Here is the story of the slow internet and the discovery of the secrets of Google

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While teaching an introduction to a journalism class at the University of Alabama sometime in the late 1990s, I invited a colleague from The Tuscaloosa News to speak to my students.

He was well versed in a new concept called the Internet.

The students took careful notes as he talked about things like Jeeves, Googles, and Yahoos. I’ve done that too. I didn’t quite understand the significance of something I wasn’t sure how to spell.

Halfway through the session, we walked down the hall to the computer lab—the only place with a telephone connection to the Internet—and made clumsy attempts to use our new knowledge.

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I had given them a task that required research: to write an obituary for a famous person alive.

They took their places in front of the computers, and a dozen modems shrieked to life, screeching like a cubicle full of cats in a room full of rocking chairs.

The students, mostly second and third year students, started writing, trying to get the points and calls in the correct order. One man succeeded. Enter the name “Anna Nicole Smith” into the Google search bar.

The image began to focus, from the top of the screen. Puffy blonde hair. Intense eye makeup. Puffy red lips.

The rest of the class gathered to watch.

Bare shoulders. Naked… wait what?! I made my way to the computer and tried to cover up the screen, making sure that my days as an assistant teacher were numbered. Forgotten Anna Nicole, who was alive at the time, first gained popularity as the 1993 Playboy Playmate.

Google moved slowly at the time. We had to wait for the image to load before my expert colleague could close the browser. The screen is blank. I can finally breathe again.

Somehow, I kept my job. The guy got an A on his writing assignment. I finished the semester in awe of the power of the internet. The slow-motion awesomeness of a modem has given me access to more information than I ever knew existed.

Now, it looks old and weird.

Although progress often seems slow, it is surprising how much change can change over the course of a generation or two.

My grandparents traveled by horse-drawn wagon.

They were born in the early 20th century in the rural South before cars and trucks were widely available.

Living under such primitive conditions seems impossible for someone like me, who grew up in a two-car family. I also grew up with TV (although not always in color), cable (eventually) and pressure phones, things I’m sure my grandparents couldn’t imagine as children.

It’s exciting and a little scary to think about the breakthroughs that will occur in the next century.

I recently told the anecdote of my online lesson to a group of colleagues in their twenties and thirties. They listened intently, no doubt trying to make sense of a world with worse inconveniences than being forced to use data instead of wifi.

When I got to the dramatic conclusion, a reporter stopped me.

“Why didn’t you just turn off the screen?” He said. “That’s what I was doing when I heard my parents come into my room.”

Now tell me. Where was he 25 years ago?

Susie Fleming Leonard He is a distinguished journalist with more than three decades of experience. You can access it at sleonard@floridatoday.com. Find it on Facebook: Tweet embed or on Instagram: Tweet embed

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