F E A T U R E S    Issue 2.06 - June 1996

How Wired is My Valley

By Hari Kunzru

You'll already have passed through Bronllys before you've really registered its existence. It's an unremarkable Welsh village: a pub, a post office, a cluster of cottages, a new estate of box-like houses. Only the Honey Cafe, with its gift shop and ample off-road parking, stands out - mainly because of its incongruous sign offering Tex-Mex food. The Honey Cafe is the best place to eat in the area - though, to be fair, there's not much competition - and every evening people will be happily sipping margaritas and tucking into chicken fajitas. But its reputation as a centre of innovation does not depend on the guacamole. The premier eatery of Bronllys has a claim to being Britain's first cy-bercafe, beating Cyberia and the others not by a few months, but by eleven years. It was wired up in 1983 by its owner, 66-year-old peace activist, community leader and grandmother Eluned Hurn, one of British Internet culture's unsung heroes.

Eluned Hurn, known universally as "Lyn", is a pioneer. She remembers the covered-wagon days of the Net, when communications ran at 300 baud and the online world was a new frontier, rather than the topic of jaded Sunday supplement articles. Like any other old-timer, she can tell stories the young will scarcely credit about what things were like before the railroad came to town. It's not that she looks particularly intrepid. Sitting by the fire with her unruly gaggle of granddaughters, she could be any elderly woman, enjoying a peaceful retirement. But Lyn is not content simply to relive past glories. Apart from my visit and an important meeting about her latest project, the regeneration of the local village of Talgarth, she also has a TV crew coming to film a Welsh-language cyberculture programme, not to mention a number of engagements promoting a local currency scheme she is helping to implement. All this comes on top of a heavy January snowfall, which means that one daughter's family can't get back up the mountain to their farmhouse, and is camping at the cafe until the weather breaks. There will be eleven for supper tonight - and Lyn is in her element.

Lyn's life has turned out the way it has in part due to disasters. "The war was what did it. It seems there's always war in one's youth," she reminisces. "That's what drove me to seek for something better." But it took a more personal tragedy, the premature death of her architect husband, to turn her desire for peace into action. "When you're married, especially if you started out in the '50s, you're expected to be with your husband. For 24 years we had a pretty creative time, but with him dying it released me to think about what I could do on my own." What she decided to do was to work against nuclear war.

In 1982 Lyn was sitting on a bright yellow double-decker bus, parked in London's Victoria Park. It was a grim summer. The cold war was as cold as ever, and the Falklands adventure had left a residue of jingoism in the air. The government's infamous "protect and survive" leaflet advised people to shelter under tables in the event of a nuclear strike. Jets were flying regular practice bombing runs over Bronllys, passing so low over the cafe that Lyn worried they would crash into the roof. At the CND peace festival in Victoria Park everyone feared that war was imminent while hoping desperately that it was not.

The yellow bus was owned by a Buddhist group and had been loaned to Sabine Kurjo, a German-born peace activist and computer expert who had given up a safe job at CERN to promote her own vision of salvation through computing. She was in the park to demonstrate the Internet, a new communications medium which was causing a buzz among peace activists. Rumours were circulating that it had the potential to be truly global, and that it was very difficult to censor, but as yet very few people had any hard information, let alone hands-on experience. Sabine understood the level of ignorance only too well - although the bus was hooked up to a generator, the organisers hadn't thought to get her a phone line. To compound her problems, the rather unreliable vehicle had also broken down. It seemed like she was stuck.

Lyn had turned up to watch the demonstration, since she was "interested in anything that would help people communicate with each other", and the missing phone line was not going to stop her. Lyn is used to getting things done, a talent she attributes to her years working with a local Guide troop. Within a few minutes, the caterers had been persuaded to lend their phone line for an hour, and a number of people had been drafted to help manoeuvre the bus over to the meal tent. "We actually had to hot-wire it," she chuckles, showing the mixture of pride and amusement with which she faces the ridiculousness of the world.

When they had finally set up a connection, Lyn watched Sabine log on to a conferencing system called the Electronic Information Exchange (EIES). One of the first fully-fledged online conferences - dating back to 1976 and thus preceding Compuserve and The Source by some years - EIES was developed as an experiment by Murray Turoff of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and it rapidly acquired a community spirit. Its membership resembles a hall of fame, including Whole Earth Catalogue founder Stuart Brand and futurologists Alvin and Heidi Toffler, and many of its members were involved in peace work. It was an obvious first port of call for the Net novices in Victoria Park. To Lyn's amazement, the participants in this particular EIES discussion were American and Russian nuclear scientists. At the height of an arms build-up, with troops on the Polish border and a US president with an itchy trigger finger, here were a bunch of supposedly implacable enemies swapping information and ideas - actually chatting. She couldn't believe what was scrolling down the screen before her.

