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<pre>
 
 
History of the Internet
 
History of the Internet
By Bruce Sterling
+
 
+
By Bruce Sterling - [email protected]
Literary Freeware -- Not for Commercial Use -- Distribute Freely but
+
 
do not sell
 
 
   
 
   
 
From: THE!
 
From: THE!
 
   
 
   
F&SF Science Column #5
+
F&SF Science Column #5 "Internet"
"Internet"
 
 
   
 
   
 +
 
Some thirty years ago, the RAND Corporation, America's
 
Some thirty years ago, the RAND Corporation, America's
 
foremost Cold War think-tank, faced a strange strategic problem.  How
 
foremost Cold War think-tank, faced a strange strategic problem.  How
 
could the US authorities successfully communicate after a nuclear war?
 
could the US authorities successfully communicate after a nuclear war?
 +
 
Postnuclear America would need a command-and-control network,
 
Postnuclear America would need a command-and-control network,
 
linked from city to city, state to state, base to base.  But no matter
 
linked from city to city, state to state, base to base.  But no matter
Line 33: Line 19:
 
wiring would always be vulnerable to the impact of atomic bombs.  A
 
wiring would always be vulnerable to the impact of atomic bombs.  A
 
nuclear attack would reduce any conceivable network to tatters.
 
nuclear attack would reduce any conceivable network to tatters.
 +
 
And how would the network itself be commanded and controlled?
 
And how would the network itself be commanded and controlled?
 
Any central authority, any network central citadel, would be an
 
Any central authority, any network central citadel, would be an
 
obvious and immediate target for an enemy missile.  The center of the
 
obvious and immediate target for an enemy missile.  The center of the
 
network would be the very first place to go.
 
network would be the very first place to go.
 +
 
  RAND mulled over this grim puzzle in deep military secrecy,
 
  RAND mulled over this grim puzzle in deep military secrecy,
 
and arrived at a daring solution.  The RAND proposal (the brainchild
 
and arrived at a daring solution.  The RAND proposal (the brainchild
Line 42: Line 30:
 
place, the network would *have no central authority.* Furthermore, it
 
place, the network would *have no central authority.* Furthermore, it
 
would be *designed from the beginning to operate while in tatters.*
 
would be *designed from the beginning to operate while in tatters.*
 +
 
  The principles were simple.  The network itself would be
 
  The principles were simple.  The network itself would be
 
assumed to be unreliable at all times.  It would be designed from the
 
assumed to be unreliable at all times.  It would be designed from the
Line 51: Line 40:
 
source node, and end at some other specified destination node.  Each
 
source node, and end at some other specified destination node.  Each
 
packet would wind its way through the network on an individual basis.
 
packet would wind its way through the network on an individual basis.
 +
 
  The particular route that the packet took would be
 
  The particular route that the packet took would be
 
unimportant.  Only final results would count.  Basically, the packet
 
unimportant.  Only final results would count.  Basically, the packet
Line 61: Line 51:
 
in the usual sense (especially compared to, say, the telephone system)
 
in the usual sense (especially compared to, say, the telephone system)
 
-- but it would be extremely rugged.
 
-- but it would be extremely rugged.
 +
 
  During the 60s, this intriguing concept of a decentralized,
 
  During the 60s, this intriguing concept of a decentralized,
 
blastproof, packet-switching network was kicked around by RAND, MIT
 
blastproof, packet-switching network was kicked around by RAND, MIT
Line 71: Line 62:
 
which were in real need of good solid networking, for the sake of
 
which were in real need of good solid networking, for the sake of
 
national research-and-development projects.
 
national research-and-development projects.
 +
 
  In fall 1969, the first such node was installed in UCLA.  By
 
  In fall 1969, the first such node was installed in UCLA.  By
 
December 1969, there were four nodes on the infant network, which was
 
December 1969, there were four nodes on the infant network, which was
 
named ARPANET, after its Pentagon sponsor.
 
named ARPANET, after its Pentagon sponsor.
 +
 
  The four computers could transfer data on dedicated high-
 
  The four computers could transfer data on dedicated high-
 
speed transmission lines.  They could even be programmed remotely from
 
speed transmission lines.  They could even be programmed remotely from
Line 81: Line 74:
 
In 1971 there were fifteen nodes in ARPANET; by 1972, thirty-seven
 
In 1971 there were fifteen nodes in ARPANET; by 1972, thirty-seven
 
nodes.  And it was good.
 
