Previous Chapter
Contents
Next Section

§ 3. The Birth of A Network

By 1968, the researchers and leadership of the ARPA organization had become increasingly enthusiastic about the possibilities of an inter-connected network of computers bridging the distance between their various member facilities across the United States. The early outlines of the ARPAnet seemed to hold a great deal of promise, and led one member to write an extended speculation on what changes such a information exchange might mean. J.C.R. Licklider (an MIT psychologist associated with ARPA) entitled his examination The Computer as a Communication Device, and in its terms and focus the 1968 essay makes some startling predictions about the nature of computer networks and how people interact within them, still three years before there even existed ARPAnet or e-mail:
What will on-line interactive communities be like? In most fields they will consist of geographically separated members, sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest...the whole will constitute a labile network of networks - ever-changing in content and configuration...
The tone of the article in unabashedly enthusiastic: it foresees the growth of on-line newsgroups, bulletin boards and listserv's devoted to specific interests with members scattered far and wide. More importantly, before these on-line formations even began to grow, the term community is chosen over 'interest groups', 'expert networks' or any number of other possibilities. Rather, from the outset, a very humanized word, which implies equality, openness and even responsibility and mutual respect, was selected to describe a complex and expensive infrastructure build for technological information exchange.

Most likely because Linklider and others must have realized (as many feel perhaps Shannon did not) there is much more to communication than moving information from one place to another, especially if people are the end-users. Another aspect of Licklider's analysis, although he could not develop this in great detail given the network was not yet even operational, is that he conceived ARPAnet as a fluid, organic structure which would eventually integrate other systems into its own (ARPAnet would do this for 18 years, from 1971 until 1989, when it would then be 'incorporated' into NSF-Net National Science Foundation and the Internet). However, there are other aspects of his predictions where no doubt the promise and novelty of such a versatile system superseded logic. Licklider would certainly not be the first to make extraordinary claims for new technological systems: telegraphs were thought by many during their time to make war forever avoidable and electricity it was widely touted would cease crime and deliver all men from poverty. The same claims and promises are being made today, as they were made in Licklider's essay of the new network:
What will go on inside? Eventually, every informational transaction of significant consequence...life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity... communications will be more effective and productive and therefore more enjoyable...there will be plenty of opportunity for everyone to find his calling, for the whole world of information, with all its fields and disciplines, will be open to him.
Clearly, it would hardly be splitting hairs to point out the obvious exaggeration which Licklider fell prey to, that which states that the "whole world of information" could ever be contained in any computer network, however vast or powerful or interconnected. 2 Much of the capacity of the Internet today, it needs not be pointed out, seems to be devoted in fact to every informational transaction of significant inconsequence. When the article was written however, the kind of network being discussed would have assumed to have been one centered around research, the sciences and perhaps wider academia - still even in the hands of those peers the early Internet and World Wide Web was swollen with science-fiction trivia, pornography and pop music discussion. Another assertion made by Licklider and others to follow, which time and research has discounted, is the notion that people on-line are necessarily happier for being supposedly surrounded by like-minded peers. In fact, quite the opposite, extensive surveys of Internet users over the year of 1999 found people attached to on-line communities complain frequently of loneliness to begin with and the more time they spend on-line seems to indicate they become increasingly isolated and fell less connected to themselves, peers and the world in general.

One statement made in the essay near the end rings out however, in which Linklider states "if only a favored sector of the population gets a chance to enjoy the advantage of 'intelligence amplification', the network may exaggerate the discontinuity in the spectrum of intellectual opportunity." In the years just previous, race riots had raged throughout New Jersey, Michigan and California as the Civil Rights movement continued to push for reform throughout the US. The calamitous aftermath of these events could not have been far from Linklider's mind, being part as he was of that 'favored sector'. By drawing attention to the threat of technological disparity (which still continues to thwart efforts even within the developed world, let alone the rest of the planet) he demonstrates even the vanguard of first network scientists saw problems which might arise in an on-line world. 3

Regardless of these early misgivings, the plans went boldly ahead. The phrase 'information superhighway' was coined soon after, in 1970, by Ralph Lee Smith, a correspondent for The Nation. Curiously, he was talking about cable television, not computers. But by 1971, the ideas about computing and communication, which had been floating in the literature for several years finally came together as the ARPAnet went into regular service with 15 host machines, no central control and multiple paths by which it could route information. That same year saw the first email programs, Sndmsg and Crynet, written by computer science student Ray Tomlinson. Those protocols were in turn written in the UNIX environment, which had been another vital development from Bell Labs, and the source code was being freely distributed to computer facilities interested in a cheap, stable operating system. 4

The next few years would also see the development of the first 'home computers' such as the Commodore PET, Apple II and Tandy TRS-80 5 , which meant for the first time a generation of children were to grow up with computers, as well as the first public BBS (bulletin board system), MUD (multi-user dungeon) and USENET hosts. 6 Both these emerging trends, of home use and entertainment, revealed the computer and networking to be adaptable to much more than research and scientific information. Whether Linklider, his fellows at ARPA or anyone in the commercial computing field foresaw this, or expected the growth of a public interest outside of computing circles to expand so quickly, is difficult to ascertain, but the curiosity only grew.

Before the end of 1971 however, the world also witnessed the continued destruction in Vietnam unfold and the publication by the New York Times of the leaked "Pentagon Papers" 7 , as well as the American decision to drop the gold standard, the re-emergence in Europe and the Middle East of radical terrorist movements (the PLO, Baader-Meinhoff Gang, Red Army Faction and the SPK). By the end of the decade there was increasing criticism and suspicion of science and technology (particularly where attached to weapons or nuclear power) along with growing unease at global inflation, economic downturn, population growth and fuel shortages. After the prolonged prosperity of the 1950s and 60s, the 1970s spread a new distrust of institutions in general; corporations and the government specifically. 8 Clearly there were deeper social and economic problems in the air then (as now) not even the grandest network of networks will properly address.
Notes:
1 J.C.R. Licklider, "The Computers as a Communications Device," DARPA Proceedings Vol./Issue (1968): 341.

