How the world went on-line;Book of the week

8th October 1999 at 01:00
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE FUTURE: the Origins of the Internet. By John Naughton. Weidenfeld and Nicolson pound;18.99.

The Internet was a child of the Cold War. Sean Coughlan discovers how the arms race led all the way to the global classroom.

It's difficult to pick up a paper or watch the television without finding some mention of the Internet, often with extravagant predictions that it is going to revolutionise everything from banking to shopping to how we read daily newspapers. As the century stutters to a close, the Internet has become the touchstone of modernity, and "getting on-line" is seen as proof of an interest in the future.

Such a contemporary technology might seem too young to have a history. But John Naughton's exhaustive search for the birth of the Internet shows that the concept has been around for longer than many of us on-line arrivistes might have guessed. Even though the explosion of interest in the Internet has been a phenomenon of the late Nineties, John Naughton records how the technology had been developed much earlier, mostly by researchers working on university projects funded by the United States military. An early form of the Internet had been developed by 1969, followed a year later by e-mail, with the use of the @ symbol in addresses not long behind.

A child of the Cold War, the Internet grew from the high-speed collision between some of the best scientific minds in the US and vast sums of money from the defence budget.

The book charts a number of earlier scientific stepping stones, but the starting point for the Internet is located in the panic that followed the Soviet Union's launch of its Sputnik satellite in 1957. Determined to recapture the technological advantage, the US created two agencies with almost limitless budgets. NASA was set up to win the space race, while the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) took on cutting-edge projects for the Pentagon.

With a start-up kitty of half a billion dollars, ARPA funded scientific research in areas that could be useful to the military - including developing powerful computers and finding ways in which they could communicate. And it was the linking of a number of room-size early computers that created "the Arpanet", the grand-daddy of the Internet as we know it.

Such a widely distributed, non-centralised communications system had attractions for the military, particularly in the context of a possible nuclear war. There had been fears that the US's missile control system could be paralysed by a well-targeted nuclear strike, but the dispersed, Internet-style method of communicating would be much harder to disrupt.

Naughton's accessible history lesson follows the Internet's path from the development of this first computer network through to the global noticeboard that it has now become. In the Seventies, the technology improved but the Internet remained the domain of academics and a few back-bedroom hobbyists. Then in the late Eighties and early Nineties, the growth in ownership of personal computers and the development of the more user-friendly World Wide Web began to bring the possibilities of the Internet to a wider public.

Although this book is a readable and detailed history of the growth of the on-line medium, it only comes to life when the author begins to speculate upon why the Internet should now hold so many people's attention (the descriptions of how the various programming languages developed isn't the easiest of material, even when enlivened with a few anecdotes).

The key to the Internet's success, he proposes, is in its ability to connect with our restless need to communicate, our desire to speak in some form to as many people as possible. Recollecting his youth, Naughton says the Internet gives him the same sense of wonder that he once felt listening to distant voices on the wireless.

And there is an undeniable fascination in feeling that you can navigate the world from your desk. While writing this review, an e-mail has appeared on the screen of my computer sent from a friend in Peru, and I've dipped into the library of a university in the US. This kind of connectivity has never been available before.

Naughton's concise account of the Internet's evolution puts much of the present cyber-hype into its historical context. And there is a certain swords-into-ploughshares irony in the fact that the Internet - a by-product of a Cold War command-and-control exercise - should now be hailed as the technology which will take education into the future.

But Naughton's approach isn't to speculate, but to take a close-up look at how the Internet was developed and the men (and they were almost all men) whose years of unglamorous research made it possible.

"Asking whether the Net is a good or a bad thing is a waste of time. People once asked the same rhetorical question about electricity and the telephone. A much more interesting question is this: 'What is the Net?'," says the author.

Even though there might have been greater discussion of how much the character of the Internet is still shaped by its early years - produced by male computer experts funded by the Pentagon - A Brief History of the Future is a comprehensive chronicle of how it all began.

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