL and Yahoo into the ominously named subsidiary Oath in 2017. (Postscript: Oath recently rebranded as Verizon Media Group, and for all I know, it will be renamed again by next year.)
November 20th, 1998 was a big day for space exploration — it’s when Zarya, the first module of the International Space Station, was launched into orbit. Zarya was built by Russia but funded by the US, with contributions from other countries. It was joined a couple of weeks later by a second module called Unity, and the first crew members headed into space on October 31st, 2000.
Cnet recently celebrated the station’s anniversary with a retrospective, while noting its uncertain future under the Trump administration. At the time, Reuters compared it with the 12-year-old Mir space station, and the Associated Press relayed a vivid account of construction work aboard the station. The New York Times even published a long article about which computers would be aboard, explaining why a cutting-edge space station would use old (but by extension, well-tested and reliable) IBM Thinkpad PCs.
It’s pretty common for fictional characters to maintain social media profiles, or for companies to promote products with online narratives. Calvin Klein happened to be one of the first companies to do it, using an elaborate email campaign to sell its CK One perfume. It produced a series of TV spots, print ads, and other commercials starring characters like “Anna,” “Tia,” and “Robert,” printing email addresses for each character. Viewers could send an email and get a chatty, personal-sounding response: 13-year-old Anna would talk about a boy she liked, 20-something Tia would relay the details of her job at a “superhot TV production house” called Manic, and so on.
The campaign lasted until late 2001, when the advertising agency wound it down. Wired wrote about the complex, soap opera-style story that had unfolded across several years, including responses from fans — who understood the scenarios were fictional, but still offered characters advice and sympathy:
“The thing that impressed me most is that teenagers completely got it right away,” [creative director Kevin Drew] Davis wrote. “For example, there was a group of school girls in the U.K. (several signups from the same school) who took on Anna as a personal friend. They would write things like, ‘We know you’re just a machine, but you need to watch out for Danny….’
”They were letting the character in on what the other character had been saying to them. They were trying to direct the story! It was fantastic beyond my wildest expectations.”
Long before Edward Snowden revealed the breadth of the National Security Agency’s massive spying operations, blockbuster thriller Enemy of the State — which premiered on November 20th, 1998 — was making audiences paranoid. The film depicted a nightmare world where an innocent lawyer (played by Will Smith) could have his life taken apart by the government after unknowingly acquiring information about a murder. Roger Ebert, for one, found it convincing:
The first time I saw a movie where a satellite was able to zoom in on a car license plate, I snickered. Recently I was able to log onto a Web site (www.terraserver.microsoft.com/) and see the roof of my house — or yours. If Microsoft gives that away for free, I believe the National Security Agency can read license plates.
The Washington Post was less interested, condemning Enemy of the State’s “arrogant assumption that just because Americans trust their government no further than they can throw it, they are willing to accept all manner of cinematic mummery about Big Brother and the end of privacy, including slick but specious movies that prey on our fear and mistrust.” But The New York Times’ critic somewhat grudgingly admitted to enjoying the film, despite saying the plot “stops making sense the minute you walk out the door.”