The Early Internet’s Lack of Structure


I left off last week with the promise that today I would get into the initial approaches to and challenges of connecting computers. Unfortunately, the class moves quickly, and I only blog once a week, so instead of getting into the hardware of connection, I’m going to talk more about the beginnings of a network community.

Even in the early days, it seems that the computing community was very free-spirited and open. For example, when it came time to write the first host-to-host protocol, Steve Crocker entitled it “Request for Comments” (RFC). It wasn’t an order handed down from on high that everyone would have to conform to. It had much more of a spirit of “Hey, we’re doing this cool thing. Want to join?” Everyone was equals, everyone could contribute, and most importantly, no one was forced into anything. RFC1 tapped into the most fundamental of human motivations: laziness. It made people’s lives better by conforming, which made them a lot happier about hopping on the train than if they were being forced to.

I find it more than a little ironic that such an open and unstructured culture could grow out of what was started as a military project. The military is a very structured, hierarchical system where you’re supposed to stay in line and do what others tell you. The networking community, with its core values of free speech, equal access, idea sharing, privacy, etc. couldn’t be further from that design.

I may upset some people by saying this, but I think there are definite problems with the environment created by the early developers of the internet. It is said that too many chefs ruin a meal, and I feel like the free-for-all atmosphere on the net of everyone having their own opinion and arguing for it passionately caused people to take sides and devolve into extremism, to the detriment of efficiency. There were huge wars about things like in which direction a computer should read the bits of an incoming message: from left to right or right to left. This conflict, called the Big Endian/Little Endian war, is frankly ridiculous. Personally, I would program computers to read from left to right, but if someone above me told me to program the other way, I’d just do it. Instead, the fact that there was no central authority meant that the Big Endian/Little Endian war carried on until people got tired. The worst part is it wasn’t even resolved. Talk about a waste of time (and I’m not even getting into “flaming”, a type of abusive dialogue thrown around on the original virtual communities like Msg-Group). Other conflicts like the header wars (about the size of headers to messages) were approximately as trivial and came to no more complete a resolution. The central authority wouldn’t need to solve everything: I think the networking culture of collaboration is amazing. And I certainly don’t approve of the inefficiency of the military, where ego creeps into power and impedes the flow of good ideas. But groups function better with some authority. This is why we have government in the first place.

Perhaps the original Msg-Group and other online communities couldn’t function with a central authority. They were groups of academics after all, and used to doing their own things with only loose structure. Still, I feel as if the openness and lack of authority was taken to an extreme, and could have been tempered by more structure.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading!



Week 1: On Motivations for Creating the Internet


Hi everyone! My name is Duncan Rheingans-Yoo, I am a freshman at Harvard, and welcome to my blog. This semester, I am taking the course “Freshmen Seminar 50N: What is the Internet, and What Will it Become?” taught by Michael Smith and Jim Waldo. This blog, published weekly on Tuesdays, will be a reflection on both the class and my changing perspective towards the Internet. I will assume no prior familiarity with the Internet; indeed I have very little idea of what it is and how it works going into this course. However, I will not necessarily give full and complete history lessons, only some things I’ve learned and my thoughts on them.

At the dawn of time—*ahem* I mean the 50s and 60s—computers were all different and disconnected. They were certainly useful for computation, but everything was self-contained. The Internet, in its most basic conception, was about connecting these machines.

The reasons for wanting such a network are varied. One belonged to Bob Taylor. Taylor one of the first Directors of the Information Processing Techniques Office at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (a government-funded organization dedicated to technological innovation). He saw that as computer research became more popular, the costs were growing exponentially. Everyone wanted their own computer, and any research done on one computer had to be completely redone if another group wanted to replicate the result. Taylor saw a network between the computers as a way to cut the costs and speed the pace of innovation.

J.C.R. Licklider had a grander view. A behavioral scientist turned computer geek, Licklider envisioned a future where humans and computers were engaged in a symbiotic relationship, with computers heavily integrated into everyday life. The coupling of human and computer brains would be able to think in ways humans never could on their own and process data in ways that computers never could on their own. Establishing connections between computers would be a vital part of realizing such a future.

Paul Baran’s motivation was probably the most grounded in the politics of the time. He knew that the US communication system was fragile, and in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack, the US’ ability to counterattack could be compromised. He wanted to develop a robust, reliable network that could not be easily broken down, even by total nuclear attack. There would be no way for the Soviets to attack the US and avoid counterstrike. The second part of Baran’s vision was to give such a system to the USSR so that the US would also be unable to attack freely. This would cement the political state of Mutually Assured Destruction, and reduce the risk that nuclear war would actually occur.

Donald Davies was independently doing research that was similar to Paul Baran’s, but all he was looking to do was make something cool. He just wanted to create a new public communications network where someday one person could sit down at a computer and interact with a different machine in a different location.

This reminds me of Eliezer Yudkoswky’s essay “Why Truth? And…” which outlines three reasons for pursuing truth. While truth and the Internet are certainly not the same thing, they both channel an idea of building towards something greater: better beliefs and a network of computer connection respectively. The first reason Yudkowsky gives is curiosity, which seems to align with Davies’ motivation. The second is the pursuit of a specific goal, which corresponds with Taylor and Baran and Licklider, though all of their goals were different. The third reason is morality, that truth is a moral end in and of itself that should be prioritized, which I am suspicious of (and to be fair so is Yudkowsky). Carrying the metaphor, certainly few people would prioritize the Internet as a moral end in itself.

A second thought is that the existence of so many different people with different motivations for creating the Internet was probably very necessary for its creation. We have such a bias towards the status quo that changing the way people do something is hard. Even a few years ago, people complained about the removal of disk drives from Apple computers, unable to see that they were becoming obsolete with the rise of online Netiflix and HBO. The original idea of the Internet, for its part, was met with resistance by AT&T, who said it could never work and even if it did would never be useful for anything but hardcore computer network research. Only through the concerted effort of many individuals and the necessity of such a network on many levels could something like the Internet actually come to fruition.

I hope you enjoyed my first blog post. Join me next week as I talk about the initial approaches to and challenges of connecting computers!

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