The History of the Information Highway

  1. Internet World
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  3. The History of the World Wide Web

“There’s something happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”--Bob Dylan

(An Infobahn Timeline)
3,000,000 BC Homo habilis develops a cooperative social life.
50,000 BC Homo sapiens starts communicating symbolically with a vengeance.
25,000-3,000 BC Our innovative ancestors discover the advantages of long-distance speaking. Music results.
3,000-1,500 BC Regularized trading develops between people who don’t have any idea where the other lives, except through the stories of the traders.
1500-1869 Postal systems such as the horse post and the Pony Express are developed. Culminates in the postcard.
September 3, 1833 The daily press is unleashed upon the world.
Eighties Everybody and their brother purchase an answering machine, and many even get a fax machine.
Eighties Twenty-four hour news stations deluge the world with infoshock.
1994 Low cost modems finally reach speeds faster than a snail’s crawl.
1995 The Internet catches the eye of politicians, cable operators, telephone companies, and small businesses.
1997 ISDN, or something like it, turns computers into answering machines.

Homo v. Australopithecus

A few million years ago or so, our Homo habilis ancestors fought it out in the African savannah with our cousins, Australopithecus robustus, and Australopithecus africanus (those are Latin words for “big vegetarian ape” and “junior- grade hominid”). Habilis developed a social life based on cooperation, a dangerous course. Habilis males and females shared meat and produce, dividing jobs by sex: child care and gathering to females, fighting and hunting to males. Habilis originated the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that was to last for millions of years, until the advent of agriculture.

Once begun, this way of life tended to reinforce itself: cooperation required brains and learning, which required more child care, which sharpened the division between male and female roles, which required more cooperation, and hence more intelligence, and so on, round and round...(Larry Gonick, of course)

The development of a lifestyle based in communication was the first step towards the development of the Internet. Man has been called “the social animal”, and it is the social aspects--the messageries in France, the CB forums on Compuserve, electronic mail and Usenet news--that are snowballing the Internet into the Information Superhighway.

Cro-Magnon v. Neanderthalis

Homo habilis gave way to Homo erectus, who, in turn, spawned Homo sapiens. It was as Homo sapiens, sometime in our Cro- Magnon period, that we really started living it up. By 30,000 years ago, we were painting on walls, burying our dead in symbolically-abundant graves, and possibly even rapping to the tune of musical instruments. This rise in the use of symbols accompanied our rapidly increasing language ability. The increased vocabulary of the Cro-Magnon allowed for more rapid and more precise communication, leading to better cooperation, and, most likely, more deadly war. Cro-Magnon man dealt with Homo neanderthalis just as H. erectus, finishing the job of habilis, had long since swept A. robustus beneath the rugs of history.

The beginning of symbolism was also the beginning of technological advancement. We began thinking about things that weren’t real, from gods to flying machines. With symbolism, we began to look for a better future, or at least a future better than our neighbors.

Archaic AT&T

The first telephone system was developed some 25,000 years ago, at least. Huge drums, high-pitched whistles, smoke signals, and yodeling were developed to talk to invisible creatures: other humans out of the line of sight and much too far for yelling. Later, church bells were to fill the same function, able to call villagers to arms or to Mass throughout the hills. Those who could talk the longest distance must have had an incredible advantage over their neighbors and their enemies, and there’s a direct line all the way from yodeling to cathedral bells to Ma Bell herself.

The Beginning of the Keyboard

Hand in hand with the rise of the first great cities, a merchant class arose to buy items in one city and sell in another. Although most trade remained in the Mediterranean, there were trade routes from the British Isles all the way to China. Those who understood how to travel the seas reliably had the biggest advantage, able to travel the furthest the fastest. Traders such as the Phoenicians created the need for “things you’ve never seen before” and spread “specialists” around the “known world”. It must also have made local craftsmen at least a little less necessary. A dress from downtown doesn’t have quite the same glow as a dress from Paris. But the same may well be true of Paris: note the success of “le blue jean” from America.

The biggest contribution of trade to society was not blue jeans, however. Trading not only allows uncouth New Yorkers to wear French dresses, it made simple writing a necessity. Before heavy ‘world’ trade, writing required a different symbol for every word. But how do you write about something your culture has never heard of? You can make something up on the spot, but no one else is going to know what you’re talking about. Someone had the great idea of using symbols to designate sounds instead of things. The traders developed alphabetic writing and reduced the number of symbols from thousands to twenty or thirty, merely one for each sound. The new system spread like wildfire, and the “known world” became hooked on phonics.