nodes.  And it was good.
 +
 
  By the second year of operation, however, an odd fact became
 
  By the second year of operation, however, an odd fact became
 
clear.  ARPANET's users had warped the computer-sharing network into a
 
clear.  ARPANET's users had warped the computer-sharing network into a
Line 93: Line 87:
 
this particular service -- far more enthusiastic than they were about
 
this particular service -- far more enthusiastic than they were about
 
long-distance computation.
 
long-distance computation.
 +
 
  It wasn't long before the invention of the mailing-list, an
 
  It wasn't long before the invention of the mailing-list, an
 
ARPANET broadcasting technique in which an identical message could be
 
ARPANET broadcasting technique in which an identical message could be
Line 100: Line 95:
 
network was not work-related and was frowned upon by many ARPANET
 
network was not work-related and was frowned upon by many ARPANET
 
computer administrators, but this didn't stop it from happening.
 
computer administrators, but this didn't stop it from happening.
 +
 
  Throughout the '70s, ARPA's network grew.  Its decentralized
 
  Throughout the '70s, ARPA's network grew.  Its decentralized
 
structure made expansion easy.  Unlike standard corporate computer
 
structure made expansion easy.  Unlike standard corporate computer
Line 107: Line 103:
 
brand-names, and their content, and even their ownership, were
 
brand-names, and their content, and even their ownership, were
 
irrelevant.
 
irrelevant.
 +
 
  The ARPA's original standard for communication was known as
 
  The ARPA's original standard for communication was known as
 
NCP, "Network Control Protocol," but as time passed and the technique
 
NCP, "Network Control Protocol," but as time passed and the technique
Line 117: Line 114:
 
with multiple standards -- not only ARPA's pioneering NCP standard,
 
with multiple standards -- not only ARPA's pioneering NCP standard,
 
but others like Ethernet, FDDI, and X.25.
 
but others like Ethernet, FDDI, and X.25.
 +
 
  As early as 1977, TCP/IP was being used by other networks to
 
  As early as 1977, TCP/IP was being used by other networks to
 
link to ARPANET.  ARPANET itself remained fairly tightly controlled,
 
link to ARPANET.  ARPANET itself remained fairly tightly controlled,
Line 123: Line 121:
 
was growing, became a smaller and smaller neighborhood amid the vastly
 
was growing, became a smaller and smaller neighborhood amid the vastly
 
growing galaxy of other linked machines.
 
growing galaxy of other linked machines.
 +
 
  As the '70s and '80s advanced, many very different social
 
  As the '70s and '80s advanced, many very different social
 
groups found themselves in possession of powerful computers.  It was
 
groups found themselves in possession of powerful computers.  It was
Line 134: Line 133:
 
from joining this branching complex of networks, which came to be
 
from joining this branching complex of networks, which came to be
 
known as the "Internet."
 
known as the "Internet."
 +
 
  Connecting to the Internet cost the taxpayer little or
 
  Connecting to the Internet cost the taxpayer little or
 
nothing, since each node was independent, and had to handle its own
 
nothing, since each node was independent, and had to handle its own
Line 144: Line 144:
 
too, was a curiosity for a while.  Then computer-networking became an
 
too, was a curiosity for a while.  Then computer-networking became an
 
utter necessity.
 
utter necessity.
 +
 
  In 1984 the National Science Foundation got into the act,
 
  In 1984 the National Science Foundation got into the act,
 
through its Office of Advanced Scientific Computing.  The new NSFNET
 
through its Office of Advanced Scientific Computing.  The new NSFNET
Line 152: Line 153:
 
Health, the Department of Energy, each of them maintaining a digital
 
Health, the Department of Energy, each of them maintaining a digital
 
satrapy in the Internet confederation.
 
satrapy in the Internet confederation.
 +
 
  The nodes in this growing network-of-networks were divvied up
 
  The nodes in this growing network-of-networks were divvied up
 
into basic varieties.  Foreign computers, and a few American ones,
 
into basic varieties.  Foreign computers, and a few American ones,
Line 164: Line 166:
 
by a dust-cloud of eager nonprofit "orgs."  (The "net" computers
 
by a dust-cloud of eager nonprofit "orgs."  (The "net" computers
 
served as gateways between networks.)
 
