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December 09, 2003

the real origins of the Internet

There's a standard version of the history of the Internet that traces it back to ARPA (the Advanced Research Projects Agency) in the 1960s. ARPA developed a way for computers to exchange information in small packets, so that two computers would not need to open a permanent and exclusive channel (such as a standard phone connection) in order to remain constantly in touch. Instead, they would send messages in small chunks that could be routed through whatever computers happened to be online until they reached their destination. ARPA was a military outfit (it soon became DARPA; the "D" stands for "Defense"), and its motive was to create a new communications network that could withstand massive disruption during wartime.

The DARPA system improved, and similar processes developed separately in the academic world. Under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, these networks were brought together (starting with a process for sharing email). After a while, the NSF named this network of networks the Internet, and so we entered the current era.

This is all true and important, but it's like explaining the origins of a human being by listing all of her direct ancestors who happen to share her last name: her father, her paternal grandfather, and so on back. Lots of other ancestors have also contributed their genes and nurture, although their names are harder to retrieve. Similarly, if you look around today's World Wide Web, you'll see numerous important features that did not arise from ARPA, DARPA, or the NSF.

Two quick examples: 1) I use online library catalogues all the time, and they are a significant part of the Internet. Their genealogy begins with handwritten book catalogues (which, for all I know, are as old as ancient Alexandria), and then moves to computerized databases in major research libraries, which became accessible via modem at least 25 years ago, which then became accessible by telnet, and which are now usually searchable through a Web browser.

2) Elaborate multiplayer games like MUDs and MOOs are another part of today's net. I think their ancestors include: wargames with lead figures in the era of H.G. Wells; role-playing games after World War II; role-playing games played by correspondence, which arose roughly at the same time as computerized single-player wargames; networked computerized wargames; and finally multiplayer games on the Web.

There is also a story that starts with the first mechanical computers and concludes with modern handheld devices for browsing the Web (this is the hardware side of the Internet's genealogy). And there's a history that starts from the earliest operating systems and concludes with Windows and Linux, by way of Xerox and Bell Telephone.

For ideological reasons, I like the story that starts with ARPA. That was a federal agency that used taxpayer money, which suggests that the Internet belongs to us (collectively). However, it's simply untrue that the Federal Government created the Internet, when so much of its value arose from other sources. The 'net is ours in a different way, more as a folk culture belongs to the group that gradually built it over the generations.

Posted by peterlevine at December 9, 2003 08:00 AM


You may find this post of interest:

July of 1945 ;)

Posted by: Taran at December 8, 2003 09:27 PM

Yes--this is a very well informed history of the Internet, but still tracing only its "paternal" lineage. Thanks.

Posted by: Peter Levine at December 10, 2003 12:57 PM

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