Crisis in Wonderland

Once Upon an Internet Time - II


Once upon an Internet Time


Once upon a time, in the kingdoms all over the world, there was no such thing as the Internet. Messages traveled by post, or by telephone. Information was found at libraries and spread by gossip or not at all. Computers were lonely creatures with no social life; they could not talk to each other. If someone needed to know how to prevent head-lice, he or she had to ask Grandma.


In the so-called, modern civilized world, we take many things for granted. When we turn on a switch a light comes on. If we pick up the phone a dial tone buzzes. And when we click on a hyperlink the web page loads. How soon we forget that hyperlinks did not exist, in the dark ages, a mere eight years ago?


Who invented the Internet? (Not Al Gore). When was it invented? (Not as recently as we think). What really is the Internet? (That is a topic for another time). Let us turn the dial of our time machine to the really dark cold times of the 1960’s.


Sowing the Seeds in the Sixties


“The Sixties”, as the period 1960-1969 is called, was a stressful time. The chilly winds of the Cold War was augmented with the “Bay of Pigs” fiasco, peppered with the somewhat misguided adventures of the tie-die clad flower children. The hippies wanted to rule the world with their message of peace and love for all. The US was fighting a desperate war across the globe in Vietnam. Millions of young American men were being shoveled into creaky aircraft to a far away place 9,000 miles away. (About 3,400,000 Americans fought in the Vietnam War, 58,148 died.) The Beatles were emerging as the next amazing musical phenomenon. And deep in the crevices of the Pentagon, paranoid military men were strategizing the Cold War, thinking ahead to a time when they would have to wage war with electrons.


Suddenly, there emerged a problem. Suppose, the world is being destroyed by nuclear holocaust. Things are breaking or being broken. Communication lines are gone, radio lines are jammed. How will the President of the United States control the fighting machine? How will he spread the good cheer the unfortunate masses with messages like “everything is under control”?


No one knew the answer. So the US government used its tried and true method of solving problems. It threw money at it. Some of this money landed up in a few premier academic institutions. In 1961, Leonard Kleinrock of MIT wrote a paper about packet switching—a better way of communicating when failures in the communication medium are possible. Lawrence Roberts suggested to the defense research department (called DARPA) that a packet switched network would be the answer to fault-tolerant communications.


Woodstock is a small, forested town in the Catskill Mountains in “upstate” New York. Woodstock roared out of obscurity in 1969 to become the legendary venue of “Three Days of Peace and Music”. This was the event of events. About 450,000 people gathered in rainy Woodstock to sing along with the likes of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and other Rock and Roll bands. On the backdrop of rain, mud, music and marijuana, Woodstock took its place in history as the “capstone of an era devoted to human achievement” or the “fitting ridiculous end to an era of naïveté”, depending on your viewpoint.


In 1969, as the sex, drugs and rock and roll played in Woodstock; Neil Armstrong created history by stepping on the moon. Unknown to everyone, the first milestone was planted in the road to the Internet. A computer network connecting computers on the campuses of Stanford University, UC-Los Angeles, UC-Santa Barbara and University of Utah came alive. Except for a handful of people working on this project, it was a pretty boring event. The network allowed four computers on these four campuses exchange messages. No one cared about this computer chat line, Woodstock and the moon landing were the main events.


Saplings of the Seventies


The next decade, the Seventies (1970-1979), brought nothing much. The Cold War breezed on, the Vietnam war ended. The cultural changes of civil rights and disillusion with government continued. The environmental movement marched on. The oil embargo almost crippled the western world. A hotel in Washington DC called “Watergate” entered the world’s vocabulary. India fought Pakistan. Skydiving soared. The women’s liberation movement peaked. Bell-bottoms were in fashion.  In a word, the Seventies were boring. Nothing much of any big lasting significance seemed to have happened. Except for the laying of the foundation of what would become the Internet (of course, very few knew and no one cared).


The Seventies saw the creation of the Arpanet. The Arpanet was a computer network, created by the riches from ARPA. ARPA was the same thing as DARPA (DARPA stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). The D has been added and dropped many times due to political pressures. Most recently, in 1996 ARPA became DARPA again. The Arpanet was a network of 23 sites, mainly in US universities and research laboratories. The network allowed people in these places to exchange data. Some people did exchange data. Most did not. By the end of the seventies, the Arpanet grew to over 200 sites.


Arpanet was considered to be a technological success, even though it was not quite what it was supposed to be. It was a network designed and built to survive nuclear war, but it really not was capable of that. It was a network designed to share data and connect supercomputers, but it did not do that either. By the early 1980’s Arpanet was mainly used by University professors and some graduate students to exchange email messages. Email was the forte of the network of champions.