The alphabetic principle--according to which one sign represents one sound--had been invented in Canaan during the second millennium, probably as a response to the merchants’ need for a system of recording that was simpler and easier to learn than that provided by the cumbersome hieroglyphic or cuneiform signs of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Various ‘alphabets’ were devised, but the most successful was that adopted by the Phoenicians towards the end of the second millennium and best known from the inscription on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos. The Aramaeans adopted this script, and within a few centuries it became the standard form of writing throughout the Assyrian, and later the Persian, empire. In similar fashion, the Phoenician script was transmitted to the west, although with greater modification, and became the vehicle of writing for, in turn, the Greeks, the Etruscans and the Romans. Between them, the Phoenician and Aramaic scripts are the progenitors of every alphabet in use today throughout the world.(Cambridge Encyclopedia of Archaeology)

Millennia later, the simplicity of the alphabet made typewriters and electronic keyboards possible. Without them, we would have had no way to develop ‘personal’ computers until the advent of speech and handwriting recognition. Keyboards are still the main way of letting computers know what you want, and even if you can only ‘hunt and peck’, you can still get the job done. The concept of ‘hunting and pecking’ on a keyboard that has from 100 cuneiforms to thousands of hieroglyphs is more than daunting, it is impossible to imagine. Computers would still be in the hands of white-coated gods if not for the 26 character alphabet. And this all assumes that the common person would want to write using a computer; before the simple alphabet, writing itself was a skill confined to either an elite few or special scribes.(c.f. Gonick) Without a form of writing in common use, there would be no way to transmit words and sentences from person to person across computer networks until the advent of speech synthesis (talking computers), and presumably not until speech recognition became common, and speech recognition by computers is still very unreliable.

The alphabet colors the very way we think and work. We look up word meanings according to their alphabetic order in our dictionaries. We make up completely new words by using parts of other words, and those parts are letters. Facsimile to Fax. Network Citizen to Netizen. Any acronym. We dial 1-900-LOVE-BIT on our telephones, converting letters to numbers. Computers can only think in terms of numbers, and an alphabet can be easily reduced to numbers: A=1, B=2, etc.(The true story) Computers can thus store words in their memory as a sequence of numbers and easily retrieve them later on according to their numerical order. When you ask your computer to give you the phone number for Wilde, Oscar, it looks up the ‘W’s, then the ‘Wi’s, and so on, until only one name is in its ‘list’ of names. One of the most common ways that computers find word information is the ‘binary search’, in which the computer keeps chopping the number of possible answers in half. Looking up Wilde, Oscar, the computer takes the lowest entry in the list (1 or 0, depending on the computer’s operating system) and the highest number in the list: the number of items in the list. As a computer, we then:

  1. Add the high number to the low number and divide by two. This gives a number halfway between the high and low possibility. The first time through, this number is halfway through the list.
  2. Take the new ‘halfway’ number and look at the name that is at that point in the list.
    • If the ‘halfway’ name is higher numerically than the name we’re looking for, we reset the high number to the current ‘halfway’ number.
    • If the ‘halfway’ name is lower numerically than the name we’re looking for, we reset the low number to the current ‘halfway’ number.
    • If the ‘halfway’ name is the name we’re looking for, then we’re done. Tell the user the telephone number and byte on a bag of computer chips for a few thousand cycles until the user asks us another stupid question.
  3. If the high number and the low number are the same (convergence), the name doesn’t exist in our list. Tell the user he’s a stupid fuck for even asking. Otherwise, go back to step 1 and start over, this time using the new value for high or low number.

The alphabet made word processing and data processing possible even on the low-powered, primitive computer systems of the seventies.

Dear Jackson...

Reliable mail delivery--even if it took days or weeks--allowed ‘pen pals’ to develop between politicians, scientists, and artists who admired each other’s works (delivered by the local equivalent of the Phoenicians) but who had never met. Symbolic discussion could now take place over an entire lifetime, regardless of distance, resulting in the growth of science, arts, and philosophy. Central governments found it much easier to exert control over the span of their empires. It was a rocky road from the Pony Express to the U.S. Postal Service, with strange results. Reliable communication--or the lack thereof--can change history. On January 8, 1815, American General Andrew Jackson led his troops against a numerically superior British force and decimated them. The American forces lost seventy men, while the British lost over two thousand. Andrew Jackson became a hero, and eventually President of the United States. But with a better postal service, this might never have happened: neither Jackson nor the British force in New Orleans knew that the war was over. The Treaty of Ghent had been signed a full two weeks previously between the United States and the United Kingdom.

