For my Adventures in Emerging Media class at UCF, I watched a lecture video called “Brief History of the Internet” by Dr. Robert F. Kenny. The first part of the video outlines the initial conceptualization and implementation of the Internet, and the second part examines the evolution of standards that resulted in the Internet as we know it today. Kenny’s lecture is peppered with video clips from a PBS special by Robert Cringely on the history of the Internet.
The beginning of the Internet, according to Kenny, is a “remarkable series of events.” He explains why, saying, “All these people that went into the development of [the Internet] were totally independent from one another. They didn’t know one another, and in many cases didn’t even meet one another. And so I think you’ll find it very interesting they came along with putting together a product, a series of products that are so cohesive and massive in scope… ”
For clarity, I’d like to restate Kenny’s observation. Today, it’s not unheard of to collaborate with someone without actually meeting him or her, but naturally, we would depend on the Internet for such collaboration. Prior to the 80’s this kind of distant collaboration may have happened by telephone or snail mail. What Kenny is stressing here is that in many instances, the people who were creating some of the necessary pieces and parts had no idea that others were simultaneously working on other necessary pieces and parts.
Another interesting aspect of the Internet is that on a graph of the timeline of the Internet showing the amount of Internet usage, “the graph of the exposure, the use of the Internet, has grown exponentially over the years, and it’s kind of like a huge S-shaped curve… We’re still at the front end of it… It’s not on a downward slope, which happens [with] a lot of technologies. We’re still on the upward slope here, which means we’ve got a long way to go… We’re really just beginning to breach the future… [The Internet’s] usefulness to all of us is going to be growing, and it’s going to continue to grow in the time to come.”
The implications of the concepts Kenny describes are phenomenal, not only for Internet usage, but also for how we understand ourselves as human beings and how we relate to one another. For many people, this means an increase in philosophical and spiritual knowledge. In most, if not all academic educational materials, the origin of the universe is explained by a prevailing cosmological theory known as the “Big Bang.” Similarly, the origin of humanity is explained by the theory of evolution. Neither theory, however credible, recognizes a self-existent first cause or intelligent designer. Without going into a long account of opposition and rebuttal between science and religion, I’d like to point out that I see many similarities between the spiritual evolution of humanity and that of the Internet. To state it simply, I don’t expect people to be interested in or agree with my views, but I see the fingerprints of God all over the Internet, and I fully expect that one day, the complete interdependence of science and spirituality will become too obvious to ignore. If that scares you or makes you feel uncomfortable, perhaps you will go read something else now. If you keep reading, don’t blame me for wasting your time. For those with eyes to see and a desire to see, perhaps there will be an “a-ha” moment.
The upward slope of the S curve represents Internet usage. For spirituality, this is especially exciting. At an MIT forum on religion and the Internet, Rev. Charles Henderson recalls one of his first explorations in religion and the Internet. He joined a network for religious professionals called “Ecunet” and describes the experience as follows: “All of a sudden, you are no longer alone [writing a sermon].” He collaborated with two or three hundred others in putting the sermon together, and then they went back online to compare notes about how it went. As to how they measured the effectiveness of the sermon, I have no idea, but to me, this is a small step in the right direction. Henderson says that it was “a life-transforming experience.” In the years that followed, Henderson recognized how the Internet was a valuable tool for building community. He started what he calls The First Church of Cyberspace at www.godweb.com (site no longer exists) with the mission statement: “an attempt to bring Christianity online with thoughtfulness, humor and a willingness to address the more controversial questions that tend to be avoided in the traditional church.” But I’m getting ahead of myself. As long as most of the religious content on the Internet was generated by “religious professionals,” the hierarchy would remain unthreatened.
In Cringely’s PBS special, he asks, “What better place for a Big Bang than CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire), the European laboratory for particle research?” Kenny explains the reasoning behind Cringely’s Big Bang word choice. The Big Bang, in reference to the Internet, is “the development of the ability to affordably and reliably interconnect networks that were physically separate.” The scientists at CERN wanted to retrieve information from each other’s computers. The first message transmitted via the Internet (then known as the ARPANET) resulted in a system crash after only the first two letters, “lo,” of the word “login.”
When one thinks of the word “spiritual,” one likely also thinks of its bizarre and meaningless counterfeit, that is, religion. Often, people confuse the two ideas, thanks to millennia of isolated, specialized networks, a.k.a. religions, denominations and/or churches. Throughout human history, only those who were experts in the “language” of the “network” could store or retrieve data. With the invention of the printing press, data became more available to the public, and the world got a small taste of the power of communication. This invention ushered in the Age of Enlightenment. It could be compared to the “lo” of “login.” The system crashed. Isolated and specialized religious networks began banning and burning books in response to the threat of free inquiry. In the mid-1500’s the Pope created a list of prohibited books that wasn’t done away with until the 1960’s. Ironically the ban was lifted just in time for the invention of the Internet!
