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F&SF Science Column #5


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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"

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 bruces@well.sf.ca.us.

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