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"The Nerds Have Won"

Brian Hayes

Imminent Death of the Net Predicted!

Recently I submitted the phrase "Death of the Internet as we know it" to the Web search engine called Google. The top three hits were the main welcoming pages of the Netscape Corporation (now a division of America Online), of Microsoft and of I have no idea what to make of this curious result. But I do know that the Internet-as-we-know-it has long been on the edge of apocalypse. "Imminent death of the Net predicted!" was already a running joke 20 years ago.

There was always a catastrophe on the horizon. The hardware infrastructure would overload and blow a fuse. The government (which paid the bills in the early days) would lose interest and pull the plug. Or else the government would take too close an interest and strangle the Net with regulations and fees. Or malefactors would bring it down with software viruses. But the hazard cited most frequently was death by boredom and exasperation. Every generation of Net newbies—even before America got Online—was accused of driving down the signal-to-noise ratio; when it reached zero, the prediction ran, everyone would finally log off and go to bed.

The fact that the Net has survived—and indeed now exhibits extraordinarily robust health —should give pause to doomsayers. Clearly we are dealing with a highly resilient structure. But if the Net has survived challenges, it has also been transformed by them. Nothing about it remains unchanged, save a few of the most deeply entrenched software protocols. And the changes to the social context of the Net have been just as thoroughgoing as those to its technological underpinnings.

Figure 1. The ARPANET, the main predecessorClick to Enlarge Image

It's worth remembering that the earliest ancestor of the Internet, called the ARPANET, was not intended as a medium of communication at all—at least not communication between people. When the first few nodes were wired together around 1970, the network's primary function was providing long-distance access to computer hardware. The first "killer app" was Telnet, which allowed a research worker in Cambridge or Salt Lake City to run programs on a machine in Los Angeles or Ann Arbor. After Telnet came the file transfer protocol (FTP), which made it easier to move data from one machine to another.

Person-to-person communication was an afterthought. The first crude facilities for electronic mail evolved out of FTP in 1972 and 1973. Mail didn't get a protocol of its own until a decade later. An early ARPANET report described e-mail as "unplanned, unanticipated, and mostly unsupported" (Frank Heart et al., cited in Janet Abbate's Inventing the Internet, page 109). E-mail caught on nonetheless, and for a time it made up the largest single category of network traffic. Software for managing mailing lists soon made mail more than a one-to-one medium. And starting in the early 1980s the Usenet news system provided another medium for online chit-chat. Eventually it became clear that the main value of the Net was not connecting people to machines but connecting people to people.

All this happened long before Tim Berners-Lee dreamed up the World Wide Web. The Internet and its institutional predecessors had already been running for two full decades, and had become the focus of a substantial community and culture, when the first Web site went on the air. That site was at the CERN physics laboratory in Geneva, where Berners-Lee had created the Web as a mechanism for sharing documents such as software user manuals. But the name he gave the project suggests that he had grander ambitions from the outset—and those ambitions have certainly been fulfilled. The Web has become truly world wide and is arguably the fastest-spreading technology in human history. At least three-fourths of all the traffic on the Internet is now Web traffic. (For many recent recruits to Net life, the Web is the Internet; they have never had occasion to initiate a Telnet or FTP session.)

At the beginning of 1970 the ARPANET was made up of just four nodes, or host machines. A decade later the number of hosts was still only about 200; a true Net weenie could know them all. But by 1990 the number of Internet hosts had grown to roughly 300,000, and in January of 2000 the host count reached 72 million. Meanwhile, in less than a decade and starting from nothing, the Web accumulated a billion documents.

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