served as gateways between networks.)
 +
 
  ARPANET itself formally expired in 1989, a happy victim of its
 
  ARPANET itself formally expired in 1989, a happy victim of its
 
own overwhelming success.  Its users scarcely noticed, for ARPANET's
 
own overwhelming success.  Its users scarcely noticed, for ARPANET's
Line 173: Line 176:
 
day.  Three million, possibly four million people use this gigantic
 
day.  Three million, possibly four million people use this gigantic
 
mother-of-all-computer-networks.
 
mother-of-all-computer-networks.
 +
 
  The Internet is especially popular among scientists, and is
 
  The Internet is especially popular among scientists, and is
 
probably the most important scientific instrument of the late
 
probably the most important scientific instrument of the late
Line 178: Line 182:
 
provides to specialized data and personal communication has sped up
 
provides to specialized data and personal communication has sped up
 
the pace of scientific research enormously.
 
the pace of scientific research enormously.
 +
 
  The Internet's pace of growth in the early 1990s is
 
  The Internet's pace of growth in the early 1990s is
 
spectacular, almost ferocious.  It is spreading faster than cellular
 
spectacular, almost ferocious.  It is spreading faster than cellular
Line 186: Line 191:
 
research institutions, into elementary and high schools, as well as
 
research institutions, into elementary and high schools, as well as
 
into public libraries and the commercial sector.
 
into public libraries and the commercial sector.
 +
 
  Why do people want to be "on the Internet?"  One of the main
 
  Why do people want to be "on the Internet?"  One of the main
 
reasons is simple freedom.  The Internet is a rare example of a true,
 
reasons is simple freedom.  The Internet is a rare example of a true,
Line 195: Line 201:
 
over commercial use of the Internet, but that situation is changing as
 
over commercial use of the Internet, but that situation is changing as
 
businesses supply their own links).
 
businesses supply their own links).
 +
 
  The Internet is also a bargain.  The Internet as a whole,
 
  The Internet is also a bargain.  The Internet as a whole,
 
unlike the phone system, doesn't charge for long-distance service.
 
unlike the phone system, doesn't charge for long-distance service.
Line 202: Line 209:
 
Each group of people accessing the Internet is responsible for their
 
Each group of people accessing the Internet is responsible for their
 
own machine and their own section of line.
 
own machine and their own section of line.
 +
 
  The Internet's "anarchy" may seem strange or even unnatural,
 
  The Internet's "anarchy" may seem strange or even unnatural,
 
but it makes a certain deep and basic sense.  It's rather like the
 
but it makes a certain deep and basic sense.  It's rather like the
Line 218: Line 226:
 
probably be a lot fewer new words in English, and a lot fewer new
 
probably be a lot fewer new words in English, and a lot fewer new
 
ideas.
 
ideas.
 +
 
People on the Internet feel much the same way about their own
 
People on the Internet feel much the same way about their own
 
institution.  It's an institution that resists institutionalization.
 
institution.  It's an institution that resists institutionalization.
 
The Internet belongs to everyone and no one.
 
The Internet belongs to everyone and no one.
 +
 
  Still, its various interest groups all have a claim.  Business
 
  Still, its various interest groups all have a claim.  Business
 
people want the Internet put on a sounder financial footing.
 
people want the Internet put on a sounder financial footing.
Line 226: Line 236:
 
want it dedicated exclusively to scholarly research.  Military people
 
want it dedicated exclusively to scholarly research.  Military people
 
want it spy-proof and secure.  And so on and so on.
 
want it spy-proof and secure.  And so on and so on.
 +
 
  All these sources of conflict remain in a stumbling balance
 
  All these sources of conflict remain in a stumbling balance
 
today, and the Internet, so far, remains in a thrivingly anarchical
 
today, and the Internet, so far, remains in a thrivingly anarchical
Line 236: Line 247:
 
Internet nodes.  You can carry one under your arm.  Soon, perhaps, on
 
Internet nodes.  You can carry one under your arm.  Soon, perhaps, on
 
your wrist.
 
your wrist.
 +
 
But what does one *do* with the Internet?  Four things,
 
But what does one *do* with the Internet?  Four things,
 
basically: mail, discussion groups, long-distance computing, and file
 
basically: mail, discussion groups, long-distance computing, and file
 
transfers.
 
transfers.
 +
 
  Internet mail is "e-mail," electronic mail, faster by several
 
  Internet mail is "e-mail," electronic mail, faster by several
 
orders of magnitude than the US Mail, which is scornfully known by
 
orders of magnitude than the US Mail, which is scornfully known by
Line 246: Line 259:
 
and certain forms of compressed digital imagery.  New forms of mail
 
and certain forms of compressed digital imagery.  New forms of mail
 
are in the works.
 
