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Grad students create Internet
am 27. Februar 2000
_Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet_ by Katie Hafner, Matthew Lyon
This book could have easily been titled "Graduate students created the Internet" or "The Military-Industrial Complex pays off".
As a computer person who started in the last days of keypunch cards and experienced the joys of TSO first hand, I found it extremely interesting to read about the things that even I took for granted in those long ago days (only 2 decades ago). I had never really thought about the fact that things like FTP, TSO, SMTP, TCP and IP all had to be thought up and coded by someone! I worked on a DEC PDP-11 - but never really gave any thought to the evolution that transpired between number 1 and10. This book tells it all, in sometimes excruciating detail. It follows every lowly graduate student step by step to the brilliant, but not inevitable, solutions to all of the basic data transmission puzzles. It describes clearly and for the most part entertainingly the development of the technologies that underpin everything I (and I would suspect most people) now take for granted when we "surf the web". While I sometimes found it difficult to keep track of which geek was doing what in which computer center on what federally funded project - the book does an excellent job of documenting the origins of the internet, just as the title promises. My only quibble is the authors say they will debunk the idea that the Internet was invented to route around communication outages resulting from nuclear war - but by the end of the book I personally was convinced that this was indeed one of the principals guiding many of the programmers and network designers. As I read of the early pentagon projects that were the primordial soup from which the Internet evolved one thought kept occurring -- the serendipitous coming together of technically brilliant men (and they almost all were) with piles of relatively unrestricted funds that could be used in amazingly non-bureaucratic pursuits -- was a set of circumstances as unlikely to ever occur as the first signs of carbon-based life were. During the late 50's to late 60's the right combination of people, brain power, enthusiasm, energy and money all converged - and could have just as easily never happened. The world today might be an incredibly different place if just a few elements had varied. I am glad this book has been written to document what took place while most of the participants could still provide primary source material.
Another book that should be read as a companion piece to this one - is _Extra Life: coming of age in cyberspace_ by David S. Bennahum. His book documents a similar brief flowering of anarchic creative computer exploration - in what he calls the "Atari generation". The same intense involvement and brilliant technical thinking described in _Wizards_ is also central to the story told in _Extra Life_. Whether graduate students, or high school geeks - a very similar culture and orientation is recounted. It is one that values brilliant thinking (a good hack) and adheres to the commandments Bennahum enumerates: computers will make the world better, programmers have a duty to share information, programs should be improved by everyone, exploration is good, computer knowledge not looks or origin make you important. When discussing the "commandments" Bennahum draws an explicit connection between the times described in _Wizards_: "Few of us knew where they came from or that we'd hijacked an attitude from hackers, hobbyists, and hippies who discovered computers in the late 60's and early 70's, and that in turn these computers had been created by iconoclastic, freakish engineers and grad students before them. [...]Those who met these older masters would discover something more about computers, something deeper, rooted in decades of endeavor [...] an understanding of how these machines were passed from one generation to the next until, having mutated along the way through luck and coincidence, the computer flowered and matured ..." (pp.77-78)
_Where Wizards Stay Up Late_ is a fine and thorough history of those "freakish engineers" and _Extra Life_ is a very entertaining tale of the world that those early computer and network inventions delivered to the (still mostly male!) geeks of the Atari generation. Bennahum concludes with a statement that could just as easily be applied to the era documented by Hafner and Lyon: "To know the machine as we did, so intimately, is to forever change the way we experience our machine mediated world." These books that document how we have come to live in that world are interesting in and of themselves now, and will perhaps some day be looked upon as seminal historical documentation from a time of transition to a technological future we cannot even imagine.