21st Log: Brief reports and tidbits from the info-sphere.

"Nerds 2.0.1": PBS's all-too-brief history of the Internet; Linus Torvalds, geek magnet.

By Andrew Leonard
Published November 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

"Nerds 2.0.1": PBS's all-too-brief history of the Internet

Perhaps the oddest note in "Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet" is host Bob Cringely's obsession with the word "billion." It's as if Carl Sagan had come back from the grave -- every time Cringely utters the word, as in "3Com is now a 60 billion dollar company," or "the six graduate students from Stanford were now worth a billion dollars," he punches out the syllables with a special, loving emphasis, as if the number connoted everything that counts about the extraordinary rise of the Internet. Sure, e-mail is great and the Web is really cool, but it's really all those billions of dollars that make this phenomenon worth attending to.

Funny, though, how the most interesting section of this three-hour documentary focuses on the people who actually built the Internet -- the academic research scientists, DARPA government officials and BBN engineers who invented packet switching, TCP-IP and e-mail itself. These are people who never did and never will see a billion dollars, whose only experience of a breathtaking Internet IPO is to read about one in the newspaper. And yet, as they reminisce lovingly about the nuts-and-bolts work of actually bringing something new into creation, they acquaint us much more intimately with the reality of the Internet than do copious interview clips with the likes of Bill Gates and other billionaire software moguls. They made possible the network that is interlacing the whole world. Who cares if that's an opportunity to make money or not? The fact is, they did it, they know it and it's really neat to hear them talk about it.

This is not to say that the entirety of "Nerds 2.0.1" isn't worth watching. Just as was true of its predecessor, "Triumph of the Nerds," the well-received documentary about the rise of the personal computer, "Nerds 2.0.1" is slick, entertaining and fast-moving. Cringely injects a constant stream of lighthearted zaniness throughout the narrative, tooling around in his trademark sports car, cracking bad jokes and in general hamming it up -- he is as much a character in this documentary as any of his interview subjects.

Some viewers might find Cringely's cutesiness cloying, and there are moments when he falls flat -- his rendition of "Scarborough Fair" is embarrassing and pointless. The sequence in which Cringely alternates playing a game of Ultimate Frisbee with interviewing venture capitalist star John Doerr is also a little off-putting. But Cringely balances those moments with lucid explanations of the intricacies of the Internet's structure, in clear and compelling language. For newcomers to the Net, "Nerds 2.0.1" will be instructive and enlightening.

Perhaps the only significant structural problem with "Nerds 2.0.1" is the decision to make the search-engine company Excite one of the main narrative elements. On the surface, the story of the six Stanford undergrads who started in a garage and ended up with a stock market value of billions of dollars is a compelling rags-to-riches Internet story. But Excite is actually one of the worst examples to use to explain the Internet.

Excite has succeeded despite its failure to carve out a successful niche. It's never been able to dent the market share of a company like Yahoo (now there's a story worth focusing on) by providing services that Web users really want. Instead, Excite has grown by purchasing competitors such as Magellan and WebCrawler, and by spending millions of venture-capital dollars on marketing. Its billion-dollar valuation is much more a symbol of everything that is wrong with Silicon Valley capitalism than it is a representation of what is right about the Internet.

Still, the Excite misstep isn't a big enough mistake to undermine the overall value of "Nerds 2.0.1." Cringely's sports-car ride through the online world is both fast and fun -- and leaves the viewer wanting more.
-- Andrew Leonard
SALON | Nov. 24, 1998

"Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet"
Wednesday, 8 p.m. (check local listings), PBS
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Linus Torvalds, geek magnet

The Stanford Faculty Club was standing room only last Thursday night, a fact that should have surprised no one -- Linus Torvalds was in the house. Torvalds, the creator of Linux, has become Silicon Valley's geek magnet supreme. As soon as he entered the Faculty Club, with his wife and two darling babies in tow, a crowd of rapt attendees huddled around him, leaning ever closer -- as if mere proximity to the man would allow some Linux magic to rub off on them.

The event was billed as an "Open Source in Business" forum, and it featured representatives from Oracle, Sendmail, VA Research, Cygnus Software and even a token venture capitalist. But there was no question who the crowd came to see -- indeed, the audience grew increasingly restive as the moderator proceeded to address questions to all the panel members except Torvalds. At one point, when the question at hand was "What is your business model for open source?" Torvalds actually had to grab the microphone and interrupt.

"I too have a business model," said Torvalds. "After this meeting I'm going to pass around my hat."

Uproarious laughter greeted Torvalds' statement. In fact, either applause or laughter followed nearly every single one of his utterances. Torvalds enjoys such exalted status now in the high-tech community -- he's treated as a combination Zen master/rock star/guru programmer -- that no matter how bad his jokes were, the audience was guaranteed to go into hysterics.

No one would ever pick Torvalds' picture out of a crowd and say, aha, here's the next cult leader destined to rock the digital world to its foundation. In person, Torvalds is the definition of unassuming. Average height, with muted, soft, Scandinavian facial features, wearing a denim shirt and a warm, ready smile, Torvalds looks like an ordinary guy -- albeit one who spends a lot of time seated in front of a computer monitor.

But he is not being treated in an ordinary manner. And the leak of the Microsoft Halloween memo three weeks ago -- which has done more to ensure Linux's high profile than any other single event -- sure hasn't hurt. Throughout the evening, the audience bestowed polite, interested attention to the other panel members. But one sensed that such details as exactly how much revenue can be generated by selling support for open-source products as opposed to selling the products themselves was completely beside the point.

People came to the Faculty Club to hiss every mention of Windows NT and shower adoration on Torvalds. As the holy war heats up between open source and Microsoft, they came to demonstrate their earnest faith.
-- Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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