TECH PEOPLE

Austin Internet pioneer Tracy LaQuey Parker on how it began and where we’re going

Posted October 26th, 2017

Sometimes it’s not about recognizing the next big thing in technology. It’s convincing everyone around you that your intuition about an incoming wave is the one everyone should surf.

In her various roles at the University of Texas at Austin and at companies including NCR Corp. and Cisco Systems, Tracy LaQuey Parker was able to witness, and contribute to, the Internet before it was a concept anyone but researchers, computer scientists and, yes, Al Gore had heard about.

“I just knew,” Parker says now at a coffee shop in South Austin about the excitement she felt in the late 1980s as she saw the threads come together that would lead to the World Wide Web, the mobile web and everything connected. “I thought this thing is going to be huge. I didn’t know how it was going to be huge, but it made too much sense to me. It’s scalable, it’s not proprietary... just a lot of things about it resonated with me technologically.”

Flashback to 1988: there’s no graphical web browser (that would be the game-changing Mosaic in 1993). Everything is text-based. The government has prohibited any commercial use of the Internet. People such as Parker at universities are using this connected set of computers to send email and share resources online.

What began as  University of Texas project to catalog statewide networks grew into an ambitious plan from Parker to go international: why not create a directory of all the Internet sites? It boggles the mind now, but that information fit into a book called, “The User’s Directory of Computer Networks” published in 1988 by Digital Press.

“It’s ginormous,” she laughs. “On paper, it’s a snapshot of what things looked like in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It’s become a historical record of the network at that time.”

For that book, another book called, “The Internet Companion” published in 1992 with a foreword by Gore, and for some of the pioneering work she did in connecting educators to the early Internet, Parker last month received a major award. The Internet Society inducted Parker as part of its 2017 Internet Hall of Fame class of Innovators and Global Connectors on its 25th anniversary

Parker credits many of her accomplishments to the early connections she was able to make online, her willingness to travel and make contact with others who were shaping the early Net and throwing herself into projects, such as creating the Texas Higher Education Network (THEnet), which gave any teacher in the state access to a dial-up Internet resource. In 1991.

“I was blessed with youth,” Parker says, of the energy it took the design the menus, create the organization to support the effort and to travel around the state introducing the Internet to school districts around the state. “I was explaining the same thing over and over. What is the Internet? Why would you want to use it?”

One killer application that proved valuable was posting the UIL football schedule online, which previously required coaches to literally drive to Austin and then make phone calls to spread the information. 

Over the years, Parker bounced back between UT and the corporate world. At Cisco, she gave a grant to the University of North Carolina to put together the first website for the company. While there, she registered the domain flowers.com and got caught up in a major court case when a spammer forged her email address in 1997

She was the first individual to sue a spammer and win, making her an Internet folk hero.

These days, she’s doing work with nonprofits and helping behind the scenes on projects such as the recent launch of MassChallenge. She helps her husband with his consulting and investment business, Parker Solutions Group, LLC, and watches her sons, who are college and high-school age, wrestle with the Internet she also watched grow from infancy.

Like the rest of us, she worries about Internet security and privacy. “I know top experts in the field and I have a hard time staying on top of things,” she says.

She wonders if the generations who have never been disconnected from the Internet will ever unplug and if the always-wired, hyper-reactive world we live in will result in a backlash against the Internet.

But despite her inside knowledge and how instrumental she was in the Internet’s early growth, she’s still beholden to it like anyone else.

“I’m addicted to my phone. I need to disconnect. I need to put my phone away and not check email and social media all the time,” she says. “It’s affecting our biology.”

When she was inducted to the Internet Hall of Fame, she looked back on her book on using the Internet for the first time in many years. She was surprised by how hard the early Internet was to use before there were graphical web browsers. But one thing that hadn’t changed was how much, as a social person who loves making friends, she likes the way email and social media have connected people. She hates fake news, but Parker says she loves the way Facebook, which she describes as a daily newspaper about her friends’ lives, augments her social life.

She’s not sure what the future will bring, but she knows that technological gamechangers like Mosaic often come out of nowhere.

We might think we know where things are going, but Parker says: “I think we’re still going to be surprised.”

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