Way Back Machine

Revisiting 20 years of Government Technology magazine.

by / November 7, 2007

Whether they know it or not, 1996 was pivotal for all Americans. Passage of the Telecommunications Act represented the first significant upgrade of the nation's telecom infrastructure in more than 60 years.

The act was explained to the public largely through the much-hyped V-chip technology. Part of the act established a voluntary ratings system for broadcast programming. The V-chip allows program blocking based on this system. But most people didn't realize the act set fairly rigid standards for telecom expansion. For example, the thousands of cell towers dotting the landscape today - and the associated growth of cell phone usage - stem from this act.

Many also blame the act for the shoddy state of broadband access in the US today. Due to restrictions placed on "telecommunications service" providers and the comparative lack of regulation on "information service" providers, these murky definitions spawned heated debates on issues such as network neutrality and Internet service provider monopolies.

By 1996, government's embrace of the Internet and the Web, in particular, shifted into high gear. By February, we were running stories examining which agencies provided what services online - and the inequality of Internet accessibility for the general public. In that same issue, we also featured an in-depth look at growing concerns regarding Internet security. Our cover story focused on security breaches in Netscape and the now-too-familiar problems with Internet-enabled Windows.

From 1995 through 1997, Government Technology experimented with readers by attempting to inject some levity - humor, even - into the magazine with a back page section we called the De-Engineering Department. Though quietly killed off by 1998, a subsequent effort to get you to crack a smile would get under way in 2007 with The Last Mile, a column written by yours truly.

So far, results are mixed.

In the June 1996 issue, we ran three stories that featured up-and-coming technologies we treat as commonplace just 11 years later - data warehousing, electronic benefits transfer and electronic commerce. Can you imagine a world where Amazon, PayPal, eBay and online banking don't exist? Yet just over a decade ago, people were desperately trying to imagine a world in which they did.

Back in the mid- to late 1990s, schools also struggled with how to take advantage of the Internet. I recall from personal experience the advent of the Internet-enabled high- school computer lab. While some school districts still struggle to provide quality online access, many students today have wireless access anywhere on campus.

In December 1997, Government Technology ended its first decade with a sobering story detailing the growing problem of America's inferior telecommunications network. Written by current Digital Communities Editor Blake Harris, The Race for Bandwidth showed how those in the know pleaded for investment to increase our broadband capabilities before foreign countries would begin overtaking us.

"We need bandwidth now. We need it instantly. And we are not going to wait around," said John Gage, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. "[Everything] is going to be on the Net, requiring this bandwidth. That is why bandwidth is going to be inexorable."

So how did we do in 10 years time? My $45 monthly bill for 6 Mbps indicates we didn't do well at all.


Wayback Facts
In the later half of the 1990s, people grew increasingly concerned that the year 2000 would spell doom for the world's computers. This was, of course, due to the problems that would supposedly result from the infamous Y2K bug. Because most computer systems recorded dates as two digits instead of four, it was thought that in 2000, many systems would understand that year to be 1900. The end result of Y2K was negligible. People are still unsure whether the multiyear effort to correct the problem saved the day or if

the problem never really existed in the first place.

In 1997, IBM's chess-playing supercomputer Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov in a six-game exhibition match. Kasparov accused Deep Blue and IBM of cheating, which IBM denied. These days, Deep Blue makes its living using its powerful computational innards to forecast weather, model financial data and design automobiles.

In July 1996, science fiction once again became science reality. At the Roslin Institute in Scotland, Dolly the Sheep was born, becoming the world's first cloned mammal. Dolly lived to be 6 years old, about half the average life span for sheep. Dolly was diagnosed with a viral disease common among sheep, though some contend it was a result of the cloning process. Since Dolly, numerous other mammals have been cloned, including horses, cats, monkeys, people ... er, umm, forget you read that last one.

NASA ended 1996 with a bang when it blasted the Mars Pathfinder into the heavens. The Pathfinder was an extremely important mission for NASA; it was the first test for a new type of landing system. The spacecraft deployed airbags to land on the surface. It was also the first test for Pathfinder's cargo - a small robotic rover named Sojourner, which paved the way for the larger rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Those rovers landed on Mars in 2004 and were expected to operate for three months. As of this writing, both are still roving.

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.