The Pauper Press

Fifteen years later, and Jackson would have read the news in the morning paper. The New York Sun created the tradition of “breakfast and a newspaper” out of whole cloth, providing a cheap source of news. It was labeled “the pauper press” by detractors in Europe, but the “pauper press” brought Gutenberg’s invention straight to the masses. Previous to the Sun, newspapers cost a whole six cents, when the average daily wage was only seventy-five cents. The largest daily newspaper in New York had a mere 4,500 subscribers out of a population of 218,000. The Sun sold for a penny, and within four months was the biggest selling daily in the Big Apple. Two years later it reached 20,000 daily issues, and by the 1870s, politicians had to take into account their public’s opinion. Suddenly, the public knew what was going on everywhere in the world, or at least, everywhere in the world that mattered. They knew at least as much as their representatives, and they let their representatives know this in no uncertain terms. Writing about the pauper press and its dangers, Sören Kierkegaard, philosopher and theologian to the stars, said:

“The daily press is the evil principle of the modern world, and time will only serve to disclose this fact with greater and greater clearness. The capacity of the newspaper for degeneration is sophistically without limit, since it can always sink lower and lower in its choice of readers. At last it will stir up all those dregs of humanity which no state or government can control.”(Kierkegaard, who’s dead now)

The evil principle of the modern world was later augmented by radio and television. Until that time, however, it made the ability to read suddenly far more important for the average person. Reading became a useful skill for anyone with a penny to spare.

Automated Telephones

The true evil principle of the modern world is the answering machine, and for politicians the fax machine comes a close second. The answering machine is one of those things, like the computer, that you hate until you get one. Then you can’t live without it. Answering machines are personal messaging centers. They make possible things like “Hey, we’re going to a movie tonight. Give me a call as soon as you get in.” Most answering machines can now be controlled from any touch-tone telephone, allowing family members to leave messages for each other, or allowing individuals to retrieve messages that have accumulated. The answering machine put us all in touch with the immediacy of modern electronic communication. If you call someone who has an answering machine, you know they’re going to get that message as soon as any other way you might try to reach them. And if you have an answering machine, you’ll know that important calls get through. Some people are now so comfortable with answering machines that entire conversations are spread out over time, left on each other’s machines.

The fax machine is a temporary device that gives us a glimpse of how much we need instant data transfer. Instant pictures and diagrams, things which used to require the postal service, can now be done over telephones. The fax sends blueprints, contracts, pictures of your grandchildren, to anyone else on AT&T’s telephone network, if they also have a fax machine. And the services of the fax are already being taken over by personal computers, which transfer better quality, and can work with the image if necessary, making changes that only a computer can make. The fax and the answering machine are telling us, loudly and brashly, that we need instant electronic communication. We need it better and faster, and, damn, we need computers to handle it all.

Drive-Through Fast News

Cable News Network--CNN--is doing the same thing for us on a collective basis that the answering machine does on a personal basis. It gives us twenty-four hour access to news around the world, and it has spawned numerous imitations, as well as stations that specialize in specific types of news. CNN does for our televisions half of what the answering machine does for our telephone: makes it respond instantaneously to what we need to know from the outside world. It gives us everything we want as it happens. It does not provide us with a means to talk back to the news. Yet. But it is a step towards an infobahn that will.