One of the biggest problems of the Internet at the time, according to Kenny, was that users “had to pay for connectivity whether something was being transmitted or not,” and another problem was that users “needed to break apart transmitted messages for security reasons” because messages were being lost or intercepted along the way. The solution? Send the message in a lot of little chunks instead of one big chunk, because, according to Cringely’s PBS special, “it’s much easier to put sand down a pipe than boulders.” If something was blocking the path of a message, it could be redirected through another computer. This process is called “packet switching.” As the name implies, packets need switchers.
A small company, Bolt, Beranek, & Newman (BBN) used the theoretical concepts of networking from people like Len Kleinrock and Donald Davies and created packet switchers. They called it the Interface Message Processor (IMP), a hulking machine at least a head taller than an average size man. The IMP is what we now know as a router, a tiny gadget with blinking lights that we forget even exists unless it needs to be reset. Kenny points out the extraordinary nature of this accomplishment by emphasizing that this was a government project that was on time and on budget. How often does that happen?
Even with all of this behind-the-scenes success, it would be another twenty years before people actually started noticing or appreciating the Internet. Why? For several reasons. But first, I’d like the point out the spiritual implications of the last couple of paragraphs. One of the biggest problems spirituality had, to borrow Kenny’s words, was that participants in religion “had to pay for connectivity whether something was being transmitted or not.” In other words, go through the motions, without experiencing much spiritual growth. The printing press brought about some positive changes, but people were still connected within isolated networks, many of them spiritually dead and unaware of each other in a more global sense. An “us” and “them” mentality persisted in addition to suspicion and competition between churches and denominations. Good will messages were lost and intercepted, and most people automatically resorted to their little isolated network protocols. Spiritual “clients” needed packet switching but didn’t have any packet switchers.
The packet switchers in spirituality came about mostly in the land of the free in the form of movements such as evangelicalism, ecumenism, fundamentalism, plenty of other isms, house churches, and mega-churches. The problem was that communications were still only taking place by way of hulking machines in specialized and isolated facilities. Yes, these denominations and churches were making some headway in communications and functioning cooperatively toward certain common goals, but the individuals within those churches didn’t have a voice. The hierarchical experts were still writing the language and controlling the type of communication that seemed acceptable to them on big IMPs by the light of stained-glass windows. There were not yet routers for the little people.
J.C.R. Licklider, the “Johnny Appleseed” of interactive computing, was a dreamer who envisioned the Internet, but never invented it. Instead, he organized and funded those who had the ability to bring his vision into reality. Licklider, known by his colleagues as “Lick,” called the Internet the “Intergalactic Network” and described it as “a field that gets a thousand times as good in twenty years.” Kenny notes that visionaries or dreamers are often misunderstood, “It’s hard to understand what [Lick] has to say, but if you listen to it very, very closely, he had this vision of what really was supposed to happen.” Lick explains, “Specialized hardware facilities tend to be expensive, but very efficient. On the other hand, if they can be distributed, then specialized hardware facilities can be very effective and let us do things that we couldn’t otherwise do.” Cringely clarifies for the PBS audience that what Lick is really saying is that “everyone can use computers anywhere and get data anywhere in the world.” Keep in mind that Lick uttered these words in the 1960’s.
Another underappreciated visionary was Ted Nelson, author of the books, Computer Lib and Dream Machines, who met with Cringely for an interview for the PBS special. He called the Internet “Xanadu, a magic place of literary memory” and likened it to Samuel Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Kahn. Kenny points out that Nelson “seems to live in a world all by himself.” This is evidenced by his odd behavior in the interview. Nelson, explains that hypertext will enable people to communicate seamlessly and, in an otherworldly tone of voice, he suddenly breaks into recitation:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
(Click here to read it in full.)
Cringely asked Nelson whether he considers himself the inventor of hypertext. Nelson responds, “Hypertext is so obvious. So I do not claim to have invented hypertext, I merely discovered it. It’s like the telephone. At the time, it seemed to be an invention. To us now, it was a discovery, because it’s so obvious. Okay. So, hypertext is like that. It’s simply the obvious next step in literature.” When Cringely asked him to define hypertext, Nelson got so offended that he abruptly left the interview!
Tim Berners-Lee, who is considered the inventor of the World Wide Web, is the doer who brought Nelson’s dream into reality in 1990. But unlike many inventions, the amount of time that passed between conceptualization and actualization was remarkably minimal. Take DaVinci’s flying machines for example. DaVinci, the dreamer, the visionary, lacked an engine. The Wright Brothers brought his dream into reality over four hundred years later.
So we had a World Wide Web, but not many people knew how to use it. And there were roadblocks to using the Internet for commerce. Congressman Rick Boucher‘s activity in Internet-related legislation resulted in the commercialization of the Internet. The Internet became a marketplace that would, “Connect homes, schools, and workplaces,” Boucher said, and “open new worlds of information for all.”
But we still needed one more software breakthrough. Just as “dreamers need doers,” doers need money. Kenny explains, “Money-folks finally got involved.” The 1990’s Internet boom in a nutshell:
- John Doerr – “For years Bill Joy had been telling me that someday we’d back a 21 year old kid who would write software that would change the world, and lo and behold sitting in my office is this 23 year old… Marc said, ‘This software is going to change everything.’”
