ARPANET to Internet and why we might end up with OGAS


I’ve finished, Where Wizards Stay up Late by Hafner and Lyon and read “How the Soviets invented the internet and why it didn’t work” by Benjamin Peters.

“Standards should be discovered, not decreed.” -Unnamed TCP/IP advocate.

After finishing Where Wizards Stay up Late, I began to wonder how on earth any of this could have happened especially with so many companies trying to profit off of it at every step and simultaneously stop others from doing so. BBN tried to keep their IMP software secret, but gave in and let people have the source code (for a fee), ARPA nearly sold the whole ARPANET to AT&T (AT&T still thought packet switching wasn’t the future — close call). But in the end the major decisions were made by engineers who yelled at each other a bunch and implemented things in ways that worked even when some governments supported another way (like TCP/IP vs OSI). email was hacked together using ARNPANET’s file transfer protocol and soon began being used for all sorts of not-allowed things like socializing or anything that wasn’t government business (email didn’t care but ARPA technically did). This all happened somehow, with a lot of government funding and companies that funded long-term internal projects that had no immediate value and often weren’t commercially viable (notably, BBN had financial troubles because they failed to make enough of their products profitable — but at the same time they did quite a bit for the Internet). We only need to look at the infamous business model of AT&T/Bell and their telephone network to see a sad example, not of failure but of an inability to allow for real innovation. The ARPANET was in some senses like a monopoly, albeit government controlled (socialists?!) but predominantly benevolent and open/free. Once TCP/IP took over more and more networks started being connected to the ARPANET (hence the Inter-net). This is precisely what AT&T feared most regarding the telephone network; it simply wasn’t in their interests to let other companies profit using their network. The openness of innovation in the ARPANET and early Internet isn’t at all characteristic of the free market, where money and profit drive rather than discovery and true innovation done by people and companies who did not necessarily get rich off of it — even if their idea caught on.

This train of thought led me to wonder what the Soviets were up to at the time. A short search later I found that the Russians did indeed have something, kinda, and that it was a complete failure. OGAS (All-State Automated System) was meant to facilitate economic planning and pricing decisions across the Soviet Union. It was an idealist’s dream for the communist (cyber)state. In typical Soviet fashion that meant nothing and conflicting rational interests kept OGAS from becoming anything. At least, this is how Benjamin Peters describes it. According to Peters, “The first global computer network emerged thanks to capitalists behaving like cooperative socialists, not socialists behaving like competitive capitalists.” I don’t know enough about Soviet politics to know whether waring government ministries could ever be described as capitalist competition, but it does seem plausible all the same.

Peters continued by referencing Bruno Latour’s argument that technology is society made durable. In other words (says Peters) this means that “social values are embedded in technology.” He quickly ties this into modern mass surveillance projects like Facebook, Microsoft Cloud and NSA saying thatthese may lead to continuing the “20th- century tradition of general secretariats committed to privatizing personal and public information for their institutional gain.” As society moves towards accepting centralized control on massive scales (governments that see all and Facebook that knows all) our technology will begin to reflect this centralized philosophy; exactly the  opposite of the “values” of openness, innovation and discovery that were the initial drivers of the Internet.


In other news, nano has a built in spell check!

Distributed Networks and Grad Students — Week 1 (ish)


A post: I’ve read the first 6 chapters of Where Wizards Stay up Late by Hafner and Lyon as well as a dozen or so wikipedia pages. This post concerns my thoughts on these.

What stuck me most about the early development of the ARPANET were the parallel discoveries of packet-switching (or distributed adaptive message block switching) by Donald Davies and Paul Baran. The idea was that instead of using circuit-switching like the telephone network where an uninterrupted circuit between two participants was held open for the entire length of the call, the next generation network (ARPANET, internet, etc.) should divide data into discrete packets and send them along their way, bouncing from node to node until they arrived at their destination, where they would be reassembled. This method called for a distributed network as Baran showed in 1964.

Baran came up with this idea because a distributed network would be more resistant to nuclear attacks than a centralized network. I think this somewhat silly because having a network that doesn’t fail after one node fails is nice even it’s not the Russians breaking it. The distributed model is necessary for a functioning network that doesn’t need constant maintenance at central hubs. This was Davies’s motivation. He wanted an efficient solution to the networking issue.

To me the fact that both came up with the same idea separately indicates that the distributed net wasn’t just an engineer’s solution to a given problem, but a scientific discovery of an optimal model.  Just like the wheel or arches, the distributed net is a concept beyond its physical applications (let’s not get any further into this as the reader may have majored in philosophy and actually have read Plato). The inventor of the arch may have wanted to add extra features, but the arch remains just a wheel.

Of course the above argument fails to hold after Baran and Davies as those were the last to discover the internet (a distributed network based on packet-switching). Next came the actual real internet aka ARPANET.

ARPA (as in DARPA before they put “defense” into everything) contracted out the work of designing and building their net to several different companies. BBN (Bolt, Beranek and Newman) was, at least in Hafner and Lyon’s account, the central designer of the internet’s physical layer. The wires themselves were from AT&T but those weren’t very special, rather the special parts were the IMPs (Interface Message Processors) put together by BBN. The IMPs were the computers that divided up the data into packets and sent them along to the next IMP until they arrived at the destination IMP which would hand over the data to the computer(s) it was attached to. BBN made several important design decisions concerning their IMPs and how they worked which I list in order of interest to me.

  1. Their threat model was curious grad students who wanted to play around with the new computer in the office.
  2. The IMPs were designed to be as invisible as a wall outlet. (toddlers with forks vs grad students with screwdrivers?)
  3. The IMPs were controlled centrally; BBN could update their software over the air (wires) and nobody (grad students) was supposed to tinker with their own versions of IMP software.

The first line of defense against 1. was a military specification case for their Honeywell 516 minicomputers. (This also meant that all IMPs had identical software and hardware; talk about a large attack surface. Not that it mattered back then). The second line of defense was 2.; who tries to reprogram outlets anyways? By keeping the network working BBN kept the grad students occupied and out of the precious IMPs. Of course this had far far greater implications as it allowed the internet to scale (see Where’s Waldo’s last post) and eventually allowed for a nation internet users without a damn clue as to how the thing works or what it’s made of (it’s probably a series of tubes but don’t quote me on that one).

Lastly; the extremely centralized control of the early ARPANET. BBN’s model of control is the complete opposite to the philosophy of the distributed or even a decentralized network. Yes, the nodes are distributed and packets flow through them whichever way is quickest, but the puppet master’s at BBN still controlled everything except for ARPA which controlled them. But what if ARPA had ceded control to BBN, and AT&T had bought BBN and inevitably ruined everything? If the internet is going to be controlled centrally, then it must be treated as a public good or we risk some telecom coming in and adding “features” (charging per byte etc.). The other solution is to make governance so confusing, opaque and most importantly boring sounding that only a few good(ish) souls bother to take part. As far as I can remember, that’s what ended up happening, along with RFCs.

I think I will write about RFCs next week and maybe by then I’ll have figured out exactly what happened after ARPA. My intuition from seeing Wikipedia’s uses of RFCs is that they are key to more distributed governance.

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