Concepts : The Internet

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From - The Past, The Present & The Future
Musings by Genisys Consultant, Nigel

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The Internet:-

War was also the driving force behind the 'Invention' of the Internet.

As World War II ended, the Cold War began. To avoid being the victims of the new weapons of mass destruction and/or attempt to ensure supremacy, defence systems proliferated - particularly in the Nuclear and ICBM fields. (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles)

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, America understood the threat and realised they'd been left behind. Part of the reaction was to create a major technical development program, and organisation which came under the title 'Advanced Research Projects Agency' (ARPA).

Dr. J.C.R. Licklider from a private consultancy (BBN) was chosen to head 'Command & Control Research' (CCR). Dr. Licklider ('Lick') was undoubtedly a visionary…

"Lick was among the first to perceive the spirit of community created among the users of the first time-sharing systems... In pointing out the community phenomena created, in part, by the sharing of resources in one timesharing system, Lick made it easy to think about interconnecting the communities, the interconnection of interactive, on-line communities of people, ..." (ARPA draft, III-21)

But there were a number of challenges:- 

The computer industry was focussed on developing more advanced mathematical systems - communication was not a serious part of the agenda.

Computer systems were still running batch-mode - Punched card or tape routines, get your answer later : ARPA needed interactivity - Now !

Commercial organisations competed for market share and would not share information. 

(Indeed IBM and others have repeatedly been subject to 'anti-trust' legislation and severe penalties for manipulation to get or maintain a monopoly. However, the anti-trust laws and actions themselves commonly cause the very situation that they attempt to denounce - albeit sometimes in the hands of a different party. - And ARPA absolutely had to circumnavigate these wrangles.)

Virtually all the existing systems used proprietary methods which were not compatible.

So ARPA specified the requirements and enlisted the best academic computer scientists it could find at the universities. "Prophetically, Licklider nicknamed the group of computer specialists he gathered the 'Intergalactic Network'." (ARPA draft, III-7) 

The next problem was that the requirement asked for things which had never been done before: Basically, to achieve the impossible - as it stood at that time.

"To provide the hosts with a little impetus to work on the host-to-host problems. ARPA assigned Elmer Shapiro of SRI "to make something happen", a typically vague ARPA assignment. Shapiro called a meeting in the summer of 1968 which was attended by programmers from several of the first hosts to be connected to the network. Individuals who were present have said that it was clear from the meeting at that time, no one had even any clear notions of what the fundamental host-to-host issues might be." (AC Draft III-67 

It became understood that the hurdles were more about the conventions of human communication than technical issues. That is, that it was (and is) 'normal' to consider anything written 'officially' or 'on-the-record', to have been thought through and presented in a relatively conclusive manner : That alternative views can be taken as disagreement etc. Hence, potentially important bits of information, inspiration or differences are not voiced.

"I remember having great fear that we would offend whomever the official protocol designers were, and I spent a sleepless night composing humble words for our notes. The basic ground rules were that anyone could say anything and that nothing was official. And to emphasize the point, I labelled the notes "Request for Comments." I never dreamed these notes would be distributed through the very medium we were discussing in these notes. Talk about Sorcerer's Apprentice!" (Crocker, RFC 1000, pg 3, 1987) 

It appears to be believed by most of those involved that ARPANet & hence, the Internet could never have been, if this fundamental change in collaborative thinking hadn't taken place.

Following this the team conceived and developed the idea that if a piece of a message was wrapped and addressed, effectively in an electronic envelope, then instead of sending just one message to one place, lots of messages could go down the same or multiple cables - regardless that they were heading for different destinations… and 'packet-switching' came into the dictionary - and along with many spin-offs, answered the problem.

Whereas the ARPA initiative was military/defence driven, Dr. Lickliders' perception of 'the spirit of community' prevailed: in RFC 1336, David Clark is quoted:-

"It is not proper to think of networks as connecting computers. Rather, they connect people using computers to mediate. The great success of the internet is not technical, but in human impact. Electronic mail may not be a wonderful advance in Computer Science, but it is a whole new way for people to communicate. The continued growth of the Internet is a technical challenge to all of us, but we must never loose sight of where we came from, the great change we have worked on the larger computer community, and the great potential we have for future change."

The global 'explosion' of the Internet, it's practicality and resilience - insofar as it can sustain local failures without any significant wide-area loss, is testament to their success - and those that have continued the development.

However, as a Network of Networks, it remains a communications infrastructure - and what we put in, get out & otherwise use it for is another issue.

Why all the background ?

Well, again, because we take things for granted once they're in place. The uninitiated will continue to believe that innovation is readily available in presentation packs like boxes of chocolates.

The Internet isn't the result of natural steady development or technical evolution. Rather, a very serious threat demanded a fundamental shift in the way things were done, involving an inspired re-think of human communication and interaction: And that whilst the world at large may be surprised at the speed of the development of the Internet, in the main we still have little appreciation of the phenomenal effect that the availability of 'Global co-operation' is going to make on our lives.

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