Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Internet's creation chronicled in the fantastic Where Wizards Stay Up Late

From The Week of February 04, 2013

Once in a great while, the course of human history is upended by a transformative event, an incident, an invention, an intercession, that leaves an indelible mark upon the world. These events are all-too-often tragic in origin, calamities of war and disaster that just as easily claim the lives of the innocent as the impure. But regardless of their tone, they are rare enough that they attract not only the inquisitive attentions of the passingly interested but the expert lenses of the academically engaged as they attempt to better understand, or better preserve for posterity, something that might not soon come again. Of all such events, none may mean as much to as many as the creation of the Internet. And yet, on this topic, history is oddly quiet, especially when compared to the endless volumes penned about the Second World War whose consequences, for most of us, have long since faded into memory. With charm and rigor, Ms. Hafner and Mr. Lyon correct this notable wrong with their edifying tome.

Born of the dreams of visionaries, not as legend has it from the efforts of the US military to maintain communications during a nuclear attack, the Internet began life in the early 1960s as Arpanet, four relatively simple but extraordinarily expensive computers networked together by genius, high-speed telephone lines from AT&T and a great deal of prayer. A public-private partnership between ARPA, a government agency under the aegis of the US military, and BBN, a pioneering technology firm, Arpanet was constructed to both push back the boundaries of science and to prove that the ideas upon which it was based were not only sound but brilliant.

Until Arpanet, terrestrial communications technologies had been mostly stagnant since the creation of the telephone system in the first half of the 20th century. Satellites had been launched into space, but telephone calls were still being routed through manual switchboards labored over by an army largely comprised of women. By inventing the idea of information as packets, by sending those packets of information in bursts that would maximize the use of the telephone lines over which they were traveling, by creating a universal language by which computers the world over could understand one another, and by cementing the protocols by which networked computers could cooperate and communicate over a network, the scientists working on Arpanet laid down every fundamental component of what would eventually be the Internet. these systems and protocols are still used today, long after most of their inventors have lapsed into obscurity, their stars forever outshined by Facebook and Amazon, Apple and Google, none of which would have existed without the inventiveness and the altruism of men who sought to create something bold and new.

There is no doubt that Where Wizards Stay Up Late is an excellent history of Arpanet. Ms. Hafner and Mr. Lyon not only deliberately and intelligibly illustrate the technologies that underpin the Internet, they patiently walk the reader step-by-step through its shoestring creation, chronicling the frustration and the wry humor of every failure along with the satisfaction and the triumph of every success. But even if their chronicle was a pile of dross, not even worth the paper it was printed upon, it would have done a wonderful service. For without reading this engaging work, who can claim to name the inventors of the Internet? We know Zuckerberg and Page, Jobs and Gates, Joy and Allen; these men are rich, cultural giants who have been the most visible shepherds of our technological revolution. But what of Roberts and Licklider? What of Baran and Davies? What of Metcalf and heart? Without the aid of a Google search, do we know them? Do their names burn across our cyberspace sky? Hardly.

This is shameful. Our culture has become dangerously dependent upon the notion of celebrity. We believe so much in stardom, in the idea of the great-man theory of history, that we assume that those who either shunned the spotlight, or who never felt its beneficent caress, were unimportant, afterthoughts on the stage of human development. But time and time again we're proven wrong. Household names are not so because they are necessarily important. They are so because they are either lucky, charismatic, or good at spreading word of their achievements, little of which has anything to do with merit. This is what makes Where Wizards Stay up Late such a triumph. For it seeks not to mythologize, to canonize, or even to uplift. It adopts the same sober but inquisitive tone used by the dedicated and creative men who empowered one of the largest transformations in human history. May they never be forgotten.

This is first-class work. At times technical, but this is by no means an impediment to its enjoyment. One of the worthiest reads this year... (5/5 Stars)

No comments:

Post a Comment