Computers in the Bahá'í Community through Ridván 1992
by Bryn Deamer and Steven Kolinspublished in Bahá'í World, Vol. 20 (1986-1992)
"A mechanism of world inter-communication will be devised, embracing the whole planet, freed from national hindrances and restrictions, and functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity."
It is widely understood by the Bahá’í community that Bahá'u'lláh released not only the laws that will govern a united world, but the creative energy that will develop the means to help the World Government fulfill its function. One of the most visible fufilments of this is the development of computers and computer-mediated communication systems.
Information about the potential of computers to assist the Bahá’í community was disseminated widely in 1988 with the publication of V. Mitra Gopaul's work Personal Computers and the Bahá’í Community (Los Angeles : Kalímát Press, 1988). This practical book demonstrates how computers can be used in a wide variety of areas of concern to all Bahá’í communities: record keeping, letter production, financial tracking, statistical analysis and the like.
By 1988 personal computers were seen as having two major uses. The manipulation of numerical data - financial and statistical, and the manipulation of the printed word - word processing. To this has been added the realization that personal computers, when attached to communication networks such as through a phone line, can become a powerful means of communication. The use of computers for communications, initially begun as a race for the ability to continue to communicate after an all out nuclear war, has turned into a means of uniting people across the world in a sharing of knowledge, ideas and opinions. Perhaps nothing demonstrates better the tremendous strides that have been made in this area, than section 8.2 - "Electronic Mail" in Gopaul's 1988 work which contains the words: "In the mid-1970s...the question was 'Will E-MAIL succeed?' and now  it is 'When will E-MAIL compete with other messaging systems?'." Indeed the question now  being asked in the popular press is: "Will the traditional Post Office survive in the face of email?"
An assiduous scholar of the future researching the Bahá’í community's willingness to embrace new technologies as encouraged by Shoghi Effendi (Shoghi Effendi, Letter to an individual, 5 May 1946, quoted in the compilation, Use of Radio and Television in Teaching), will find a wealth of materials in the unique collection of national newsletters held in the Bahá’í World Centre Library. The jump from a typewritten, stenciled print style to a cleaner, more balanced and pleasing layout, is often the first sign of the penetration of a personal computer into the community. A random selection from the shelves of the Bahá’í World Centre Library reveals newsletters printed with a dot-matrix printer coming from countries such as Malaysia by 1984 (19 day feast newsletter=Surat kenduri hari 19, 4 November 1994), Transkei in 1986 (Transkei Assistant's letter, July 1986) and the Cameroons by 1988 (Cameroon Bahá’í news, July/August 1988).
A dot matrix print style alone does not prove the existence of a personal computer in the community, as some later forms of electric thermal typewriters also produced a dot matrix style of print. A more emphatic clue is the appearance of standard "clip art" graphics at the head of paragraphs and special sections.
It is certain that one outstanding fact that would emerge from such an exhaustive study would be the importance of pioneers in introducing the technology into their adopted communities. No doubt, if the same study were conducted throughout the archives at the Bahá’í World Centre, it would uncover the first financial reports received where spread sheet programs were used to assist national treasurers to keep track of income and expenses, and to produce charts and graphs for occasions such as National Conventions.
Another major area of computerization is membership lists, with the output of mailing labels for newsletters being the most visible result. It is only natural that the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States should be at the forefront of all such developments and indeed we read in The American Bahá’í of January 1975 ("Role for computer expanding", The American Bahá’í, January 1984, p.1) that "A private computer firm was hired in 1967 to develop a mailing system that would conform with Federal postal regulations." Also in the U.S.A., the District Teaching Committee of Oregon has been tracking its membership records since 1983, which from that time has been accessible through a Local Area Network (LAN) system to multiple users (Email from David House to the authors, 6 February 1996).
The Bahá’í World Centre in its review of the achievements of the Six year plan noted that:
Development of Computer-mediated communications systems.