are in the works.
 +
 
  The discussion groups, or "newsgroups," are a world of their
 
  The discussion groups, or "newsgroups," are a world of their
 
own.  This world of news, debate and argument is generally known as
 
own.  This world of news, debate and argument is generally known as
Line 259: Line 273:
 
enormous, and it's growing larger all the time.  USENET also
 
enormous, and it's growing larger all the time.  USENET also
 
distributes various free electronic journals and publications.
 
distributes various free electronic journals and publications.
 +
 
  Both netnews and e-mail are very widely available, even
 
  Both netnews and e-mail are very widely available, even
 
outside the high-speed core of the Internet itself.  News and e-mail
 
outside the high-speed core of the Internet itself.  News and e-mail
Line 265: Line 280:
 
long-distance computing and file transfer, require what is known as
 
long-distance computing and file transfer, require what is known as
 
"direct Internet access" -- using TCP/IP.
 
"direct Internet access" -- using TCP/IP.
 +
 
  Long-distance computing was an original inspiration for
 
  Long-distance computing was an original inspiration for
 
ARPANET and is still a very useful service, at least for some.
 
ARPANET and is still a very useful service, at least for some.
Line 273: Line 289:
 
are increasingly available through this service.  And there are
 
are increasingly available through this service.  And there are
 
fantastic amounts of free software available.
 
fantastic amounts of free software available.
 +
 
  File transfers allow Internet users to access remote machines
 
  File transfers allow Internet users to access remote machines
 
and retrieve programs or text.  Many Internet computers -- some two
 
and retrieve programs or text.  Many Internet computers -- some two
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programs, such as "archie," "gopher," and "WAIS," have been developed
 
programs, such as "archie," "gopher," and "WAIS," have been developed
 
to catalog and explore these enormous archives of material.
 
to catalog and explore these enormous archives of material.
 +
 
  The headless, anarchic, million-limbed Internet is spreading
 
  The headless, anarchic, million-limbed Internet is spreading
 
like bread-mold.  Any computer of sufficient power is a potential
 
like bread-mold.  Any computer of sufficient power is a potential
Line 299: Line 317:
 
personal computers a means of cheap, easy storage and access that is
 
personal computers a means of cheap, easy storage and access that is
 
truly planetary in scale.
 
truly planetary in scale.
 +
 
  The future of the Internet bids fair to be bigger and
 
  The future of the Internet bids fair to be bigger and
 
exponentially faster.  Commercialization of the Internet is a very hot
 
exponentially faster.  Commercialization of the Internet is a very hot
Line 312: Line 331:
 
phone-links to portable computers, as well as fax, voice, and high-
 
phone-links to portable computers, as well as fax, voice, and high-
 
definition television.  A multimedia global circus!
 
definition television.  A multimedia global circus!
 +
 
  Or so it's hoped -- and planned.  The real Internet of the
 
  Or so it's hoped -- and planned.  The real Internet of the
 
future may bear very little resemblance to today's plans.  Planning
 
future may bear very little resemblance to today's plans.  Planning
Line 318: Line 338:
 
resemblance to those original grim plans for RAND's post- holocaust
 
resemblance to those original grim plans for RAND's post- holocaust
 
command grid.  It's a fine and happy irony.
 
command grid.  It's a fine and happy irony.
 +
 
  How does one get access to the Internet?  Well -- if you don't
 
  How does one get access to the Internet?  Well -- if you don't
 
have a computer and a modem, get one.  Your computer can act as a
 
have a computer and a modem, get one.  Your computer can act as a
Line 325: Line 346:
 
own e-mail address.  These are services worth having -- though if you
 
own e-mail address.  These are services worth having -- though if you
 
only have mail and news, you're not actually "on the Internet" proper.
 
only have mail and news, you're not actually "on the Internet" proper.
 +
 
  If you're on a campus, your university may have direct
 
  If you're on a campus, your university may have direct
 
"dedicated access" to high-speed Internet TCP/IP lines.  Apply for an
 
"dedicated access" to high-speed Internet TCP/IP lines.  Apply for an
Line 333: Line 355:
 
it to subscribers.  The standard fee is about $40 a month -- about the
 
it to subscribers.  The standard fee is about $40 a month -- about the
 
same as TV cable service.
 
same as TV cable service.
 +
 
  As the Nineties proceed, finding a link to the Internet will
 
  As the Nineties proceed, finding a link to the Internet will
 
become much cheaper and easier.  Its ease of use will also improve,
 
become much cheaper and easier.  Its ease of use will also improve,
Line 341: Line 364:
 
will be forcing itself into the very texture of your life.
 
will be forcing itself into the very texture of your life.
 
