Gopher, developed in 1991 at the University of Minnesota, is a text-only, hierarchical document search and retrieval protocol that was supplanted by the more flexible WWW in the mid-1990s. Some servers running this old protocol are still alive, however. The WELL, an online discussion board and community that started back in 1985, is still running a Gopher server. If you’ve got a recent version of Firefox, you can check it out in its original Gopher-y state at gopher://gopher.well.com/ or with any web browser at http://gopher.well.com:70/.
It seems to have been frozen in early 1996 or so and houses several historical documents from the early 1990s. Many of the links are dead and some documents cannot be found, but poking around for 20 minutes or so, I found:
- 1994 edition of Hobbes’ Internet Timeline. The current version is here.
- Interviews from MONDO 2000, including William Vollman, Brenda Laurel, and a conversation between David Byrne and Timothy Leary.
- Scripts from a 1993 program on NBC called Almost 2001, “a 5-part series on Telecommunications and Technology”.
- Highways of the Mind, an essay by Roger Karraker from 1991 on the future of technology and globally networked humanity.
- A 1972 article by then-journalist Al Gore about the leader of a communal settlement in Tennessee.
- A profile and history of The WELL from September 1993.
- Some miscellaneous writings, including some stuff by Bruce Sterling.
One of the articles by Sterling, his remarks from a privacy conference in 1994, touches on a topic that’s still hotly debated today:
I’ve been asked to explain why I don’t worry much about the topics of privacy threat raised by this panel. And I don’t. One reason is that these scenarios seem to assume that there will be large, monolithic bureaucracies (of whatever character, political or economic) that are capable of harnessing computers for one-way surveillance of an unsuspecting populace. I’ve come to feel that computation just doesn’t work that way. Being afraid of monolithic organizations especially when they have computers, is like being afraid of really big gorillas especially when they are on fire.
I don’t follow Sterling’s writing that closely, but I wonder if he’s changed his mind on this issue?
Matisse Enzer helped set up The WELL’s Gopher server and tells how it came to be on his blog. And here are a few other Gopher servers that are still running:
Update: It occurs to me that this might be up the alley of Digg’s users. If you’ve got an account there, you may wish to Digg this story.
Update: Here’s a write-up of GopherCon ‘92, “a small working session of Gopher developers and users”. I liked this bit:
Ed Vielmetti of CICnet gave a talk on “what we would be gathering to discuss if UMinn had never developed Gopher”, meaning primarily World-Wide Web (WWW). WWW was developed for the high-energy physics community and serves as a model of what Gopher could do if a discipline-oriented virtual community invested in it heavily.
Thanks for sending that along, Ed.
Update: The archives of the infamous spies.com Gopher server appear to be here. I don’t know how complete they are or when they’re from. (via digg)