The explosive growth of the use of computers for communications is destined to have profound effects in unforeseen ways on human society. In 1969, the United States Government's Department of Defense commenced research into the concepts of networking through its Advanced Research Projects Agency (Hobbes' Internet Timeline, v1.4, available by electronic mail from email@example.com). E-mail (electronic mail) was developed soon after, in 1972 (Op.cit). Until the middle of the 1980's the network was limited to military, research establishments and the larger research-oriented universities. However, its enormous potential for sharing the limited computing resources available to universities was so obvious that many smaller universities joined the network, and thus introduced the concept to a huge number of students at all levels. Commercial companies were formed to provide E-mail services with those people whose appetite had been whetted during their university years often being the first to sign on and thus introduce the system to their friends and family.
At the grassroots level, a different form of computer-mediated communication developed during the early 1980s. When the original personal computers were sold they were aimed at the "kit" market, much like the child's home chemistry sets. While high-end calculators now have more power than those early computers, their inherent flexibility fitted them to primitive networking. Using the personal computer attached to a modem - a device that allowed the computer to communicate with other computers over phone lines - the first bulletin boards systems (BBS) came into being. Although modems were developed almost simultaneously with personal computers they were limited to slow data transfer speeds for a relatively long time, while the personal computers increased both speed of operation and capacity quickly.
Also important was the development of the now fundamental piece of equipment known as the "hard drive." The hard drive allowed mass storage of information so the personal computer could manage more than it could keep "in its head" (the RAM or Random Access Memory). The grassroots characteristic of the years of BBS networking are such as to make the roots of that activity hard to track down. However it is certain that one bulletin board system known as Fidonet dates back to the early 80's - perhaps almost to 1980 itself. One inventory of sites found that Fidonet had reached most of the countries of the Earth by 1992. While Fidonet is early worm in BBS network development there are several others more or less limited to the United States or North America or perhaps getting into some parts of the rest of the developed world; notably systems called Wildnet, WWIVnet and RIME.
Use of Computer-mediated communications by Bahá'ís.
Once again the North American Community led the way. The opening salvo may well have been fired at the 7th annual Association for Bahá’í Studies Annual Conference at Ottawa in 1982, during which Steven Caswell gave a presentation on "Telecommunications and the Bahá’í Faith" (Cassette no. RT-81, Association for Bahá’í Studies annual conference - 1982, Images International, 1982), in which he traced the historic growth of telecommunications, compared it to the growth of the Faith, and found an almost perfect numeric correlation.
By the end of the next year we read that "Plans to bring the Bahá’í Faith to the forefront in the implementation of modern communications technology were set in motion December 17-19  at an historic telecommunications conference in San Fernando, California" ("San Fernando host to historic Telecommunications Conference", The American Bahá’í, February 1983, p.1).
Forty Bahá'ís from the United States and Canada attended, and "formulated plans designed to help establish the new Bahá’í radio station in South Carolina [WLGI] and to research possible applications of existing computer technology to serve the Faith." The conference culminated with the adoption of three proposals, the third of which involved "the establishment of a Bahá’í Computer and Telecommunications Association to monitor developments...and to serve as a clearing-house' for evaluating the potential for application of new technology to service to the Cause of Bahá'u'lláh. One such application might be setting up a computer network to link Bahá'ís across the country in an interactive conferencing system involving hundreds or even thousands of Bahá'ís" (Op.cit., p.21).
Thus the loose association known as the Bahá’í Computer User's Association formed by the personal initiative of Sheryl and Roger Coe in May 1982 (Bahá’í Computer User's Association, newsletter, [no.1] 11 May 1982), was transformed into the Bahá’í Computer and Telecommunications Association, and shortly thereafter a "core committee" was appointed by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States to guide the operation of the Association (Bahá’í Computer and Telecommunications Association, newsletter, no. 4 October 1983).
By 1985 we read:
It is reported that that a few issues of an electronic newsletter called God speed or 1200 baud, was distributed to a list of about 300 computer uses in 1984. However no archival copies were kept and it is not known if any printed copies have survived of this early electronic effort. One result of this was a cooperative effort of typing and proofreading the Sacred Texts coordinated by Lee Nelson. This effort resulted in the computer programs "Concordance" and "Refer", which were available on the Local Area Network in Oregon for approximately three years prior to their release by the Publishing Trust of the United States (Email from David House to the authors, 6 February 1996.)