   
 
   
For Further Reading:
+
 
 +
===For Further Reading:===
 
   
 
   
 
The Whole Internet Catalog & User's Guide by Ed Krol.  (1992) O'Reilly
 
The Whole Internet Catalog & User's Guide by Ed Krol.  (1992) O'Reilly
Line 368: Line 392:
  
  
 
END
 
</pre>
 
  
 
[[Category:Computing]]
 
[[Category:Computing]]

Revision as of 15:43, 19 July 2019

History of the Internet

By Bruce Sterling - [email protected]


From: THE!

F&SF Science Column #5 "Internet"


Some thirty years ago, the RAND Corporation, America's foremost Cold War think-tank, faced a strange strategic problem. How could the US authorities successfully communicate after a nuclear war?

Postnuclear America would need a command-and-control network, linked from city to city, state to state, base to base. But no matter how thoroughly that network was armored or protected, its switches and wiring would always be vulnerable to the impact of atomic bombs. A nuclear attack would reduce any conceivable network to tatters.

And how would the network itself be commanded and controlled? Any central authority, any network central citadel, would be an obvious and immediate target for an enemy missile. The center of the network would be the very first place to go.

	RAND mulled over this grim puzzle in deep military secrecy,

and arrived at a daring solution. The RAND proposal (the brainchild of RAND staffer Paul Baran) was made public in 1964. In the first place, the network would *have no central authority.* Furthermore, it would be *designed from the beginning to operate while in tatters.*

	The principles were simple.  The network itself would be

assumed to be unreliable at all times. It would be designed from the get-go to transcend its own unreliability. All the nodes in the network would be equal in status to all other nodes, each node with its own authority to originate, pass, and receive messages. The messages themselves would be divided into packets, each packet separately addressed. Each packet would begin at some specified source node, and end at some other specified destination node. Each packet would wind its way through the network on an individual basis.

	The particular route that the packet took would be

unimportant. Only final results would count. Basically, the packet would be tossed like a hot potato from node to node to node, more or less in the direction of its destination, until it ended up in the proper place. If big pieces of the network had been blown away, that simply wouldn't matter; the packets would still stay airborne, lateralled wildly across the field by whatever nodes happened to survive. This rather haphazard delivery system might be "inefficient" in the usual sense (especially compared to, say, the telephone system) -- but it would be extremely rugged.

	During the 60s, this intriguing concept of a decentralized,

blastproof, packet-switching network was kicked around by RAND, MIT and UCLA. The National Physical Laboratory in Great Britain set up the first test network on these principles in 1968. Shortly afterward, the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency decided to fund a larger, more ambitious project in the USA. The nodes of the network were to be high-speed supercomputers (or what passed for supercomputers at the time). These were rare and valuable machines which were in real need of good solid networking, for the sake of national research-and-development projects.

	In fall 1969, the first such node was installed in UCLA.  By

December 1969, there were four nodes on the infant network, which was named ARPANET, after its Pentagon sponsor.

	The four computers could transfer data on dedicated high-

speed transmission lines. They could even be programmed remotely from the other nodes. Thanks to ARPANET, scientists and researchers could share one another's computer facilities by long-distance. This was a very handy service, for computer-time was precious in the early '70s. In 1971 there were fifteen nodes in ARPANET; by 1972, thirty-seven nodes. And it was good.

	By the second year of operation, however, an odd fact became

clear. ARPANET's users had warped the computer-sharing network into a dedicated, high-speed, federally subsidized electronic post- office. The main traffic on ARPANET was not long-distance computing. Instead, it was news and personal messages. Researchers were using ARPANET to collaborate on projects, to trade notes on work, and eventually, to downright gossip and schmooze. People had their own personal user accounts on the ARPANET computers, and their own personal addresses for electronic mail. Not only were they using ARPANET for person-to-person communication, but they were very enthusiastic about this particular service -- far more enthusiastic than they were about long-distance computation.

