For all knowledge and wonder (which is the seed of knowledge) is an impression of pleasure in itself.
Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 1605
History, someone once said, is just the record of what one age finds interesting in another. If that's true, then this book justifies its title, for it is essentially a meditation on a phenomenon which has obsessed me for years.
I wrote it for various reasons. Like E. M. Forster, I am one of those people who doesn't know what he thinks until he has written it down, and I wanted to sort out my ideas about what the Internet is, and what it might mean for society. Secondly, I was puzzled by -and suspicious of - some of the myths about the Net which are regularly regurgitated by the mass media: I wanted to find out for myself where the thing came from - who built it, and why, and how? And most of all perhaps, I wanted to express my sense of awe at what the creators of the Internet have wrought, and to try and communicate some of this wonderment to others.
Accordingly, this is an intensely personal work which makes no claims to provide a definitive account of the Net's evolution. Rather it picks out aspects of the story which seem to me to be significant, and tries to explain why. And if it reads like a passionate work, then that is because I feel passionately about its subject. The Net provides some of the things I longed for when I was young - access to information and knowledge, communication with faraway places, news from other cultures, windows into other worlds. As a boy I haunted the shelves of the local Carnegie Library, reading everything I could lay my hands on. But the more I read the more I became aware of how limited were the resources of that admirable institution.
The library had several books about the American Civil War, for example; but imagine, I thought, what it would be like to visit the Library of Congress and see the letters that Abraham Lincoln wrote during that terrible conflict. The encyclopaedia entries on Leonardo da Vinci were fascinating, but lacked what I really lusted to see - the notebooks written in his famous 'mirror' handwriting. A biography of Mozart merely fuelled a desire to visit the British Museum and inspect one of his manuscripts for myself, if only to verify that it was as free of corrections and revisions as the author had claimed. And a book about the history of New York prompted a yearning to see the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan by night.
To a child in my position in the 1950s, these were aspirations on a par with coveting a vacation on Mars. Yet today they are virtually achievable by anyone with an Internet connection. My children, who have grown up with the Net, take such wonders in their stride. They use the network for homework and leisure with the same ease as they use a dictionary or a book or the telephone. The Net has become just a pleasurable, useful background to their young lives. But while their familiarity with its riches gives their father endless pleasure, it also triggers in him the fear that has lurked in the breast of every upwardly mobile parent in history - that one's children have no idea how lucky they are.
And, in a way, why should they? Isn't their calm acceptance of a technological marvel symptomatic of the human condition? We take progress for granted and move on to the next Big Thing. We see further, as Newton said, and achieve more, because we stand on the shoulders of giants. In the case of the Net, however, these giants were engineers and as such are largely invisible and unsung. Why a civilisation which has been built by engineers should accord its creators such a low status is beyond me. We have no hesitation in honouring actors, musicians, artists, writers, athletes, doctors and, on occasion, scientists. But engineers ... ah, that's different. They're just the guys you call out when something breaks down.
I am myself an engineer and so take this slight personally. My profession's cultural invisibility may have something to do with the fact that we are predominantly problem-solvers. Since a 'problem' is a discrepancy between a current state (A) and a desired one (B), engineers are mostly concerned with finding ways of getting from A to B. We therefore tend to focus on technical means, rather than on ends. And generally the ends are decided by someone else - a superior, a client, a government agency, a company.
Ends are chic, cool, interesting. They are the embodiment of values and aspirations. Means, on the other hand, are mundane, uncool, routine. And the engineers whose job it is to devise them tend to be unobtrusive, pragmatic, utilitarian, intellectually eclectic. They have neither the time nor the inclination for self-advertisement. They are, in Lord Beaverbrook's famous phrase, 'the boys in the back room . . . the men who do the work'. They just want to get the job done and will use any tool that looks useful, even if doing so causes purists (especially of the mathematical variety) to faint in distaste.
As a result, engineers have generally had an indifferent press. This little book is an attempt to redress the imbalance, to pay homage to the amazing ingenuity of the peopre who created the Internet, to rescue them from the obscurity to which our unthinking complacency generally consigns them.
We owe a debt to these architects of our future, not just because they created one of the most remarkable things humans have ever built, but because in the process they invented institutions and traditions from which society might usefully learn a thing or two. The Internet, for example, is a totally open system. There is no gatekeeper, no membership committee, no waiting list. Anyone can join in, so long as they obey the rules embedded in its technical protocols. These protocols and the software which implements them - and thereby governs the network's operation - are transparent and public. They were created by engineers and computer scientists working in a spirit of enthusiastic co-operation, debugged in the crucible of intensive peer-review and tested to the limit by the exponential growth which they have enabled. At a technical level, there are no secrets on the Net, and the result is a system of unparalleled resilience and dependability. There is - as we shall see - a direct causal connection between these two facts. Isn't there a lesson here for society about the importance of open institutions and the power of a free market in ideas?
The other interesting thing is that not a single line of the computer code which underpins the Net is proprietary; and nobody who contributed to its development has ever made a cent from intellectual property rights in it. In the age of the bottom line, where the default assumption is that people are motivated by money rather than altruism, and where software is the hottest intellectual property there is, this is surely extraordinary. The moguls who dominate the computer business would have us believe that the Internet must be an aberration - that it is the exception that proves the rule about the primacy of greed. If I've learned anything from writing this brief history it is that they've misjudged the Net. But then, they always have.
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