Men are from cyberspace: this week in tech, 20 years agoOctober 6, 2018
A few months ago, I mentioned that it was “unfortunately” too early to write about the release of beloved role-playing game Fallout 2. Well, Fallout 2 was released this week 20 years ago, and I am definitively not going to write about it — because I already spent half my summer immersed in the series while researching the never-released Fallout Online. Fortunately, Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton has you covered with an entertaining analysis of Fallout 2’s first, frustrating level.
Instead, this week’s stories cover cyber romance, Y2K, and one of the year’s worst new TV shows.
HBO premiered a documentary last month called Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age that explored the worst aspects of online dating — you can catch a fairly grim conversation with director Nancy Jo Sales on the Recode Decode podcast. But “cyber dating” wasn’t always an inescapable hellworld! In late September of 1998, Fast Company urged readers to “stop [their] snickering” and seriously consider some advice from the authors of Men Are From Cyberspace: The Single Woman’s Guide to Flirting, Dating, and Finding Love On-Line.
The interview includes eminently reasonable tips like “don’t lie on your dating profile” and “don’t keep dating someone you only click with online,” as well as the perennial warnings about safety that basically haven’t changed in 20 years. For a master-level course on digital love, however, one might turn to the 1998 book The Joy of Cybersex — whose author did an achingly optimistic interview with Wired just two days later.
Some readers might have wondered whether online dating would even exist for long — the year 2000 was approaching, but because of a design shortcut taken decades ago, computers might decide it was 1900 instead. On October 1st, Congress passed the “Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act,” part of an extensive government preparation effort.
The law offered legal protections for companies who shared information about Y2K issues, although CNET laid out criticism from multiple directions. Some people believed companies might still end up mired in lawsuits, and others thought it would stop consumers from filing legitimate grievances. Y2K did end up producing multiple lawsuits, but The Washington Post claimed that lawyers were actually upset about how few major complaints they were getting — which might count as a happy ending for this week’s news.
The fifth season of hit series ER premiered in September of 1998. Could another medical drama really distinguish itself from the most popular show on television? One network considered this question and decided the solution was “set it in outer space.”
According to reviewers of the time, that was the clear pitch behind short-lived UPN science fiction series Mercy Point, which premiered in early October. These reviews were, to put it mildly, not kind. The Los Angeles Times poked fun at the improbably attractive cast of far-future doctors and called the series “derivative on every level.” The Chicago Reader said it “couldn’t even be bothered to make up plots.” Variety mentions that HMOs — some of the most loathed organizations of the ‘90s — still exist in 23rd-century space medicine. The series seems to have mostly disappeared, but you can watch the intro sequence (and a couple of episodes) on YouTube.
In early October of 1998, 44-year-old Rick Rozar fell to his death while adjusting a rooftop satellite. As the Los Angeles Times wrote, Rozar was a philanthropist who devoted years to helping abused and neglected children — and one of the fathers of today’s massive data-mining industry. The former private investigator had founded computerized records company CDB Infotek, which condensed public records into digital dossiers, in 1978. Databases like Rozar’s boomed during the 1990s, giving rise to modern, expansive “people search” services like Spokeo and Whitepages.
The Economist published an extensive obituary covering Rozar’s sometimes controversial legacy. “What Mr. Rozar did was to recognize that the computer, and its cleverest offspring the internet, could be used to venture into individual privacy much further, more efficiently, and more quickly than had previously been possible,” it says. CDB Infotek itself was sold to credit reporting agency Equifax and later the data aggregator ChoicePoint — where Rozar’s diligent work provided businesses with a “wealth of information” to mine.
Horoscopes are a ubiquitous fixture of the internet today, and as The New York Times explained back in 1998, the field owes a lot to online astrology queen Susan Miller — a “personal computer devotee” who created the incredibly successful Astrology Zone website. ‘’I was afraid to tell techno-heads that I was into [astrology]. But they were into it,” said Miller in her Times profile, speculating that the internet created an easy, private option for people who would be too embarrassed to seek their horoscope offline.
Astrology Zone is still online today, complete with its long-running newsletter and some newer mobile apps. And fittingly, the Times profiled Miller again a few months ago — among other details, it turns out she’s bullish on cryptocurrency.