Once Upon an Internet Time

The Fizzle of Energy


Once upon an Internet Time - II


The Internet as it exists today has evolved at a speed, hitherto not attributable to any man-made phenomenon—be it technical, social, business-oriented or even a passing fad. The evolution of the technology that had created the Internet revolution is said to have happened in “Internet Time”, a time scale of grossly hyperbolic speedups.


In an earlier article, we meandered through the history of the Internet from its slow dawn to its pedal-to-the-metal acceleration. From the recalcitrant Sixties when the Internet was just scribblings on pieces of paper. To the sluggish seventies when the lights of computer networking got lit, but no one really saw anything illuminating. To the rollicking Eighties when the Internet was really built—but slowly aged in bottles and casks hidden under the basements of establishments of higher learning.


The Calm after The Storm


The Nineties was the rocket ship in more ways than one. The beginning of the decade (1991) saw the only superpower left in the world flex its military might against one sole person, the bad boy of the Middle East. About 700,000 people from the US alone (there were 35 other countries in the “coalition”) fought a made-for-media war to move the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. Luckily, the war, or “Desert Storm” as it was called, was quick and the coalition casualties were quite limited.


The Gulf War was just the precursor to the topsy-turvy nature of the decade. Mr. George Bush basked in the glory of the triumphant war, and looked invincible as a sure shot for a second term as President. He has everything going for him. He was a well-decorated WWII veteran, a graduate of Yale University and a very successful businessman. In addition, he had a pedigreed career in politics, with high positions (Ambassador, CIA Director) followed by eight years as Vice President and four years as President. Then the unthinkable happened. In 1992, Mr. Bush lost the election to a relatively unknown, scandal ridden, career politician; the Governor of Arkansas and yet another Yale graduate, William Jefferson Clinton.


The first few years of the Clinton presidency were a bumpy road. Failed missives, bungled policies and constant rumors of scandals plagued him. But the dawn of the new age came closer and closer and no one really knew it. Suddenly, in 1994 there was the a big bang—the resounding creation of the cyber universe. The new Internet dazzled the world with a smashing unplanned, un-orchestrated, unpredicted debut.


The Weapons of Peace


Technically, the Internet is a Rube Goldberg (www.rubegoldberg.com) device, strung out with the electronic equivalents of string, glue, tape and sticks with some rods, beams and blocks thrown in to hold the thing up. The question is not, “How does it work” but “How come this works?” There is no good reason for something so chaotic, so diverse and so anarchic to work. It’s a worldwide, far-flung network of networks, with no controlling authority, no management and a jumble of infrastructure. No one knows how or why it works. But, the miracle is, it works


From a conceptual point of view, the Internet is an interconnection of diverse but overlapping networks (hence the name: INTERconnection of NETworks). A network carries data from several sources to several destinations and manages the smooth flow of the data while in transit. Connect a few such networks and make them span across continents and voila—it’s the Internet.


The network is not what makes the Internet what it is today. The glamour of the Internet is how it is used. The web pages coupled with a browser, provide the ability to browse. The concerted effort of millions of individuals in creating the content makes browsing worthwhile. It is a synergy that has miraculously come to fruition, without anyone guiding it, or controlling it, or even planning it.


The Storm after the Calm


From a socio-economic point of view, it’s a revolution. Revolutions happen unnervingly often in the political life of mankind, often with sordid results. In the technical world, anything worth two pennies is often called a revolution.


A long time before any of us were around, there was something called the “Industrial Revolution”. It was spurred by the invention of machines that moved (usually powered by steam). Over a few generations, this led to the development of industries and cities and forever changed the agriculture-based economy of mankind. Nothing like the Industrial Revolution has happened before or since, until the Internet was suddenly unleashed on to the unsuspecting public. The rest, as they say “is history”.


In a few short years the Internet infiltrated almost every household and every business, and has sparked of a fundamental change in people’s habits—whose impact will be felt for many generations to come. The Internet carries information, data, voice, video, viewpoints, commercial content, goods and services, software, virus and worms, pornography and every imaginable digitizable entity, freely. It permeates though every corner of the world via phone lines, cable, microwave, satellites, fiber optics and even packet radio. It crosses political, cultural boundaries without prejudice and without censorship. It’s the terror of every person with a controlling political agenda.


Business at the speed of light


Big Business suddenly discovered the Internet in 1996. The nay-sayers said that business over the Internet is doomed to fail—you cannot really sell trinkets over wires. The stock market went wild and sent the values of companies such as eBay through the stratosphere. The Internet created a gold rush that puts the old Wild West stories to shame. The business community is destined to go thought a complete overhaul in the oncoming decades.


Have you heard of eBay (www.ebay.com)? eBay sells trinkets over wires. eBay was born in September 1995. Today it has a few hundred employees and a few racks of computers and an office in San Jose. By the end of 1999, Ebay was valued at $21,349,000,000. Compare that to Delta Airlines, founded in 1924. Delta physically flies 2,700 flights a day, carrying 287,000 people (a day), spanning 29 countries (covering North America, South America, Europe, Far East, and India) using 579 aircraft and 70,000 employees. In other words, in every second of every day about two Delta jet aircraft with about 100 people each, jumps off of terra firma.  The company was valued at $6,544,000,000 in 1999 (less than a third of eBay). Of course, since 1999 the Internet economy has “crashed” and stock values have tumbled. Yet today, eBay is valued at $13,557,000,000—over twice the present value ($5,580,000,000) of Delta. It is just yet another example of the economic muscle of a ubiquitous computer network.


The End is the Beginning


The world has rolled on along with the Internet. In many ways, the end of the nineties was quite tumultuous. A huge building in Oklahoma City was bombed by a sole madman killing 168 people (On the 16th of May the Oklahoma tragedy is scheduled to come to a closure with the execution of the bomber). A huge monetary collapse engulfed the South East Pacific counties. China scored a huge acquisition, a gem called Hong Kong. A huge personality, of British Royalty fame, died in a fiery car crash in a Paris tunnel. A huge president survived impeachment and went down in history as the person to oversee the greatest economic boom the world has ever seen. A woman with a huge heart left us (Mother Teresa).


A much awaited baby boy was born into my family. One of the first things he saw was the computer in the hospital room that linked us to friends and family. One can saw, he was born with a corded mouse in his hands (the cordless one came later). He learnt to use the mouse, much before he could read. It must be very exciting to grow up, from day one, in the connected world. Only time will tell.


The Societal impact of the Internet has been just as relentless. The “information at your fingertips” mode of behavior is touching human life in manners undocumentable. What is more surprising is the use of the Internet in social interactions. People meet people online, talk to people online, romances blossom over the keyboard. Chat lines are constantly humming and the flaunting of ones private lives including expositions of fantasies and errant behavior on web pages are widespread and even quite shocking. Where is the world leading to with this completely new form of inter-personal communication media? No one knows.


We have crossed into the new millennium. The elections in the USA brought a newcomer with a familiar name in the White House. The Chinese are wrangling with the Americans over the pride of airspace. The dot-coms are disappearing faster than snowflakes in hell. Who cares—the real revolution is in the wires. What is the Internet? It is just information, money, wires and a lifestyle? The revolution lives on and will continue to surprise generations to come with vitality and innovation. The mantra of the future is something we should mutter in unison: “You ain’t seen nothing, yet”.


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