PLATO: The Creation of the Online Community and the Orange Glow S14 Ep3

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If we were to trace the roots of what we do online, what would we assume about the creation of the online community?  Whether it’s taking college courses or Facebooking, when did it start. The 1990s with the internet. Was that the start of online video games, chat rooms, blogging, online courses? Most of us know the foundation of the internet – the ARPANET.   With ARPANET, the first successful network computer message was sent in 1969.  Less known is the internet forerunner, the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) system.  The creation of the online community truly began with PLATO.

Creation of the Online Community

Before PC there was PLATO

Plato said, “You know that the beginning is the most important part of any work.”

Before the ARPANET, an interpersonal computer revolution kindled.  A group at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign created the PLATO system.  It was 1960 and thousands of miles from Silicon Valley. The intent for PLATO was a computerized learning system.   Ambitious and wild as it may have seemed, by the mid-1960s, the University offered college credit for courses taken through PLATO.  Here was the beginning of computer-based training.

Beyond Computer Based Training

Through the 60s and 70s PLATO bloomed into an orange glow of computing innovation.  Expanding the purpose for the PLATO System, students, professors, hackers and hobbyists joined the fun.  Innovative and sometimes eccentric, this motley group continued adding functions and apps to PLATO.  Through the orange glow of plasma screens, a vibrant and varied community ideated, created, and chatted.  The creation of the online community emerged.

History in the Making

You might wonder why hasn’t everybody heard about PLATO?  You’re in good company.  Enter Brian Dear. Brian has collected data on PLATO for over thirty years.  His early career working on PLATO sparked his fascination with its capacity. By the 70s, the PLATO system already had touch screen and plasma displays among its features.

PLATO had fundamental influence on the technologies that we have in our pocket and on our desks.  Yet, this amazing system seemed unrecognized, uncredited, unnoticed. By creating PLATO, brilliant minds had invented the future.  Now PLATO was slipping into the shadows.

Brian waited for someone to write the book.  He could not even find PLATO referenced in computer history books.  He feared this important piece of computer history would disappear. Finally, he set out to do the work himself.  The result is The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture.  The book captures the history of PLATO and the creation of the online community around the orange glow.

Want to know the story behind the term “orange glow”?  Listen to the story on the podcast.

Find out more about Brian Dear and his book at http://friendlyorangeglow.com/

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