The Exuberant Eighties


The Eighties (1980-1989) was much more exciting than the Seventies. The US economy took the first flying leap in a long time and took the world with it. Personal computers became a more viable thing. The Rubik’s Cube was the coolest toy. Money came out of ATM machines. The “yuppie” generation brought on the “me me me” attitude of greed and extravagance. Technology suddenly made a comeback on the consumer market. The VCR, the microwave oven, the cellular phone, the CD player were all hot products of the Eighties. Cable television became ubiquitous and CNN, MTV and the PTL (Praise the Lord) channel were born. Air travel soared off the charts as the effect of airline deregulation kicked in. Japan flooded the US market with the best cars ever made and the small countries in the Pacific Rim sped on their way to economic success.


One of the greatest historical events of the Eighties was the sequence the led to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1990. The US flexed its muscle by sharply ratcheting up defense spending and threatening to put a real pie in the sky that would catch missiles. The Soviets matched the escalation and soon floundered monetarily. They had to evacuate out of Eastern Europe and the Berlin Wall tumbled in 1989. Soon after that, most anything Soviet unraveled, leading up to Russia being one of the poorest nations today.


The Arpanet grew up in the Eighties. The network grew by the addition of sites and by the integration of other parallel networks into the so-called Arpanet fabric. The resulting network had no name—parts of it were referred to as CSNet, UseNet, BITNet and so on. This network spread its wings to most every US University. Large corporations were allowed into the club in the mid 80’s. The National Science Foundation (NSF) took control of most of the backbone, and called it NSFNet. Soon thereafter a magic word was coined and it stuck. The “Internet” was born.


The Internet was mainly used for Email. Only a very small fraction of the human population knew of its existence, and those who knew used Email quite heavily. The network spanned USA, Europe, Japan and a few other countries. In 1989 the number of hosts on the Internet was 100,000 but in 1990 the number was 300,000. Buried under the hood of the Internet, was a labyrinth of technologies. Networking protocols made reliable communication possible and routing algorithms that managed the traffic floods. As the explosive growth in the number of sites and amount of traffic continued, many techniques were updated, added and reworked to address the new challenges. Somehow, everything worked quite smoothly.


Lights, Camera, Action…the dawn is near


If the Eighties were exciting, the Nineties were absolutely positively explosive. I remember a quiet evening in late 1993 when I was sitting around doing nothing in my small apartment in New York City.


The phone rang. It was a colleague of mine, who was at a conference in Washington DC. “You have come down here”, he said. “Right now”. “Why?” I asked. “Will explain later”, he retorted. I did not argue. I jumped into my car and drove for the next four hours. After I got to the hotel in Washington, he told me to go to bed and show up at the conference hall the next morning.


Early in the morning the large auditorium was full of people. A computer stood on stage connected to a projector that beamed a huge image of the computer screen on the wall. Projecting a computer screen on the wall may be quite mundane today, but it was quite amazing then. A few people were introduced, a person mumbled something and strode up to the computer and opened a software program called “Mosaic”.


Nothing spectacular happened. A page appeared with some headings and text and a few blue lines scattered on it. As he began to click on the blue lines more pages appeared. Graphics danced on the screen as he traversed the home pages of research institutions in the US and Europe. What we were witnessing was one of the first public displays of what eventually became known as “web surfing”.


For a few minutes I found it boring—he was showing us some text and graphics stored on the computer. Then it suddenly hit. The text and graphics were NOT stored on the computer but were being brought in, in real time, from places far far away. We were flying in and around cyberspace. It was real—I could see the glitches of networking showing up as slowness of sites in Europe and the relative speedier zing of sites in the US. Simple text pages appeared rapidly, graphics took time to load. This was really for real.


We had no idea that we were at the ringside of a revolution. The World Wide Web had just been born.


As I drove back to my little apartment in New York, I was speeding. I dashed home, turned on my computer, downloaded Mosaic and dialed up the Internet (yes, dial up access was available for 10 years already). And then I went surfing. The Web worked in my apartment, just as it did in the hotel auditorium. No more was the most powerful information source in the world, closeted to those blessed with power. It was open to anyone with a computer and a phone. All the technology, all the innovation, all the glory, was here, right in my living room.


Every day, every month and every year since that fateful birth, has been nothing short of adrenalin packed exhilaration. The Internet spread faster than anything in the history of humankind. We will return to the marvel of the web, in the next article, next week.


Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at http://cactus.eas.asu.edu/partha.






Partha Dasgupta