A history of the Net

A review of "Where Wizards Stay Up Late" by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon provides more nuts and bolts than heart and soul.

Published August 19, 1996 9:43AM (EDT)

the Internet has always been scented with nonconformity. The people who created the network's precursors in the '60s and '70s weren't suits at AT&T or IBM but engineers at universities and small consulting firms -- the kind of young men likely to spend their spare time reading fantasy and science fiction or playing Dungeons & Dragons.

The title of "Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet" promises to map a technological revolution rooted in psychic terrain where Tolkien holds sway. Authors Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon quote a programmer who recalls that, in the Net's early days, when every host machine had a given name, "everyone wanted to be named Frodo."

"Where Wizards Stay Up Late" is in many ways an essential book: the first effort to give a general audience an account of the earliest inspired efforts to link computers to other computers across long distances, turning number-crunching behemoths into a nimble new communications medium. It's a conscientious work that will give readers some valuable perspective on a network that might have seemed to just pop out of nowhere sometime in 1994.

It's also a little disappointing. Despite their title, Hafner and Lyon largely fail to explain or even explore the fundamental irony of their story: how the Net's inventors managed to spend millions of Pentagon dollars during the most unpopular war in history to build a marvelous new digital environment where they could stay up late -- and name their computers Frodo.

"Wizards" dutifully traces the bureaucratic history of the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) -- from its origins in the post-Sputnik Cold War panic, when it looked like the U.S. was falling scientifically behind the Soviet Union, to its plan for creating a robust research community by building a network of computer science centers. But the core of the book lies in its account of how the ARPANET hardware got built and programmed by "the IMP guys" at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), the Cambridge, Mass., firm that won the contract from ARPA in 1969 to build the first network computers.

It's an interesting but not exactly captivating tale; Hafner and Lyon never figure out how to shape it. Honeywell, for instance, is supplying the engineers with the basic computer that they're going to transform into the Interface Message Processor (IMP), a kind of primitive router that was the heart of the ARPANET and sat between each mainframe and the network itself. Honeywell kept delivering buggy boxes to BBN, throwing the project into turmoil. But Hafner and Lyon never do explain why this kept happening, what was going on at Honeywell -- or what expletives the BBN guys reacted with. The little anecdotes of setback never build into a drama.

"Where Wizards Stay Up Late" falls into an unfortunate gray zone between the you-are-there immediacy of good journalism and the interpretive insights of good history. Hafner and Lyon are journalists (Hafner writes for Newsweek and was co-author, with John Markoff, of "Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier"), and their instinct is to narrate a story. But they weren't there, and for whatever reason, they don't elicit enough of the story from their sources to make "Wizards" a page-turner. It lacks the kind of atmosphere and detail that made Tracy Kidder's "The Soul of a New Machine" a computer-lit classic, years before computers had acquired the slightest tinge of hipness or hype.

Yet "Wizards" doesn't provide much interpretation of the events it records, either. Unlike, say, Steven Levy's "Hackers," it doesn't give us a peek into a particular mindset -- just occasional glimpses of an era in which engineers re-read "The Lord of the Rings" and invented adventure games while their bosses worried about how to protect their office buildings from anti-war protesters. Late in "Wizards," the authors wisely note, "The romance of the Net came not from how it was built or how it worked but from how it was used." Yet their book remains resolutely devoted to how the Net's earliest incarnation was built, and provides only the sketchiest accounts of how it was used.

It's not at all clear that the work done at Bolt Beranek and Newman was the most important foundation of today's Internet. The Net's central principle -- the switching of discrete, individually addressed packets of data over a distributed or decentralized network of hosts -- was independently arrived at by a British computer scientist named Donald Davies and an American analyst at the RAND think tank, Paul Baran. (The prologue of "Wizards" seems to debunk the idea that the Net was designed to survive a nuclear attack, but though the ARPANET itself was certainly built as a peaceful project, it's undeniable that Baran's theoretical papers set out to solve the "survivability" problem.) Later on, the TCP/IP communication protocols were conceived in the early '70s by Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, and it was these that enabled the ARPANET to connect with other fledgling networks and grow into the "network of networks" we use today. BBN's IMP machines are now decommissioned relics, but TCP/IP still underlies every Internet connection today, including the one that lets you read this review. Yet "Wizards," which devotes chapters to BBN, dispatches TCP/IP in five pages.

The Internet, which was to become a valuable tool for collaboration, was itself the product of a vast collaboration, and that tends to defeat a writer's impulse to find a single figure to hang a story on. Hafner and Lyon make the BBN team their protagonists, and that's too bad -- it leads them to neglect other equally rewarding material, like the fascinating story of AT&T's arrogant failure to grasp the importance of the nascent Net, which merits only a paragraph here and there.

The Internet is a culture at least as much as it is a technology, and its definitive history will have to embrace both identities. The only previous book-length Internet history, Peter Salus's "Casting the Net: From ARPANET to INTERNET and Beyond," is amateurish compared to "Wizards." But it includes lengthy excerpts of humorous "Request for Comment" memos -- doggerel, literary spoofs and scientific pranks -- that offer a window onto how and where playful eccentricity got coded into the Net's genes. "Where Wizards Stay Up Late" gives a rigorous account of the birth of the Net, but it fails to capture the flavor of its childhood and adolescence. It's a chronicle of men and machines -- but not the soul of a new network.

The Web site for "Where Wizards Stay Up Late" has some interesting photos, drawings and other documentation of Net history that weren't included in the book.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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