2 Discussions about the informational content of the world, and how to transcribe this into an organized, logical system range from Denis Diderot and Robert d'Alembert's Encylopediae (1760s), which was to be in Diderot's words an "enchainment of knowledge", one that would "explain the general system of global knowledge for all", right through to the growing realization that even keeping every record produced today in digital format would be impossible, let alone the six millennia of textual history left by the print tradition. Ancient scholars of the Mediterranean felt the Library of Alexandria represented the sum of human knowledge. Credible Byzantine records (found after the Library's destruction) indicate it contained roughly half a million scrolls in 3rd century BC, just previous to its declin. Rough estimates regarding the average length of these scrolls and number of lines typically written on each, with a little math, reveal the Library held in total roughly 100 billion bits of information, or 12.5 gigabits. Essentially, the capacity of low-end hard drive today, retailing for less than $125.

Jorge Luis Borges, poet and head of the National Library in Argentina, translated in his 1960 collection El hacedor (The Maker) a fragment from a 17th century work entitled Voyages of Prudent Men (Book IV, ch. xiv) by Suárez Miranda which runs as follows: "...in the Empire in question, the Cartographer's Art reached such a degree of Perfection that the map of a single Province took up an entire City, and the map of the Empire covered an entire Province. After a while the Outsized Maps were no longer sufficient, and the Schools of Cartography created a Map of the Empire that was the size of the Empire, matching it point by point. Later Generations, which were less Devoted to the Study of Cartography, found this Map Irrelevant, and with more than a little Irreverence left is exposed to the Inclemencies of the Sun and Winter."

Equating a computer's capacity to move selected data with "the whole world of information" is like asserting the sum knowledge of the Ancient world would compress onto any laptop computer today or that reproducing the surface of every text in a library (like reproducing the exact shape of the land) is a prudent and wise use of limited resources. Even Project Gutenberg, now in its 30th year, which has managed to mount 10,000 titles on-line, pales in comparison to the 100,000 new titles published during 1999 in the UK alone. The notion 'all of human knowledge' could ever be replicated in all its aspects or should be digitized is too wasteful a process to even consider. Yet this is precisely the level of debate taking place in information technology and data marketing literature. See La Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des metiers, par un société de gens des lettres (Paris, 1951-65), v. 5, 635, E.A. Parsons, The Alexandrian Library (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1952), "On Scientific Rigor" by Jorge Luis Borges Selected Poems (New York: Viking, 1999), 139, and John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000), 180.

3 At present, only 25% of the US, and 1% of the world's population, are able to afford a personal computer, have access to a network and need to worry about 'Information overload'. As of 1994, 4.7 of the world's 5.7 billion people did not even have access to a telephone, so needless to say overflowing e-mail was hardly an issue for any of them. See Albert Borgman, Holding on to Reality : the Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium (Chicago: University Press, 1999), 6.

4 By 1985, UNIX would run on more than 300,000 host computers world-wide. See Christos Moschovitis History of the Internet: A Chronology, 1843 to the Present (Denver: ABC-CLIO, 1999)

5 Paul E. Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), 263-268.

6 The first BBS was hooked up in Chicago by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, the first MUD at Essex University in the UK by two computer science students and Usenet was launched by the University of North Carolina, again using UNIX, which they called 'the poor man's ArpaNet.' By 1991 alone, Usenet hosted 35,000 topic nodes generating 10 million words of discussion daily.

7 Not surprisingly, Von Neumann's work with the RAND Corp. figured prominently in the strategic discussions taking place in the military establishment about conflict in with the Soviets and then later in Vietnam. Elements of Von Neumann's game theory certainly moved Nixon & Henry Kissinger in late 1971 to escalate the bombing of Cambodia. Both Von Neumann and Bertrand Russell firmly believed there was only room for one nuclear super-power and game theory, which derives mathematical patterns from conflict situations and seeks to optimize the outcomes, always privileges the side which acts or strikes first. His 1957 obituary in Life magazine quoted him (during his stint with Atomic Energy Commission) as saying, "If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o'clock, I say why not one o'clock?" Von Neumann had studied mathematics under David Hilbert in Germany, and clearly adopted his mentor's perchance for 'rigid' lines of thinking. Von Neumann was incidentally also a notoriously reckless driver, a fierce intellectual rival of MIT's Norbert Wiener (who coined the term 'cybernetics') and is largely seen as the model for the Dr. Strangelove character in the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name. See William Poundstone's Prisoner's Dilemma (NY: Doubleday 1992), and Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge: MIT, 1996), 114-145.

8 "Corporations value multilocational flexibility primarily because it permits the possibility of crossing political boundaries to evade government regulation, or to search for cheap or specially skilled labour, low taxes, and other favorable regulatory climates...many have taken to leasing their own private networks- 'intranets' - for secure and reliable communications...this reliance on private leased lines by corporations has been one of the primary factors behind the push for deregulation and the break-up of national monopoly cartels in telecommunications." See Paul Taylor, "First the Internet: Now the Intranet", Financial Times, Apr. 3, 1996, Peter Cowney, "The International Telecommunications Regime," International Organization, 44 (Spring 1990), 169-199, and Mark Hepworth, "IT and Global Restructuring of Capital Markets," Collapsing Time and Space: Geographic Aspects of Communication and Information (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).

Previous Chapter
Contents
Next Section

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.