	It wasn't long before the invention of the mailing-list, an

ARPANET broadcasting technique in which an identical message could be sent automatically to large numbers of network subscribers. Interestingly, one of the first really big mailing-lists was "SF- LOVERS," for science fiction fans. Discussing science fiction on the network was not work-related and was frowned upon by many ARPANET computer administrators, but this didn't stop it from happening.

	Throughout the '70s, ARPA's network grew.  Its decentralized

structure made expansion easy. Unlike standard corporate computer networks, the ARPA network could accommodate many different kinds of machine. As long as individual machines could speak the packet-switching lingua franca of the new, anarchic network, their brand-names, and their content, and even their ownership, were irrelevant.

	The ARPA's original standard for communication was known as

NCP, "Network Control Protocol," but as time passed and the technique advanced, NCP was superceded by a higher-level, more sophisticated standard known as TCP/IP. TCP, or "Transmission Control Protocol," converts messages into streams of packets at the source, then reassembles them back into messages at the destination. IP, or "Internet Protocol," handles the addressing, seeing to it that packets are routed across multiple nodes and even across multiple networks with multiple standards -- not only ARPA's pioneering NCP standard, but others like Ethernet, FDDI, and X.25.

	As early as 1977, TCP/IP was being used by other networks to

link to ARPANET. ARPANET itself remained fairly tightly controlled, at least until 1983, when its military segment broke off and became MILNET. But TCP/IP linked them all. And ARPANET itself, though it was growing, became a smaller and smaller neighborhood amid the vastly growing galaxy of other linked machines.

	As the '70s and '80s advanced, many very different social

groups found themselves in possession of powerful computers. It was fairly easy to link these computers to the growing network-of- networks. As the use of TCP/IP became more common, entire other networks fell into the digital embrace of the Internet, and messily adhered. Since the software called TCP/IP was public-domain, and the basic technology was decentralized and rather anarchic by its very nature, it was difficult to stop people from barging in and linking up somewhere-or-other. In point of fact, nobody *wanted* to stop them from joining this branching complex of networks, which came to be known as the "Internet."

	Connecting to the Internet cost the taxpayer little or

nothing, since each node was independent, and had to handle its own financing and its own technical requirements. The more, the merrier. Like the phone network, the computer network became steadily more valuable as it embraced larger and larger territories of people and resources.

	A fax machine is only valuable if *everybody else* has a fax

machine. Until they do, a fax machine is just a curiosity. ARPANET, too, was a curiosity for a while. Then computer-networking became an utter necessity.

	In 1984 the National Science Foundation got into the act,

through its Office of Advanced Scientific Computing. The new NSFNET set a blistering pace for technical advancement, linking newer, faster, shinier supercomputers, through thicker, faster links, upgraded and expanded, again and again, in 1986, 1988, 1990. And other government agencies leapt in: NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, each of them maintaining a digital satrapy in the Internet confederation.

	The nodes in this growing network-of-networks were divvied up

into basic varieties. Foreign computers, and a few American ones, chose to be denoted by their geographical locations. The others were grouped by the six basic Internet "domains": gov, mil, edu, com, org and net. (Graceless abbreviations such as this are a standard feature of the TCP/IP protocols.) Gov, Mil, and Edu denoted governmental, military and educational institutions, which were, of course, the pioneers, since ARPANET had begun as a high-tech research exercise in national security. Com, however, stood for "commercial" institutions, which were soon bursting into the network like rodeo bulls, surrounded by a dust-cloud of eager nonprofit "orgs." (The "net" computers served as gateways between networks.)

	ARPANET itself formally expired in 1989, a happy victim of its

own overwhelming success. Its users scarcely noticed, for ARPANET's functions not only continued but steadily improved. The use of TCP/IP standards for computer networking is now global. In 1971, a mere twenty-one years ago, there were only four nodes in the ARPANET network. Today there are tens of thousands of nodes in the Internet, scattered over forty-two countries, with more coming on-line every day. Three million, possibly four million people use this gigantic mother-of-all-computer-networks.

	The Internet is especially popular among scientists, and is

probably the most important scientific instrument of the late twentieth century. The powerful, sophisticated access that it provides to specialized data and personal communication has sped up the pace of scientific research enormously.

	The Internet's pace of growth in the early 1990s is

spectacular, almost ferocious. It is spreading faster than cellular phones, faster than fax machines. Last year the Internet was growing at a rate of twenty percent a *month.* The number of "host" machines with direct connection to TCP/IP has been doubling every year since 1988. The Internet is moving out of its original base in military and research institutions, into elementary and high schools, as well as into public libraries and the commercial sector.