By the Mid-1980s the term Bahá’í-net, which Steven Caswell had mentioned in his talk in Ottawa in 1982, had come into use to describe a network of Bahá'ís using computers in various forms to communicate with each other. Mark Towfiq and Kamran Hakim created a list which in 1987 or 1988 was moved to the MIT computer to be maintained formally by Jenifer Tidwell. This list was known as Bahai-Net. "When the World Centre acquired Internet email access via UUCP to the first commercial Internet service provider (UUnet) in 1989 (registering the domain bwc.org') there were already well over 100 members on the Bahai-Net mailing list worldwide and steadily growing" (Email from Bob Gregory to the authors, 27 April 1995)
Bahá’í discussion groups and Bulletin Boards.
It seems that the first computer bulletin board system (now known by the common acronym, BBS), created by a Bahá’í was one set up by Frank Haendel of Colorado, USA. Roger Coe describes how "The other night I hooked my modem to the telephone, dialed a number, ... watched my computer screen and here is what I saw......
Roger Coe's dream "to be able to associate with a world-wide network of Bahá'ís and Bahá’í institutions via computer - exchanging information, working on problems, and shrinking the World into a loving neighborhood" (Bahá’í Computer Users Association newsletter, no.1 11 May 1982) was coming a step closer.
What of his other dreams of:
By Ridván 1992 a large body of Writings had been typed into computers at the World Centre and elsewhere, but total public access to many of these was not possible until later developments. Likewise his vision of shared libraries, data bases etc, and the possibility of on-line consultation, had to wait for further development, many of which occurred in the Holy Year (Ridván 1992 to Ridván 1993) (therefore just outside of this volume's coverage).
6. Computers at the Bahá’í World Centre.
The first computer known at the Bahá’í World Centre was indeed a kit computer brought to Israel by Bob Gregory in 1977. However it was not until 1980 that the first official World Centre computer began operation in 1980. It was DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) PDP 11/34 acquired to run the first computerized financial accounting system for the Bahá’í International Fund. At the same time a word processing system called Lex was purchased (Electronic mail message from Bob Gregory to the author, 1 March 1995).
Electronic mail first made its appearance at the World Centre in 1984 with the purchase of a VAX computer (Email message from Bob Gregory to the author, 8 March 1995). It was known as "VAXmail" and quickly gained acceptance as a way of sending and requesting information without the interruptions caused by phone calls.
In 1985, a company called Goldnet commenced operation in Israel, testing quietly for a year with selected clients before offering the service to the public. The Bahá’í World Centre became aware of this testing program and asked to join.
Mailboxes were acquired for the Bahá’í International Community offices in New York and Geneva, and software, developed at the World Centre, was installed to utilize the Dialcom service in a very cost-effective manner. Email was used primarily to coordinate the activities of the BIC representatives involved with the resolution in the UN Commission on Human Rights concerning the persecutions in Iran.
Situation by Ridván 1992
So what can be said of the situation by Ridván 1992? We can see that Personal Computers had become an accepted part of the Bahá’í community. Their use was helping the communities and assemblies to raise their level of operations to a higher, more professional plane, producing newsletters, statistical and financial reports that were pleasing to the eye and clearer and easier to understand.
Electronic mail had proven its worth, and was being rapidly developed and pursued, and networks of Bahá’í discussion groups were up and running, and already moving into areas of specialization. Thus by Ridván 1992, the commencement of the Holy Year - the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Bahá'u'lláh, we find the Bahá’í community poised to take full advantage of the rapid developments in the field of computer-mediated communications and information provision that was seemingly to burst upon the world during from that time on.
These developments will be recorded in later volumes of the new annual editions of the Bahá’í World volumes, as we chart the birth and growth of such things as FTP (File Transfer Protocol) servers, and the World Wide Web with its seemingly miraculous provision of text, sounds and images (both still and moving).
--Bryn Deamer (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Steven Kolins with assistance from members of the Bahá’í Computer and Communications Association
[This article was written for The Bahá’í World, volume 20 (not yet published) and has been printed in slightly revised form by permission]