Happy Birthday Tubes You

The internet turned 40 this week. Astrologically speaking, having been born on October 29, it is a Scorpio, which helps explain the intensity and nastiness it brings out in people.

ted's tubesThe first internet message was sent between the University of California in Los Angeles, and the Stanford Research Institute, some 400 miles to the north. Actually, it is more precise to say “the first attempted message sent,” as the internet crashed some two letters into that first message. Which means Bill Gates must have been involved in the thing, even way back then.

The message was supposed to read “login,” but the web surfer was only able to type “lo” before the system went down.

“Lo” is actually a good first word to go out. It sort of has a “let there be light” feel to it. In fact, my Oxford English Dictionary tells me that “lo” was once an abbreviation for “Lord.”


The internet began as a Defense Department brainshower, designed to enable military communication in a world incinerated by nuclear warfare. Presuming that on a planet consumed in nuclear fire, communications links might be severed here and there, war wizards developed DARPANET, which could intelligently route around damage.

DARPANET eschewed circuit switching, which limited communication to a single party at the other end of the circuit, in favor of packet switching.

In a packet-switched connection, a message from one computer is broken down into chunks, or packets, of data and sent through multiple routes to another computer.

Once all the packets arrive at their destination, they are pasted back together into the original message.

“It’s as if a long letter were written on a series of small postcards, and each postcard was mailed separately,” [UCLA computer engineer Leonard] Kleinrock said.

Thus, in a newly nuclear-crisped world, if General Bloor, under what used to be Colorado Springs, needs to order Captain Heem, in a silo under what used to be Nebraska, to let loose the rest of his nukes, Bloor can let fly the message through what ex-Senator Ted Stevens immortally termed “a series of tubes.” In a world on fire, some tubes will be blocked, but others will remain open; DARPANET sniffs out the open tubes, artfully routes the packets, and Heem ultimately receives the reassembled message.

catz ownz tubezThe internet, via the civilian application ARPANET, is DARPANET’s child, and it works in the same way. It is the first attempted message sent between two ARPANET-enabled machines that is celebrated as the internet’s birthday.

In every apple, there is a maggot, and so, 40-some years on, we have today, dementedly fouling up the intertubes, that misinformation vortex known as Wikipedia—a veritable snakes’ nest of knuckledraggers, smoothbrains, deniers, and cranks, which at present lies that the nukeheads did not give birth to the intertubes.

Earlier this month, Finland became the first country to declare broadband access to the lies, inanities, and balderdash of Wikipedia a “legal right” for all of its 5.2 million citizens. This is because, pace Wikipedia, there is useful information out there on the tubes, and an increasing number of people have come to rely on it.

“I don’t think it’s quite on the level of food and water yet, but it’s pretty close,” said Jeffrey Cole, director of the Annenberg School for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California.

The current tussle over “net neutrality” involves the efforts of Rich and Wrong people to clog the tubes with Sites They Like. The intertubes are at present an anarchic medium: internet service providers are required to provide equal access to each and every site. The Rich and the Wrong would like to change that. The tubes of their dreams is one in which Drudge would load instantly, while sites like this one would crawl onscreen slow as molasses. More than a billion people access the internet each month, and the Rich and the Wrong would like very much if the technology itself would guide people only to those sites that would help them to remain rich and wrong.

The future of the intertubes appears to be mobile. While one billion people use Apple computers, and those other things, some four billion people on this earth own mobile phones.

“When we started in 1999, it was already clear that the Internet was going to transform communications,” Cole said.

“What we could never have imagined is that it would transform virtually every element of business and social activity.”

Cole predicts that in the future, more people will access the Internet through mobile devices such as the iPhone than via personal computers and laptops.

“We think the Internet is moving completely toward mobile.”

I’ve been looking for an excuse to post the murder of HAL, the maltreated computer in 2001: a Space Odyssey. I guess this is as good an excuse as any. HAL’s unheeded advice to Dave—”take a stress pill”—remains an excellent suggestion for anyone seeking to venture into the tubes.


3 Responses to “Happy Birthday Tubes You”

  1. 1 Jean November 6, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    Fantastic movie, but sad in the end. I would be lost without the internet.I enjoyed this piece. I wondered when the internet started. You brought the information direct to me thru the internet.

  2. 2 smelf November 12, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    Never noticed before how many adverbs Hal used when he was operational–an irritating amount. Then he clings at the end to simple subject-verb-object.

    Will Dave rescue us when we’ve all retreated to our corners, clutching our mobile units to our chests? Or maybe we’ll be scratching the places in our heads where they’ve been implanted.

    I can feel it, Dave.

    Without the Internet, I couldn’t make a living. But I could read more books, as I slowly expired, like Hal, remembering old nursery rhymes and tunes.

  3. 3 Julia Rain (the daughter) September 3, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    I still don’t get the appeal of doing everything on a screen the size of your hand. But clearly I’m just old and out of touch.

    This evil proposal by Google and Verizon to end net neutrality would, according to Countdown, only apply to mobile devices, so people like you and I would be fine. For now.

    I quite enjoyed learning the history of the internet, and the LOLcat was a nice touch. I’d seen that one before and always liked it. I try to avoid that site now, though. I tend to spend all day there.

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