	Why do people want to be "on the Internet?"  One of the main

reasons is simple freedom. The Internet is a rare example of a true, modern, functional anarchy. There is no "Internet Inc." There are no official censors, no bosses, no board of directors, no stockholders. In principle, any node can speak as a peer to any other node, as long as it obeys the rules of the TCP/IP protocols, which are strictly technical, not social or political. (There has been some struggle over commercial use of the Internet, but that situation is changing as businesses supply their own links).

	The Internet is also a bargain.  The Internet as a whole,

unlike the phone system, doesn't charge for long-distance service. And unlike most commercial computer networks, it doesn't charge for access time, either. In fact the "Internet" itself, which doesn't even officially exist as an entity, never "charges" for anything. Each group of people accessing the Internet is responsible for their own machine and their own section of line.

	The Internet's "anarchy" may seem strange or even unnatural,

but it makes a certain deep and basic sense. It's rather like the "anarchy" of the English language. Nobody rents English, and nobody owns English. As an English-speaking person, it's up to you to learn how to speak English properly and make whatever use you please of it (though the government provides certain subsidies to help you learn to read and write a bit). Otherwise, everybody just sort of pitches in, and somehow the thing evolves on its own, and somehow turns out workable. And interesting. Fascinating, even. Though a lot of people earn their living from using and exploiting and teaching English, "English" as an institution is public property, a public good. Much the same goes for the Internet. Would English be improved if the "The English Language, Inc." had a board of directors and a chief executive officer, or a President and a Congress? There'd probably be a lot fewer new words in English, and a lot fewer new ideas.

People on the Internet feel much the same way about their own institution. It's an institution that resists institutionalization. The Internet belongs to everyone and no one.

	Still, its various interest groups all have a claim.  Business

people want the Internet put on a sounder financial footing. Government people want the Internet more fully regulated. Academics want it dedicated exclusively to scholarly research. Military people want it spy-proof and secure. And so on and so on.

	All these sources of conflict remain in a stumbling balance

today, and the Internet, so far, remains in a thrivingly anarchical condition. Once upon a time, the NSFnet's high-speed, high-capacity lines were known as the "Internet Backbone," and their owners could rather lord it over the rest of the Internet; but today there are "backbones" in Canada, Japan, and Europe, and even privately owned commercial Internet backbones specially created for carrying business traffic. Today, even privately owned desktop computers can become Internet nodes. You can carry one under your arm. Soon, perhaps, on your wrist.

But what does one *do* with the Internet? Four things, basically: mail, discussion groups, long-distance computing, and file transfers.

	Internet mail is "e-mail," electronic mail, faster by several

orders of magnitude than the US Mail, which is scornfully known by Internet regulars as "snailmail." Internet mail is somewhat like fax. It's electronic text. But you don't have to pay for it (at least not directly), and it's global in scope. E-mail can also send software and certain forms of compressed digital imagery. New forms of mail are in the works.

	The discussion groups, or "newsgroups," are a world of their

own. This world of news, debate and argument is generally known as "USENET. " USENET is, in point of fact, quite different from the Internet. USENET is rather like an enormous billowing crowd of gossipy, news-hungry people, wandering in and through the Internet on their way to various private backyard barbecues. USENET is not so much a physical network as a set of social conventions. In any case, at the moment there are some 2,500 separate newsgroups on USENET, and their discussions generate about 7 million words of typed commentary every single day. Naturally there is a vast amount of talk about computers on USENET, but the variety of subjects discussed is enormous, and it's growing larger all the time. USENET also distributes various free electronic journals and publications.

	Both netnews and e-mail are very widely available, even

outside the high-speed core of the Internet itself. News and e-mail are easily available over common phone-lines, from Internet fringe- realms like BITnet, UUCP and Fidonet. The last two Internet services, long-distance computing and file transfer, require what is known as "direct Internet access" -- using TCP/IP.

	Long-distance computing was an original inspiration for

ARPANET and is still a very useful service, at least for some. Programmers can maintain accounts on distant, powerful computers, run programs there or write their own. Scientists can make use of powerful supercomputers a continent away. Libraries offer their electronic card catalogs for free search. Enormous CD-ROM catalogs are increasingly available through this service. And there are fantastic amounts of free software available.

