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Short History of the Internet by Bruce Sterling


bruces@well.sf.ca.us
F&SF Science Column #5
"Internet"

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

Postnuclear America would need a command-and-controlnetwork, linked from city to city, state to state, base to base. Butno matter how thoroughly that network was armored or protected, itsswitches and wiring would always be vulnerable to the impact ofatomic bombs. A nuclear attack would reduce anyconceivable network to tatters.

And how would the network itself be commanded andcontrolled? Any central authority, any network central citadel,would be an obvious and immediate target for an enemy missile. Thecenter 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 brainchildof RAND staffer Paul Baran) was made public in 1964. In the firstplace, the network would *have no central authority.* Furthermore,it would be *designed from the beginning to operate whilein tatters.*

The principles were simple. The network itself would beassumed to be unreliable at all times. It would be designed from theget-go to transcend its own unreliability. All the nodes in thenetwork would be equal in status to all other nodes, each node with its ownauthority to originate, pass, and receive messages. Themessages themselves would be divided into packets, each packetseparately addressed. Each packet would begin at some specifiedsource node, and end at some other specified destination node. Eachpacket would wind its way through the network on an individualbasis.

The particular route that the packet took would be unimportant.Only final results would count. Basically, the packet would betossed like a hot potato from node to node to node, more or less in thedirection of its destination, until it ended up in the proper place. If big pieces of the network had been blown away, that simplywouldn't matter; the packets would still stay airborne, lateralledwildly across the field by whatever nodes happened to survive. Thisrather haphazard delivery system might be "inefficient" in the usualsense (especially compared to, say, the telephone system) -- but itwould 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 setup the first test network on these principles in 1968. Shortlyafterward, the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency decidedto fund a larger, more ambitious project in the USA. The nodes of thenetwork were to be high-speed supercomputers (or what passed forsupercomputers at the time). These were rare and valuable machineswhich were in real need of good solid networking, for the sake ofnational research-and-development projects.

In fall 1969, the first such node was installed in UCLA. ByDecember 1969, there were four nodes on the infant network, whichwas 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 becameclear. ARPANET's users had warped the computer-sharing networkinto 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 usingARPANET to collaborate on projects, to trade notes on work,and eventually, to downright gossip and schmooze. People had theirown personal user accounts on the ARPANET computers, and theirown personal addresses for electronic mail. Not only were they usingARPANET for person-to-person communication, but they were veryenthusiastic about this particular service -- far more enthusiasticthan they were about long-distance computation. It wasn't long before the invention of the mailing-list, anARPANET broadcasting technique in which an identical message couldbe 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 onthe network was not work-related and was frowned upon by manyARPANET computer administrators, but this didn't stop it fromhappening.

Throughout the '70s, ARPA's network grew. Its decentralizedstructure made expansion easy. Unlike standard corporate computernetworks, the ARPA network could accommodate many differentkinds of machine. As long as individual machines could speak thepacket-switching lingua franca of the new, anarchic network, theirbrand-names, and their content, and even their ownership, wereirrelevant.

The ARPA's original standard for communication was known asNCP, "Network Control Protocol," but as time passed and the techniqueadvanced, NCP was superceded by a higher-level, more sophisticatedstandard known as TCP/IP. TCP, or "Transmission Control Protocol,"converts messages into streams of packets at the source, thenreassembles them back into messages at the destination. IP, or"Internet Protocol," handles the addressing, seeing to it that packetsare routed across multiple nodes and even across multiple networkswith 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 tolink to ARPANET. ARPANET itself remained fairly tightly controlled,at least until 1983, when its military segment broke off and becameMILNET. But TCP/IP linked them all. And ARPANET itself, though itwas growing, became a smaller and smaller neighborhood amid thevastly growing galaxy of other linked machines.

As the '70s and '80s advanced, many very different socialgroups found themselves in possession of powerful computers. It wasfairly easy to link these computers to the growing network-of-networks. As the use of TCP/IP became more common, entire othernetworks fell into the digital embrace of the Internet, andmessily adhered. Since the software called TCP/IP was public-domain,and the basic technology was decentralized and rather anarchic by itsvery nature, it was difficult to stop people from barging in andlinking up somewhere-or-other. In point of fact, nobody *wanted* tostop them from joining this branching complex of networks, whichcame 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 financingand its own technical requirements. The more, the merrier. Like thephone network, the computer network became steadily more valuableas it embraced larger and larger territories of people and resources.

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

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

The nodes in this growing network-of-networks were divviedup into basic varieties. Foreign computers, and a few American ones,chose to be denoted by their geographical locations. The others weregrouped by the six basic Internet "domains": gov, mil, edu, com, organd net. (Graceless abbreviations such as this are a standardfeature of the TCP/IP protocols.) Gov, Mil, and Edu denotedgovernmental, military and educational institutions, which were, ofcourse, the pioneers, since ARPANET had begun as a high-techresearch exercise in national security. Com, however, stoodfor "commercial" institutions, which were soon bursting into thenetwork like rodeo bulls, surrounded by a dust-cloud of eagernonprofit "orgs." (The "net" computers served as gateways betweennetworks.)