From that moment Lyn was hooked. But what do you do when you're in rural Wales, it's ten years before Demon will be established and you want to get online ? Well, you go into the sitting room, unplug the kids' Spectrum, get yourself a Prestel modem and set to work. "It came through the post. I read the instructions, fiddled with it for a while, and hey presto - Prestel !" Prestel was Britain's own "videotex" service, a way of receiving data over phone lines using your TV. It was a bit like the French Minitel system, except without the ubiquity - which is why, unlike the French service, Prestel never really caught on. But in 1982 it was the nearest thing to a commercial ISP that Britain possessed. At a time when BT had never heard the word "modem" and most of the Wired staff were pustular teens thwarted in their attempts to go online by sheer technical complexity, Lyn read the instructions, fiddled about and got it done. She still puts it down to the Guides. Soon she had begged or borrowed an Apple IIe and a BBC micro and become a fully-fledged member of Kurjo's NetReach organisation. NetReach was a typical example of Britain's palaeoNet culture. An informal group dedicated to spreading the message of computer networking, it was based on Sabine's "vision of a network of people and computers protecting our planet". NetReach soon became a grass-roots campaigning organisation, spreading the word to groups and communities throughout Britain. Sabine ran the operation from a church in St James's, taking rickety vehicles like the yellow Buddhist bus and a ramshackle caravan round the country on her personal quest to wire the world for peace.

The emphasis on local communities was strong in NetReach, just as it was in EIES, The Well and so many other first-wave networking projects. That suited Lyn Hurn down to the ground. Her Welshness is very important to her. "This is not England," she admonishes me sternly when we first meet. "This is Wales. You have crossed a border." Inevitably, it wasn't very long before the idea of travelling to London for meetings began to rankle. Since she couldn't take the people of Bronllys and Talgarth to England to show them the Net, she decided to bring it to them. And so the wiring of the Honey Cafe began.

The cafe itself is an old malt-house, built in 1885 by David Davies, Lyn's grandfather. He quarried the stone himself and made the bricks from ground clay dug out of the malthouse orchard. Malting finished in 1955, and during the '60s the malthouse basement became the Honey Cavern, Bronllys's very own nightspot and music venue. It was there, under a fading psychedelic mural of the Beatles, that Lyn set up the weekend training sessions which, by hook or by crook, earned the Honey Cafe the title of Britain's first cybercaff. Looking at photos of those early meetings, it all seems a million miles away from the chrome and steel of the fashionable '90s cyberhaunts. Snaps show groups of local people and NetReach volunteers huddled around a tangle of wires and terminals under a homemade peace banner - not a cappuccino in sight. The scene looks like a cross between a village council meeting and a hacker pad, which in a way is exactly what it was.

The Honey Cafe was becoming the centre of a little community, and Lyn wanted to extend it beyond the physical confines of the village. Luckily, someone in Net-Reach had been to California, and brought her back a piece of software which allowed her to do just that. CommuniTree was a BBS package developed by a group called the Community Memory Project. Formed by Berkeley computer science students who had dropped out after the 1970 American invasion of Cambodia, Community Memory was the first electronic bulletin board; it went online in a Berkeley record shop in 1973. From offering people a simple small-ads service, it rapidly expanded into a prototypical online community. Its Communi-Tree operating system had been developed by trial-and-error over some years, and could have been custom-designed for Lyn's needs. Back in Wales, all this Berkeley history was just a handful of floppy disks, but unwittingly Lyn was making Bronllys part of a global village that had been developing slowly since the late '60s - a village that fitted her ideals as well as the software fitted her needs.

The Honey Tree BBS went online in December 1982. It was dedicated with a poem and a jar of the 200 pounds of honey the hives behind the cafe produce each year. "Bees," explains Lyn, "are very intelligent creatures. They know how to find their way back home, even if you move the hive." The bees gave the cafe its name, and the cooperative spirit of the hive has imbued every one of Lyn's community projects. For some months the BBS was silent, and Lyn began to worry that no one was interested. Then a Scottish sound engineer, marooned in France, left what she describes as "the most romantic message. He said it was like the Three Bears' Cottage: all quiet and nobody home." The lonely Scot was followed by other users, and the system grew rapidly, helped by the parallel growth of Net- Reach, which at one point numbered over 800 people.