- Mosaic – first browser. Marc Andreessen, coauthor of Mosaic – “What we were trying to do was just put a human face on the Internet. The Internet, at that point, was just a tool for researchers and scientists.”
- Suddenly, the Internet wasn’t just for nerds…
- Eric Schmidt – “those ideas had been present for twenty years, but it took a killer application…”
In the video, “The Machine is Us,” my a-ha moment arrived before I even hit play. The title can hold a positive or a negative vibe, depending on the point of view of the reader. I grew up with a strict fundamentalist background in which I was taught that the antichrist would set up a one-world government and demand that everyone obtain the Mark of the Beast in order to purchase anything. By the time the Internet became popular, I had already separated myself from my religious upbringing, but I remained in contact with many of the people still involved in it. They said that the Beast was a supercomputer and the Mark of the Beast was some kind of bar code or embedded chip. To these people, the title, “The Machine is Us,” is likely further confirmation of their fears.
To me, “The Machine is Us” is a hopeful statement about human cooperation. Throughout history, our interactions have always been either controlled or heavily influenced by a small number of people in positions of power. I’ll just pick a number out of the air and say that two or three percent of the population has been able to censor or manipulate information to their own advantage. The linear nature of information flow allowed the two or three percent to maintain their positions of power and influence. That’s why I appreciate the first portion of the video:
Text is linear.
Text is unilinear.
Text is said to be unilinear.
Text is often said to be unilinear.
Text is unilinear when written on paper.
The Internet, especially in the last ten years or so, has been like a revolutionary slap in the face about how we have been exchanging information compared to how we can exchange information. Information as we know it, is not doomed to forever remain constrained in a controllable, linear model; we are beginning to understand it for what it truly is, that is, exponential. We are linear beings who live in a seemingly linear environment of time, space, and matter. There are causes and there are effects. This is the basis of science itself. However, we’ve learned a few things during our long and tumultuous evolution, particularly that time and space are relative. In other words, the universe is exponential, but our tiny minds are having a hard time grasping the implications. We want something solid to beat our mixed-up heads against, just to be sure we are real, and that we are sane. How about a heavy wooden door? Well, it turns out, according to quantum physicists, that the door is matter, and matter is energy, and energy is light, and light may be particles or waves, depending on whether someone is paying attention to it. Mind-boggling stuff, right? That’s why I appreciate the next bit of the video, because it gives me hope that we will, instead of beating our heads against the door, learn how to walk straight through it. The Internet may enable us to consider all possibilities, since anyone can have a voice. And this is possible, because of our newly discovered ways of exchanging data, the innate flexibility of information:
Digital text is different.
Digital text is more flexible.
Digital text is movable.
Digital text is above all… hyper.
Digital hypertext is above all…
Hypertext is above all…
Hypertext can link.
Hypertext can link. (here. here. here. or here.)
If we are smart about preserving this gem of a tool God has enabled and equipped us to create for ourselves, then we might have some hope of discovering the most crucial information and unlimited possibilities that have been hidden throughout the ages. Our own human-manufactured structures of authority and power have held us back long enough. As the Muse song “Uprising” goes:
Rise up and take the power back,
It’s time the fat cats had a heart attack,
You know that their time’s coming to an end,
We have to unify and watch our flag ascend
The world has been operating like inefficient code, with form (authority and power) and content (information) so interdependent that normal people had no choice but to submit to the system in order to have any kind of normalcy in their lives. It kind of makes one reconsider the idea that hermits and antisocial people might have been on to something, refusing to trade their dignity for a life of status quo. I am so encouraged by the final words of the video:
Who will organize all of this data?
(digital ethnography hypermedia anthropology)
We will. You will. […]
XML + U & me create
The web is linking people. […]
People sharing, trading, collaborating.
We’ll need to rethink a few things.
We’ll need to rethink copyright, authorship, identity, ethics, aesthetics, rhetoric, governance, privacy, commerce, love, family, ourselves.
As I first viewed this video, I wondered in what year it was created. So, I did a little bit of research and found out that it was created around the same time as Facebook. The reason I wondered what year it was created was because I wasn’t sure what was fact and what was fiction, other than the clues given in the video introduction on my class website. This video was disturbing to me, and it was a harsh reminder that it is human nature to take any good, acceptable, beneficial, or profitable thing and make a mess out of it.
In Dr. Kenny’s lecture video, the visionary people like Licklider and Nelson may have seemed to their peers to be out of touch with reality, wishful thinkers, impractical dreamers, etc. But I’ll be damned if their ideas didn’t come to fruition with the help of some intelligent and persistent doers and some rich people willing to invest in their efforts.
Unfortunately, I must admit that EPIC 2015 seems to be the work of a visionary. And I loathe the idea that the Internet could become a wasteland in which our communications become “a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow, and sensational.” Yes, unfortunately, Fat Cats could potentially hijack the Internet. It is sad, but true.
The video did end with hope, though. Neighbors meeting for lunch at the park, providing each other with practical information, and sharing satisfaction in the little things, like nice weather.
Here we are, approaching a point in our future where we can either become the Image of God or the most depraved version of ourselves. The world will inevitably become something unlike we have ever known, either way.