world of internet

Some thirty years ago, the RAND Corporation, America's foremost Cold War think-tank, faced a strange strategic problem. How could the US authorities successfully communicate after a nuclearwar?

Postnuclear America would need a command-and-control network, linked from city to city, state to state, base to base. But no matter how thoroughly that network was armored or protected, its switches and wiring would always be vulnerable to the impact of atomic bombs. A nuclear attack would reduce any conceivable network to tatters.

And how would the network itself be commanded and controlled? Any central authority, any network central citadel, would be an obvious and immediate target for an enemy missile. The center of the network would be the very first place to go.

RAND mulled over this grim puzzle in deep military secrecy, and arrived at a daring solution. The RAND proposal (the brainchild of RAND staffer Paul Baran) was made public in 1964. In the first place, the network would have no central authority. Furthermore,it would be designed from the beginning to operate while in tatters.

The principles were simple. The network itself would beassumed to be unreliable at all times. It would be designed from the get-go to transcend its own unreliability. All the nodes in the network would be equal in status to all other nodes, each node with its own authority to originate, pass, and receive messages.

The messages themselves would be divided into packets, each packet separately addressed. Each packet would begin at some specified source node, and end at some other specified destination node. Each packet would wind its way through the network on an individual basis.

The particular route that the packet took would be unimportant. Only final results would count.

Basically, the packet would be tossed like a hot potato from node to node to node, more or less in the direction of its destination, until it ended up in the proper place. If big pieces of the network had been blown away, that simply wouldn’t matter; the packets would still stay airborne, lateralled wildly across the field by whatever nodes happened to survive. This rather haphazard delivery system might be “inefficient” in the usual sense (especially compared to, say, the telephone system)—but it would be extremely rugged.

During the 60s, this intriguing concept of a decentralized, blastproof, packet-switching network was kicked around by RAND, MIT and UCLA.

The National Physical Laboratory in Great Britain set up the first test network on these principles in 1968.

Shortly afterward, the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency decided to fund a larger, more ambitious project in the USA. The nodes of the network were to be high-speed supercomputers (or what passed for supercomputers at the time). These were rare and valuable machines which were in real need of good solid networking, for the sake of national research-and-development projects. In fall 1969, the first such node was installed in UCLA.

By December 1969, there were four nodes on the infant network, which was named ARPANET, after its Pentagon sponsor. The four computers could transfer data on dedicated high-speed transmission lines. They could even be programmed remotely from the other nodes. Thanks to ARPANET, scientists and researchers could share one another’s computer facilities by long-distance.

This was a very handy service, for computer-time was precious in the early ‘70s.

In 1971 there were fifteen nodes in ARPANET;

by 1972, thirty-seven nodes. And it was good.

By the second year of operation, however, an odd fact became clear. ARPANET’s users had warped the computer-sharing network into a dedicated, high-speed, federally subsidized electronic post- office. The main traffic on ARPANET was not long-distance computing.

Instead, it was news and personal messages.

Researchers were using ARPANET to collaborate on projects, to trade notes on work, and eventually, to downright gossip and schmooze. People had their own personal user accounts on the ARPANET computers, and their own personal addresses for electronic mail. Not only were they using ARPANET for person-to-person communication, but they were very enthusiastic about this particular service—far more enthusiastic than they were about long-distance computation.

It wasn’t long before the invention of the mailing-list, an ARPANET broadcasting technique in which an identical message could be sent automatically to large numbers of network subscribers.

Interestingly, one of the first really big mailing-lists was “SF- LOVERS,” for science fiction fans.

Discussing science fiction on the network was not work-related and was frowned upon by manyARPANET computer administrators, but this didn’t stop it from happening.

Throughout the ‘70s, ARPA’s network grew. Its decentralized structure made expansion easy. Unlike standard corporate computer networks, the ARPA network could accommodate many different kinds of machine. As long as individual machines could speak the packet-switching lingua franca of the new, anarchic network, their brand-names, and their content, and even their ownership, were irrelevant.

The ARPA’s original standard for communication was known as NCP, “Network Control Protocol,” but as time passed and the technique advanced, NCP was superceded by a higher-level, more sophisticated
standard known as TCP/IP.

TCP, or “Transmission Control Protocol,” converts messages into streams of packets at the source, then reassembles them back into messages at the destination. IP, or “Internet Protocol,” handles the addressing, seeing to it that packets are routed across multiple nodes and even across multiple networks with multiple standards—not only ARPA’s pioneering NCP standard, but others like Ethernet, FDDI, and X.25.