	File transfers allow Internet users to access remote machines

and retrieve programs or text. Many Internet computers -- some two thousand of them, so far -- allow any person to access them anonymously, and to simply copy their public files, free of charge. This is no small deal, since entire books can be transferred through direct Internet access in a matter of minutes. Today, in 1992, there are over a million such public files available to anyone who asks for them (and many more millions of files are available to people with accounts). Internet file-transfers are becoming a new form of publishing, in which the reader simply electronically copies the work on demand, in any quantity he or she wants, for free. New Internet programs, such as "archie," "gopher," and "WAIS," have been developed to catalog and explore these enormous archives of material.

	The headless, anarchic, million-limbed Internet is spreading

like bread-mold. Any computer of sufficient power is a potential spore for the Internet, and today such computers sell for less than $2,000 and are in the hands of people all over the world. ARPA's network, designed to assure control of a ravaged society after a nuclear holocaust, has been superceded by its mutant child the Internet, which is thoroughly out of control, and spreading exponentially through the post-Cold War electronic global village. The spread of the Internet in the 90s resembles the spread of personal computing in the 1970s, though it is even faster and perhaps more important. More important, perhaps, because it may give those personal computers a means of cheap, easy storage and access that is truly planetary in scale.

	The future of the Internet bids fair to be bigger and

exponentially faster. Commercialization of the Internet is a very hot topic today, with every manner of wild new commercial information- service promised. The federal government, pleased with an unsought success, is also still very much in the act. NREN, the National Research and Education Network, was approved by the US Congress in fall 1991, as a five-year, $2 billion project to upgrade the Internet "backbone." NREN will be some fifty times faster than the fastest network available today, allowing the electronic transfer of the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in one hot second. Computer networks worldwide will feature 3-D animated graphics, radio and cellular phone-links to portable computers, as well as fax, voice, and high- definition television. A multimedia global circus!

	Or so it's hoped -- and planned.  The real Internet of the

future may bear very little resemblance to today's plans. Planning has never seemed to have much to do with the seething, fungal development of the Internet. After all, today's Internet bears little resemblance to those original grim plans for RAND's post- holocaust command grid. It's a fine and happy irony.

	How does one get access to the Internet?  Well -- if you don't

have a computer and a modem, get one. Your computer can act as a terminal, and you can use an ordinary telephone line to connect to an Internet-linked machine. These slower and simpler adjuncts to the Internet can provide you with the netnews discussion groups and your own e-mail address. These are services worth having -- though if you only have mail and news, you're not actually "on the Internet" proper.

	If you're on a campus, your university may have direct

"dedicated access" to high-speed Internet TCP/IP lines. Apply for an Internet account on a dedicated campus machine, and you may be able to get those hot-dog long-distance computing and file-transfer functions. Some cities, such as Cleveland, supply "freenet" community access. Businesses increasingly have Internet access, and are willing to sell it to subscribers. The standard fee is about $40 a month -- about the same as TV cable service.

	As the Nineties proceed, finding a link to the Internet will

become much cheaper and easier. Its ease of use will also improve, which is fine news, for the savage UNIX interface of TCP/IP leaves plenty of room for advancements in user-friendliness. Learning the Internet now, or at least learning about it, is wise. By the turn of the century, "network literacy," like "computer literacy" before it, will be forcing itself into the very texture of your life.


For Further Reading:

The Whole Internet Catalog & User's Guide by Ed Krol. (1992) O'Reilly and Associates, Inc. A clear, non-jargonized introduction to the intimidating business of network literacy. Many computer- documentation manuals attempt to be funny. Mr. Krol's book is

  • actually* funny.

The Matrix: Computer Networks and Conferencing Systems Worldwide. by John Quarterman. Digital Press: Bedford, MA. (1990) Massive and highly technical compendium detailing the mind-boggling scope and complexity of our newly networked planet.

The Internet Companion by Tracy LaQuey with Jeanne C. Ryer (1992) Addison Wesley. Evangelical etiquette guide to the Internet featuring anecdotal tales of life-changing Internet experiences. Foreword by Senator Al Gore.

Zen and the Art of the Internet: A Beginner's Guide by Brendan P. Kehoe (1992) Prentice Hall. Brief but useful Internet guide with plenty of good advice on useful machines to paw over for data. Mr Kehoe's guide bears the singularly wonderful distinction of being available in electronic form free of charge. I'm doing the same with all my F&SF Science articles, including, of course, this one. My own Internet address is [email protected]