Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Creation of the Internet

Al Gore has for eighteen years been saddled with the accusation that he once absurdly implied that he was responsible for the creation of the internet. His defenders, on the other hand, have for as long complained that Mr. Gore has been unjustly maligned by ungenerous critics who misinterpret his words, and that he never intended to suggest that he invented anything.

I'm no fan of Mr. Gore, but I tend to agree with his defenders on this one. Here's part of the interview he gave in 1999 which led to so much merrymaking among his detractors:
A fair interpretation of his words and their context is that he's asserting that he was among the legislative leaders responsible for funding the development of the network, not that he invented it.

Whatever the case with Mr. Gore, though, Ben Tarnoff at The Guardian relates an interesting account of some of the genuinely seminal steps in the evolution of the internet, and, justly or unjustly, Mr. Gore's name doesn't appear in it even once.

Tarnoff's genesis account puts the creation event in a beer garden, of all places, near Palo Alto, California in 1976:
In the kingdom of apps and unicorns, Rossotti’s is a rarity. This beer garden in the heart of Silicon Valley has been standing on the same spot since 1852. It isn’t disruptive; it doesn’t scale. But for more than 150 years, it has done one thing and done it well: it has given Californians a good place to get drunk.

During the course of its long existence, Rossotti’s has been a frontier saloon, a gold rush gambling den, and a Hells Angels hangout. These days it is called the Alpine Inn Beer Garden, and the clientele remains as motley as ever. On the patio out back, there are cyclists in spandex and bikers in leather. There is a wild-haired man who might be a professor or a lunatic or a CEO, scribbling into a notebook. In the parking lot is a Harley, a Maserati, and a horse.

It doesn’t seem a likely spot for a major act of innovation. But 40 years ago this August, a small team of scientists set up a computer terminal at one of its picnic tables and conducted an extraordinary experiment. Over plastic cups of beer, they proved that a strange idea called the internet could work.
You can read the fascinating details at the link. The article dove-tailed, strangely, with something I read in a book I'm currently rereading. It's a biography of Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Christian humanist scholar and reformer who was born about 1466. The biography was written in 1924 by historian John Huizinga who makes this statement:
Erasmus belonged to the generation which had grown up together with the youthful art of printing. To the world of those days it was like a newly acquired organ; people felt rich, powerful, happy in the possession of this 'almost divine implement.' ...What would Erasmus have been without the printing press? To broadcast the ancient documents, to purify and restore them, was his life's passion. The certainty that the printed book places exactly the same text in the hands of thousands of readers, was to him a consolation that former generations had lacked.
As I read this I thought that the computer - and the internet and social media to which it has given rise - is in many ways analogous to the printing press. Just as the Protestant reformation and so much else could never have happened prior to the printing and circulation of thousands of copies of books and pamphlets, so, too, could so much that happens in our world today never have come to pass without the internet and social media. The Arab Spring is perhaps a salient example.

At any rate, check out the article at the link if you're interested in the history of this world-changing innovation.