Lyn and her helpers set up the BBC micro in the main cafe area, with a carousel display telling the story of the BBS and inviting people to come and try the Net. Locals who had turned up for afternoon tea would find themselves holding online discussions with people all over the world. "I think we opened a lot of people's eyes," says Lyn. Certainly the local community has since become impressively wired. Nearby Talgarth now boasts a "telecentre", another Lyn Hurn initiative. Offering community Net access and IT training, every afternoon it fills with children who drop in on their way home from school, either to do their homework or just for fun. It is one of a series of such centres throughout Wales, all of which have benefited from her boundless energy. Lyn remembers the early days with fondness. She liked the small-scale feel of the Net, the sense of building something from scratch. "Home-brew. That's what bulletin boards were like: electronic home-brew. I think that's quite an appropriate image for an old malt-house." She seems distinctly less comfortable with the all-singing, all-dancing, high-bandwidth Internet of the '90s. There's more than a hint of the cyberconservative in some of her opinions. "9600 baud should be enough for anyone," she says to me. "I don't see why you need all this video and graphics business. It just seems to get in the way." To me, the clunky, green-screen interface of the old Honey-Tree BBS seems dull and lifeless, but thinking about it you can see that she has a point. In the race for faster connections and greater information flow, the basic purpose of it all - getting people to talk to one another - is often forgotten. While she likes the Web, Lyn is far less excited about it than most. "It's getting so full of advertising, you can't go anywhere," she grumbles.

A certain disillusionment may go some way towards explaining why Lyn has been concentrating less on the Net recently - that and a need always to solve the next problem. The Internet is not enough like hard work to satisfy Lyn; the main part of the job has been done. The public knows about the Net, and people like her and Sabine don't need to shout to get their message across. While we talk at the cafe, a man at another table is explaining HTML to his friends, a living illustration of the point. And it's not as though Lyn doesn't have other things to get on with. The improbable list of her works in progress includes the Wales Council of Women and the Taliesin Centre, a project to build a massive community centre on the site of an old hospital. But her current obsession is the Brecon Local Exchange and Trading Scheme, the currency of which - denominated in "Beacons" - is valid at the telecentres and in the cafe. It's obvious that this is where her heart lies at the moment.

"We've got into the local Women's Institute," she tells me excitedly. "It's a real breakthrough." In the political life of the Welsh valleys there are two organisations you need to get on your side: the WI and the Young Farmers. Persuade both these groups of the importance of your cause, whether it's the Net or the local ramblers' association, and you're made. Antagonise them, and you will be tarred as a no-hoper, a radical, or - worse - an outsider. Lyn is expert in such micropolitical complexities, explaining to me the difficulties of integrating a community cleanly divided between those who have been there for generations, and those who have moved from elsewhere as a result of the greatly increased social mobility of the last thirty years.

Lyn sees the local currency and the micropolitics of its reception as necessary parts of her overall project - forging a working community from the crumbling infrastructure of the area she has lived in all her life. Events like the closing of Talgarth's mid-Wales hospital, which prompted the Taliesin plan, have brought home the need for Powys to reorganise itself radically if it is to avoid the crippling drain of businesses and people that is striking so many rural areas. In trying to do something about it, Lyn is fighting both the inertia of local authorities and the conservatism of the people she is trying to help. It sounds so local, so detailed, it's hard to believe the Net that mattered so much in peace activism is still needed. So has she abandoned it ?

"Heavens, no. It's terribly useful. When you're working on community things, it's not easy to get messages to people. You have meetings and you have about 15 or 20 people at them, whereas there are 5,000 out there you'd like to have feedback from. At the moment, only the local paper will give you that kind of feedback. What we need is the letters page of the local paper extended into every farm, every cottage."

It's a difficult task. The sheer isolation of many of the people of the Black Mountains and the Beacons makes it very hard to involve them in community projects. Sitting in the Honey guest-house's toast-warm parlour with a tribe of Lyn's children, spouses, grandchildren, friends, lodgers and pets, this seems the tightest-knit community imaginable, but it is one achieved within real physical isolation. Modern agri-business has altered farming in the area beyond recognition. Jobs that once upon a time were done by teams of people can now, with the aid of heavy machinery, be performed by one person. The loneliness and isolation have driven an increasing number of Welsh farmers to suicide.

For Lyn, this is yet another argument for a distributed community. Ironically, it is the farming families who have been most resistant to her ideas, seeing them as an unwelcome English import. Still, it's hard to see them staying Netless for much longer. It's not that the global megatrend towards connectivity will force them Netward; megatrends have missed Wales before. It's more that Lyn will find a way to make it happen, a way to knit them together against the cold. She is tough to stop. Lyn now wonders how useful it is, but the Honey Tree BBS is still online. Soon she may set up a Web site, though for the moment it's not a priority. When I ask whe-ther she might turn the cafe into a "new generation" cybercafe, she makes a face and points to the pay-phone nestled in one corner. "You want somewhere to come and meet people, not to have the Internet shoved at you.It should be like that telephone - there if you want it." In one of the downstairs rooms, by the old oak sideboard and the display of antique Welsh dolls, two of her granddaughters are learning ana-tomy on a multimedia PC. Like the telephone, the computer is tucked away. In the Hurn household, technology is firmly in the service of people, rather than the other way around. Which doesn't mean it's not an object of wonder, as much so to Lyn as to little Megan and Maisie. "When you think about it," she muses, "a modem is a wonderful thing." In the right hands, it certainly is.

Hari Kunzru (hari@wired.co.uk) is a section editor at Wired.