Essay: Napster, and Other Forgotten Collegiate Pursuits

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My old computer

(This essay runs in the Fall 2012 College Issue of Tell Magazine) 

A very telling way to look at differences the collegiate experience over the generations is what kind of electronics were available to dorm denizens. Sure, some would rather look at which political causes they were out marching in support of, but I’d rather talk about the gadgets.

When my parents matriculated in the late 1960s, the Internet and personal computers were a distant dream, nevermind E-readers, tablets, or in-dorm flat panel TVs. My mom and dad wrote papers on typewriters, actually spent hours studying at the library, and listened to music in their dorms on record players.

When I went off to college about 30 years later, things had come pretty far, but not nearly far enough. The Internet had only enjoyed widespread availability for a couple of years, and I outfitted way too much of the meager available shelf space in my freshman dorm room with a couple dozen of my favorite CDs. My computer was a bulky, beige desktop Mac Power PC, which had less than a gigabyte of hard drive space. My school-issued email address was an unintelligible, impossible-to-memorize series of numbers; it was either that or AOL.

When I started college, Steve Jobs still worked at NEXT. There was no Facebook- except for that book they give you with everyone’s pictures- no CraigsList, and not even Google, and the dotcom bubble was just beginning to inflate. I don’t think I knew a single person in 1996 who had a cell phone, and didn’t get one of my own until after I graduated. When, my senior year, freshmen started showing up with iMacs, it just about blew my mind.

But then there was Napster. I’d been hearing whispers for a year or two that someone had set up a folder on the network where anyone could share music with one another, but I sort of wrote that off as one of those weird tech tricks I’d never be able to figure out how to do. But then, at some point in 1999, I got word that there was another network like that, only it was everyone in the world, and you could find any music that had ever been recorded, for free.

It was kind of unbelievable, and you can bet I filled up just about all of my sub-1GB hard drive before the university’s IT department realized all this rampant file-sharing was taking up all its bandwidth, and blocked access to Napster. The damage was done, though; a few friends of mine even went out and bought standalone CD burners, one of those wonderful product categories that had a shelf life of about two years before every PC manufacturer started building them in.

The quick rise of Napster kicked off a years-long, high-profile legal battle that, among other manifestations, led to the epic Napster-Metallica feud, which forced quite a few metalheads to choose sides between their newfound love of easy, free file-sharing and their metagod James Hetfield. Napster may not have won, but they did kick off the age of music downloading, while also decimating the music industry’s business model for good.

Throughout the aughts, Napster was shut down, sold and relaunched numerous times- Best Buy, inexplicably, bought it for $121 million in 2008!- before it was merged with Rhapsody and shuttered at the end of 2011. It’s biggest moment in the sun in the last five years probably came when “The Social Network” used it to establish the credentials of the Sean Parker character.

Students entering college now- and even those who have graduated in the last couple of years and now work with me at the magazine- don’t even remember there ever not being an Internet. They can carry in their pockets a tiny device with about 50 times the hard drive space of my old desktop computer. Some have traded semi-annual purchases of 25 textbooks with a Kindle or iPad and digital downloads, and I’ve even heard of students with TVs in their rooms that are more than 15 inches. And I’m sure no ever accidentally deletes their senior thesis, because they back it up in the cloud.

When my two sons start college in 2028 or so, I can’t even imagine what technologies they’ll have access to in their dorm rooms. Teleportation? Mind melds? Will there even be universities, or just a college education that you instantly download into your brain, at a six-figure cost?

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  • Eric Deamer

    This is a topic that’s always fun to talk about, and where even subtle age differences of a few years can make a surprisingly big difference. For instance, since I was in college in the early to mid-90s as opposed to the late 90s I think I may be of the very youngest age group to only be introduced to the rudimentary internet and the kind of stuff you talk about here IN college. Seriously, classic of 96/97 types like me oftentimes got our very first email from our college, and it was of that weird super-complicated form as you say and were checked using some kind of weird, LINUX-based program. Someone I graduated high school with was instrumental in actually bringing the world wide web and email to Notre Dame for the very first time and I guy I went to Saint John’s College-Annapolis with was the first to bring it there. Since I went to school there from 92-94, and they were sort of intentionally luddite (at least at that time), I actually was probably part of the very last group to experience any form of entirely internet-free college life. There were computer labs there, but the computers were stand alone, basically there only for word-processing. When I transferred to the University of Chicago, they had networked computers, but the web was so basic. The fanciest browser was Mosaic. People could share files through FTP etc. but that was just for like term papers and stuff like that, file sharing of actual media, Napster style, was still inconceivable.