ARPANET itself formally expired in 1989, a happy victim of itsown overwhelming success. Its users scarcely noticed, for ARPANET'sfunctions not only continued but steadily improved. The use ofTCP/IP standards for computer networking is now global. In 1971, amere twenty-one years ago, there were only four nodes in theARPANET network. Today there are tens of thousands of nodes inthe Internet, scattered over forty-two countries, with more comingon-line every day. Three million, possibly four million people usethis gigantic mother-of-all-computer-networks.

The Internet is especially popular among scientists, and isprobably the most important scientific instrument of the latetwentieth century. The powerful, sophisticated access that itprovides to specialized data and personal communicationhas 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, fasterthan fax machines. Last year the Internet was growing at a rate oftwenty percent a *month.* The number of "host" machines with directconnection to TCP/IP has been doubling every year since1988. The Internet is moving out of its original base in militaryand research institutions, into elementary and high schools, as well asinto public libraries and the commercial sector.

Why do people want to be "on the Internet?" One of the mainreasons is simple freedom. The Internet is a rare example of atrue, modern, functional anarchy. There is no "Internet Inc." There are no official censors, no bosses, no board of directors, nostockholders. 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 strictlytechnical, not social or political. (There has been some struggleover commercial use of the Internet, but that situation is changing asbusinesses supply their own links).

The Internet is also a bargain. The Internet as a whole, unlikethe phone system, doesn't charge for long-distance service. Andunlike most commercial computer networks, it doesn't charge foraccess time, either. In fact the "Internet" itself, which doesn'teven officially exist as an entity, never "charges" for anything. Eachgroup of people accessing the Internet is responsible for their own machineand their own section of line.

The Internet's "anarchy" may seem strange or even unnatural,but it makes a certain deep and basic sense. It's rather like the"anarchy" of the English language. Nobody rents English, and nobodyowns English. As an English-speaking person, it's up to you tolearn how to speak English properly and make whatever use you pleaseof it (though the government provides certain subsidies to help youlearn to read and write a bit). Otherwise, everybody just sort ofpitches in, and somehow the thing evolves on its own, and somehowturns out workable. And interesting. Fascinating, even. Though alot of people earn their living from using and exploiting and teachingEnglish, "English" as an institution is public property, a publicgood. Much the same goes for the Internet. Would English be improved ifthe "The English Language, Inc." had a board of directors and a chiefexecutive officer, or a President and a Congress? There'd probablybe a lot fewer new words in English, and a lot fewer new ideas.

People on the Internet feel much the same way about their owninstitution. It's an institution that resists institutionalization. The Internet belongs to everyone and no one.

Still, its various interest groups all have a claim. Businesspeople 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.

All these sources of conflict remain in a stumbling balancetoday, and the Internet, so far, remains in a thrivingly anarchicalcondition. Once upon a time, the NSFnet's high-speed, high-capacitylines were known as the "Internet Backbone," and their owners couldrather lord it over the rest of the Internet; but today there are"backbones" in Canada, Japan, and Europe, and even privately ownedcommercial Internet backbones specially created for carrying businesstraffic. Today, even privately owned desktop computers can becomeInternet nodes. You can carry one under your arm. Soon, perhaps, onyour wrist.

But what does one *do* with the Internet? Four things,basically: mail, discussion groups, long-distance computing, and filetransfers.

Internet mail is "e-mail," electronic mail, faster by severalorders of magnitude than the US Mail, which is scornfully known byInternet regulars as "snailmail." Internet mail is somewhat like fax.It's electronic text. But you don't have to pay for it (at leastnot directly), and it's global in scope. E-mail can also send softwareand certain forms of compressed digital imagery. New forms of mail are inthe works.

The discussion groups, or "newsgroups," are a world of theirown. This world of news, debate and argument is generally known as"USENET. " USENET is, in point of fact, quite different from theInternet. USENET is rather like an enormous billowing crowd ofgossipy, news-hungry people, wandering in and through theInternet on their way to various private backyard barbecues.USENET is not so much a physical network as a set of socialconventions. In any case, at the moment there are some 2,500separate newsgroups on USENET, and their discussions generate about7 million words of typed commentary every single day. Naturallythere is a vast amount of talk about computers on USENET, but thevariety of subjects discussed is enormous, and it's growing larger allthe time. USENET also distributes various free electronic journalsand publications.

Both netnews and e-mail are very widely available, evenoutside the high-speed core of the Internet itself. News and e-mailare easily available over common phone-lines, from Internet fringe-realms like BITnet, UUCP and Fidonet. The last two Internetservices, long-distance computing and file transfer, require what is known as"direct Internet access" -- using TCP/IP.