As early as 1977, TCP/IP was being used by other networks to link to ARPANET. ARPANET itself remained fairly tightly controlled, at least until 1983, when its military segment broke off and became
MILNET.

But TCP/IP linked them all. And ARPANET itself, though it was growing, became a smaller and smaller neighborhood amid the vastly growing galaxy of other linked machines.

As the ‘70s and ‘80s advanced, many very different social groups found themselves in possession of powerful computers. It was fairly easy to link these computers to the growing network-of-networks. As the use of TCP/IP became more common, entire other networks fell into the digital embrace of the Internet, and messily adhered. Since the software called TCP/IP was public-domain,and the basic technology was decentralized and rather anarchic by its very nature, it was difficult to stop people from barging in and linking up somewhere-or-other. In point of fact, nobody *wanted* to stop them from joining this branching complex of networks, which came to be known as the “Internet.”

Connecting to the Internet cost the taxpayer little or nothing, since each node was independent, and had to handle its own financing and its own technical requirements. The more, the merrier. Like the
phone network, the computer network became steadily more valuable as it embraced larger and larger territories of people and resources.

A fax machine is only valuable if *everybody else* has a fax machine. Until they do, a fax machine is just a curiosity. ARPANET, too, was a curiosity for a while. Then computer-networking became an utter necessity.

In 1984 the National Science Foundation got into the act, through its Office of Advanced Scientific Computing. The new NSFNET set a blistering pace for technical advancement, linking newer, faster, shinier supercomputers, through thicker, faster links, upgraded and expanded, again and again, in 1986, 1988, 1990. And other government agencies leapt in: NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, each of them maintaining a digital satrapy in the Internet confederation.

The nodes in this growing network-of-networks were divvied up into basic varieties. Foreign computers, and a few American ones, chose to be denoted by their geographical locations. The others were grouped by the six basic Internet “domains”: gov, mil, edu, com, org and net. (Graceless abbreviations such as this are a standard feature of the TCP/IP protocols.) Gov, Mil, and Edu denoted governmental, military and educational institutions, which were, of course, the pioneers, since ARPANET had begun as a high-tech research exercise in national security. Com, however, stood for “commercial” institutions, which were soon bursting into the network like rodeo bulls, surrounded by a dust-cloud of eager nonprofit “orgs.” (The “net” computers served as gateways between networks.)

ARPANET itself formally expired in 1989, a happy victim of its own overwhelming success. Its users scarcely noticed, for ARPANET’s functions not only continued but steadily improved. The use of TCP/IP standards for computer networking is now global. In 1971, a mere twenty-one years ago, there were only four nodes in the ARPANET network.

Today there are tens of thousands of nodes in the Internet, scattered over forty-two countries, with more coming on-line every day. Three million, possibly four million people use this gigantic mother-of-all-computer-networks.

The Internet is especially popular among scientists, and is probably the most important scientific instrument of the late twentieth century. The powerful, sophisticated access that it provides to specialized data and personal communication has sped up the pace of scientific research enormously.

The Internet’s pace of growth in the early 1990s is spectacular, almost ferocious. It is spreading faster than cellular phones, faster than fax machines. Last year the Internet was growing at a rate of
twenty percent a *month.* The number of “host” machines with direct connection to TCP/IP has been doubling every year since 1988.

The Internet is moving out of its original base in military and research institutions, into elementary and high schools, as well as into public libraries and the commercial sector.

Why do people want to be “on the Internet?” One of the main reasons is simple freedom. The Internet is a rare example of a true, modern, functional anarchy. There is no “Internet Inc.” There are no official censors, no bosses, no board of directors, no stockholders. In principle, any node can speak as a peer to any other node, as long as it obeys the rules of the TCP/IP protocols, which are strictly technical, not social or political. (There has been some struggle over commercial use of the Internet, but that situation is changing as businesses supply their own links).

The Internet is also a bargain. The Internet as a whole, unlike the phone system, doesn’t charge for long-distance service. And unlike most commercial computer networks, it doesn’t charge for access time, either. In fact the “Internet” itself, which doesn’t even officially exist as an entity, never “charges” for anything. Each group of people accessing the Internet is responsible for their own machine and their own section of line.

The Internet belongs to everyone and no one.

Still, its various interest groups all have a claim. Business people want the Internet put on a sounder financial footing.
Government people want the Internet more fully regulated.
Academics want it dedicated exclusively to scholarly research.
Military people want it spy-proof and secure. And so on and so on.