The 'distant' past in the Internet's Middle Ages

Future Tense for Mar. 31, 2008

By Steve Welker

By Steve Welker

Pope John Paul II died three years ago this week, on April 2, 2005.

I'm not a Catholic, but John Paul left a lasting impression on my mind. Every time I watch a television documentary or read a book or article about new threats to the Earth's environment, I remember John Paul's message in Iowa nearly 30 years ago.

Pope John Paul II came to West Des Moines about one year after his elevation to the pontificate in 1978.

Think back to that time if you can. Microsoft was only three years old and IBM wouldn't introduce its first PC for another year. The TCP/IP Internet was four years in the future and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, was writing a typesetting program in Poole, England. The BeeGees and Donna Summer topped the music charts as disco reigned supreme in the world's nightclubs.

Heck, I barely remember the 70s myself and I was there.

Wondering how the World Wide Web "remembers" an event that happened more than a decade before its birth, I went to Google and typed in “pope john paul” and Iowa. More than 150,000 links came back.

This is the familiar problem with Google and the other search engines. Google claims to search 12.42 billion World Wide Web pages. Often it produces more links than anyone has time to read. Fortunately, Google (like most of the search engines) allows you to narrow a search by adding more terms. I put in the word “stewards,” because Iowans remember John Paul’s homily for his reference to “stewards of the land.”

That narrowed Google’s list to a no-more-manageable 9,870 links. At least I got a date for the event (Oct. 4, 1979) and the exact place: Living History Farms in West Des Moines.

I wanted to see exactly what the pope had said, so I went to the Vatican’s own Web site: I typed in “iowa” on its search engine and three links came back. None had anything to do with John Paul’s visit, even though most of his major speeches were cataloged — in Italian.

Fortunately, Google understands Italian. One of its tricks lets you search a specific Web site, so I typed in “moines” and I found the link on Google’s second page of results: “Visita pastorale negli Stati Uniti d’America.” Google also has a machine translation feature, so I could call up a rough — very rough — English version of the pope’s homily.

I never did find the actual speech that John Paul II delivered in English on that day. The absence is an example of another problem that comes from relying on the World Wide Web search engines. There’s a whole lot more to the Internet than the World Wide Web.

As I’ve written here before, the Internet started in the late 1960s. The World Wide Web didn’t come into widespread use until the mid-1990s. In between those two dates are periods that might be called the Internet’s Dark Age and Middle Ages.

In the Dark Age, digital information existed on specific computers, but only certain files were shared. Think of the actual Dark Age (roughly 500 to 1100 A.D.) when monks preserved the world’s written knowledge in monastic libraries. The information existed, but any researcher had to go and specifically ask for it. So it was in the Internet’s early days, when you could call up a sysop (system operator) at Stanford University, for example, and ask him to post or send a file.

In the Internet's Middle Ages, the Internet’s operators gave open access to more information, usually through controlled channels and protocols like Gopher.

Pope John Paul II visited Des Moines in the midst of the Internet’s Middle Ages and much of the information about his visit never made it to the World Wide Web. Still, I found enough on the ’Net (when I started searching Gopherspace) to bring back happy memories.

No other pope had spoken west of the Mississippi River. About 350,000 people (out of a state whose population then was about 2.5 million) came to see John Paul II conduct a mass at Living History Farms. The church set up a stage in the middle of a natural bowl and people flocked to the surrounding hillsides to watch.

I lived about 85 miles from Des Moines; it took SIX HOURS to make the drive because of all the traffic. It was a beautiful day — Iowa produces about 12 “perfect” days each year; that was one — and a good thing, because we had to walk the last two or three miles to the site.

I’ve never been surrounded by so many people — so many happy, peaceful people.

The pope’s homily (sermon) concerned farmers and their responsibility to conserve God’s gift of the earth. He charged Iowans to be “stewards of the land.” The phrase crystallized a vision that many people had sought, because agriculture and rural life in Iowa then was under great pressure from growing industrialization, the movement of people off the farms and to the cities and increasing use of former farm land for residential housing, shopping malls and industrial parks.

John Paul II told us, “Conserve the land well, so that your children’s children and generations after them will inherit an even richer land than was entrusted to you.”

His message helped galvanize a change to the then-new conservation tillage practices that have helped to control soil erosion.

As I said, the event made a lasting impression on my mind. But it’s a good thing I didn’t have to rely too much on the World Wide Web to recall the pope's visit, because Internet's history of events during its Middle Ages remains so sketchy.

I hope someone soon will “conserve” those precious old Gopher files by moving them to a modern digital format ... in the future.


Steve Welker is the editor of His e-mail address is

This article, as well as reader comments can be found at Steve Welker is an editor and columnist living in Mount Airy, North Carolina. More of his writings can be found online at