Long-distance computing was an original inspiration forARPANET and is still a very useful service, at least for some.Programmers can maintain accounts on distant, powerful computers,run programs there or write their own. Scientists can make use ofpowerful supercomputers a continent away. Libraries offer theirelectronic card catalogs for free search. Enormous CD-ROM catalogsare increasingly available through this service. And there arefantastic amounts of free software available.

File transfers allow Internet users to access remote machinesand retrieve programs or text. Many Internet computers -- sometwo thousand of them, so far -- allow any person to access themanonymously, and to simply copy their public files, free of charge.This is no small deal, since entire books can be transferred throughdirect Internet access in a matter of minutes. Today, in 1992, thereare over a million such public files available to anyone who asks forthem (and many more millions of files are available to people withaccounts). Internet file-transfers are becoming a new form ofpublishing, in which the reader simply electronically copies the workon demand, in any quantity he or she wants, for free. New Internetprograms, such as "archie," "gopher," and "WAIS," have beendeveloped to catalog and explore these enormous archives ofmaterial.

The headless, anarchic, million-limbed Internet is spreading likebread-mold. Any computer of sufficient power is a potential sporefor the Internet, and today such computers sell for less than $2,000and are in the hands of people all over the world. ARPA's network,designed to assure control of a ravaged society after a nuclearholocaust, has been superceded by its mutant child the Internet,which is thoroughly out of control, and spreading exponentiallythrough the post-Cold War electronic global village. The spread ofthe Internet in the 90s resembles the spread of personalcomputing in the 1970s, though it is even faster and perhaps moreimportant. More important, perhaps, because it may give thosepersonal computers a means of cheap, easy storage and access that istruly planetary in scale.

The future of the Internet bids fair to be bigger andexponentially faster. Commercialization of the Internet is a very hottopic today, with every manner of wild new commercial information-service promised. The federal government, pleased with an unsoughtsuccess, is also still very much in the act. NREN, the NationalResearch and Education Network, was approved by the US Congress in fall1991, as a five-year, $2 billion project to upgrade the Internet"backbone." NREN will be some fifty times faster than the fastestnetwork available today, allowing the electronic transfer of theentire Encyclopedia Britannica in one hot second. Computer networksworldwide will feature 3-D animated graphics, radio and cellularphone-links to portable computers, as well as fax, voice, and high-definition television. A multimedia global circus!

Or so it's hoped -- and planned. The real Internet of thefuture may bear very little resemblance to today's plans. Planninghas never seemed to have much to do with the seething, fungaldevelopment of the Internet. After all, today's Internet bearslittle resemblance to those original grim plans for RAND's post-holocaust command grid. It's a fine and happy irony.

How does one get access to the Internet? Well -- if you don'thave a computer and a modem, get one. Your computer can act as aterminal, and you can use an ordinary telephone line to connect to anInternet-linked machine. These slower and simpler adjuncts to theInternet can provide you with the netnews discussion groups andyour own e-mail address. These are services worth having -- thoughif you only have mail and news, you're not actually "on the Internet"proper.

If you're on a campus, your university may have direct"dedicated access" to high-speed Internet TCP/IP lines. Apply for anInternet account on a dedicated campus machine, and you may beable to get those hot-dog long-distance computing and file-transferfunctions. Some cities, such as Cleveland, supply "freenet"community access. Businesses increasingly have Internet access, andare willing to sell it to subscribers. The standard fee is about $40a month -- about the same as TV cable service.

As the Nineties proceed, finding a link to the Internet willbecome much cheaper and easier. Its ease of use will also improve,which is fine news, for the savage UNIX interface of TCP/IP leavesplenty of room for advancements in user-friendliness. Learning theInternet now, or at least learning about it, is wise. By theturn of the century, "network literacy," like "computer literacy"before it, will be forcing itself into the very texture of yourlife.

For Further Reading:

The Whole Internet Catalog & User's Guide by Ed Krol. (1992) O'Reilly and Associates, Inc. A clear, non-jargonized introduction to the intimidating business of network literacy. Many computer- documentation manuals attempt to be funny. Mr. Krol's book is *actually* funny.

The Matrix: Computer Networks and Conferencing Systems Worldwide. by John Quarterman. Digital Press: Bedford, MA. (1990) Massive and highly technical compendium detailing the mind-boggling scope and complexity of our newly networked planet.

The Internet Companion by Tracy LaQuey with Jeanne C. Ryer (1992) Addison Wesley. Evangelical etiquette guide to the Internet featuring anecdotal tales of life-changing Internet experiences. Foreword by Senator Al Gore.

Zen and the Art of the Internet: A Beginner's Guide by Brendan P. Kehoe (1992) Prentice Hall. Brief but useful Internet guide with plenty of good advice on useful machines to paw over for data. Mr Kehoe's guide bears the singularly wonderful distinction of being available in electronic form free of charge. I'm doing the same with all my F&SF Science articles, including, of course, this one. My own Internet address is bruces@well.sf.ca.us.

.From THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, February 1993.
F&SF, Box 56, Cornwall CT 06753 $26/yr USA $31/yr other

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