In one week and change, we’ll hit the 30th anniversary of the invention of the Internet. To be honest, there’s some squabbling about just when the Net was born; the creation stories are as diffuse as the thing itself. But most choose Jan. 1, 1983, because that’s when a score of isolated computer systems in and out of the academic-military group ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) agreed to link up using electronic rules that still underpin the Internet today. And so a bunch of disparate groups — like the University of San Diego, NASA, HEPnet (for high-energy physicists), EUnet (the old European network) and workers at Xerox — got to talk amongst themselves.
This cyber barn-raising had a local angle. It was partly overseen by the Cambridge engineering firm of Bolt, Beranek, and Newman and to make the deadline, systems admin guys pulled all-nighters on New Year’s Eve. In geek terms, they switched the communications protocol, or language, from Network Control Protocol to Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol. One guy even made souvenir buttons: “I survived the TCP/IP Transition.” (Zazzle.com sells replicas for a bit over two bucks.)
All this was unknown to me until I read “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet” (Ecco, 2012) and “Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet” (Simon and Schuster, 1996) by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, which goes back even further to J.C.R. Licklider’s visionary MIT gang in the 1960s. I thought I hadn’t heard the birth narratives because I’m a wispy liberal arts type, but “Tubes” author Andrew Blum, a correspondent for Wired, says it’s because the history of the Internet is “seriously underwritten.” I’ll say. I’ve got seven good books for you today, but given the Internet’s sheer volume, you’d think there’d be tons more. Maybe the platforms don’t mix: It’s hard to capture the Web on paper. Forgive the bad Zen koan — but how do you write about a cloud?
That’s why I loved “Tubes.” It quickly dispenses with this cloud business and targets the tangible Internet. Blum travels to select outposts, invariably huge, darkened, purposely unmarked, massively air-conditioned warehouses, larded with refrigerator-sized servers and pizza-box-sized routers, all snaked by endless tubes stacked like “mille-feuilles.” And so we’re off to Silicon Valley, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and places you might not expect: Take Pennsauken, N.J., (chosen because of it’s already existent transatlantic cable network) and the mother of them all (who knew?), Ashburn, Va.
Blum also walks us through concepts, such as the “peering’’ system whereby one Internet group asks to hook onto the infrastructure (yep, the tubes) of another. There’s a nice scene when he gets stiff-armed by Google, while visiting their big data depot in central Oregon (they only show him the lunchroom). And another when he meets up with Leonard Kleinrock, the UCLA computer scientist who is one of the Internet’s founding fathers. Kleinrock shows him the old Interface Message Processor “mini” computer (it weighed 900 pounds). which now smells of old rubber and mildew.
In 1969, UCLA’s IMP No. 1 linked to Stanford’s IMP No. 2 for the first ever system-to-system connection. What was the debut message sent on this new Internet? “Lo.” Sounds poetic, right? But it’s not “lo” as in “behold.” It’s lo because the system crashed at the “g” in login.
I’d crash at “g” too when it comes to techy words like “algorithm.” But “9 Algorithms That Changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today’s Computers” (Princeton University, 2012) is surprisingly accessible. John MacCormick, a computer science professor at Dickinson College, takes pains to explain in chummy prose — he uses metaphors such as “pots of paint’’ and “umbrellas’’ — how these algorithms came to be. And (thank you!) he defines “algorithm” right up front: “a precise recipe that specifies the exact sequence of steps required to solve a problem.” So we get cool elucidations of everyday online miracles: compressing photographs, public key cryptography (which is why you can safely use your Visa online), and determining page rank (without which Google would be bupkis).
Speaking of Google, did you know its initial company name was Backrub? That’s the kind of stuff that pops up that pops up in “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” (W.W. Norton, 2010). But we’re not here for fun, we’re here to plunge through the muck. Author Nicholas Carr, long on the Net beat, quotes many studies that show the Internet has caused “the dissolution of the linear mind.” We can’t get through a whole book anymore; our minds are a quivering short-attention-span hasty pudding from surfing, Facebook, Twitter. As Carr says, the Internet delivers exactly the stimuli (“repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive”) that results in deep alterations in brain circuits. In other words, the damage is done.
Dark and darker: If Internet thinker Jonathan Zittrain were a movie character he’d be Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver.” He obsesses about the medium’s filth — spam, porn, viruses, identity theft — and wants desperately to clean it up. Zittrain is a Harvard law professor and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. And in his “The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It” (Caravan, 2008), he’s nostalgic about the Internet’s early days, when it was all about sharing knowledge freely. But when it jumped from academia to the general public, these values of rough consensus/pleasant anarchy turned in on itself. Online anonymity breeds vice and cruelty, but it’s hard to tamp down abuses while encouraging innovation and free speech. His solution? Light regulation and community oversight — easier said than done.
Mournfulness also pervades “You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto” (Knopf, 2010). It’s pretty cool to hang out in author Jaron Lanier’s head, and I use that image intentionally; Lanier, a computer scientist, one of the pioneers of virtual reality technology. He’s part of the world he’s condemning, so wants to be clear that he’s not “anti-technology” but ‘’prohuman.” Lanier wants to jolt us from our screen stupor and the “digital Maoism” that has turned the wiki wisdom of the crowd into a hive culture bereft of originality. The Internet doesn’t create; it aggregates. And because new media is killing old, our culture “is effectively eating its own seed stock.” Speaking as an old journalist, u r my hero, Jaron.
An obvious point, but hey I’ll make it: Each new communication technology reflects humanity, the good and the bad. There is no solving human nature, and our era of cyber-utopianism is coming to an end. Remember when the Internet seemed like a shining tool of emancipation? Or WikiLeaks glowed with the promise of transparency rather than ambivalence and ruin? Remember all that gushy Arab Spring talk how “the Revolution will be Twittered?”
Now we live in a time when the Syrian government (see also: Egypt, Iran, China) spreads misinformation online, tracks the opposition only to halt it (or worse), and shuts down the Internet altogether — through servers located in Denver, Orlando, and Dallas. Evgeny Morozov, a contributing editor to Foreign Policy and Boston Review, braves this oh-so-timely historical development in his “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom” (PublicAffairs, 2011). Read this book; get wigged out. As Morozov blisteringly explains, the paradox of Internet freedom is that governments also have freedom — to suppress Internet freedom.
Thirty years later, it’s stunning how the World Wide Web has changed our world. Think on that this New Year’s Eve, if you pull your own all-nighter.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.