Computers Calling Computers

Modems are devices that allow computers to talk to each other over telephone lines. They make possible computer networks that span cities, states, and countries. Two years ago, the best the average person could get was a ‘2400 bps’ modem. ‘BPS’ is the speed at which the computers transfer data. The earliest reasonable speed was 300 bps, where ‘reasonable’ is defined as a ridiculously low speed that only computer geeks could tolerate, because they didn’t have anything more important to do with their time. The first modems which were useful for normal people, to send simple electronic mail messages, were 1200 bps, which is still slow as shit. Twenty-four hundred baud is twice that, but twice as fast as shit is still pretty damn slow. By late 1993, 14,400 bps modems could be found for $150, still a lot of money, but it dropped below a c-note in 1994, and by the end of that year, 28,800 bps modems were $150. Twelve times as fast as slow as shit is pretty damn reasonable, and twice pretty damn reasonable is finally something fast enough for the kids to use. A ‘14.4’ modem is just fast enough to transfer the larger pictures and sounds that are making their way into the net. Of course, speeds that fast require nearly perfect telephone lines. University of San Diego lines are strained at 14.4, and they’d probably explode spectacularly if we tried to install modems capable of 28.8. When it becomes necessary, however, I’m sure the phone company will be happy to take our money and install better lines. And it will be necessary, before the year is out, unless we stop providing infobahn service entirely.

The Information Superpolitical Hot Potato

The information superhighway entered the political vocabulary in a big way in 1993 and 1994, but that’s only because Al Gore is a bit of a wonk. He’s only vice president, so we probably won’t see much of him now. The Internet became known as the “information highway” and was big news as soon as businesses and reporters realized it had millions of ‘members’. That’s millions of potential customers and potential voters. In 1994, every commercial bulletin board and network made sure they had some kind of connection to the Internet. Cable companies began to hook their customers--in special ‘testbeds’, usually the better part of town--into two-way networks, including direct connections to the highway. The rush to provide infobahn access in ninety-five will make the gold rush of forty-nine look like a waltz. This may well be the Internet’s undoing--it really doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle that kind of weight. But there is hope: as the new providers come onto the net, they become the infrastructure, and their higher-tech lines might take up the slack from the low-tech lines that exist today. It’ll be a long time before any other computer network approaches the global reach and the gaggle of free services that the Internet has, and if it can survive the coming trial by fire, it’ll emerge forged crystal clear. Clear as the fiber-optic cable that the telephone company will gladly install... for a reasonable fee, of course.

Answering Machines that Talk Back

Answering machines are pretty hot stuff, but wait’ll your answering machine starts talking back to your callers: that’s what your computer can do when it takes over your telephone. But for that to happen, you need better telephone lines. The neat part is, you already have those better telephone lines. All you need to do is pay Ma Bell for the privilege of using them.

If you’ve ever dealt with your telephone wiring, you may have noticed that there are four wires, but only two of them are used by your telephone. The Apple Macintosh was supposed to take advantage of this, and the capability is still left in all Macintoshes, but it’s mostly a vestigial organ, as far as home use is concerned. The idea was that families would buy more than one Macintosh and, rather than copy files back and forth by floppy disk, Mom and Dad and Bobby and Suzy would plug their Macs into the house telephone line, specify a particular folder as “shared”, and could collaborate on documents within the shared folder: as far as each Macintosh is concerned, the other Macintoshes are just another hard drive. It’s quite impressive, really, and it’s too bad Apple didn’t capitalize on it (Strange, isn’t it?). Computer geeks like me use it, however. Negative Space is hooked up to our telephone line, and Thor can use his Macintosh downstairs to edit his web pages on Negative Space.

But AT&T didn’t put those extra two lines in so that Apple could help computer geeks like me. They had a reason, and that reason was ISDN. ISDN is a different kind of telephone service. It can carry more information--four times as much. Whereas current telephone lines max out at about three kilobytes per second (if you wanted to download this book at that speed, it would take you about five minutes, never mind the Mona Lisa), a cheap ISDN line can handle six kilobytes per second, bringing the book down to less than three minutes, and bringing the Mona Lisa within reach. And the top ISDN line, using all the capability of those extra wires, can easily do ten kilobytes per second. This book is down to a minute and a half, and you’ll be able to get the Mona Lisa with no trouble at all.

Which is cool, but it isn’t the real beauty of ISDN. The real bottleneck of current telephone systems is the dialing. It takes a long time to dial a telephone and pick it up! It’s an especially long time for computers, who deal in thousandths of seconds. ISDN dialing is practically instantaneous.

In order to put Negative Space up to the world on a normal telephone line, I’ve got to have a full-time, dedicated connection. That costs me about $300 per month. Chances are, you’re not going to switch to a computerized, web-answering service if it costs you that much. ISDN allows the Internet to dial you in a fraction of a second: let’s say I have ISDN rather than normal telephone access to CTS. Someone tries to access my site, and CTS dials my computer and hands the connection over to me. And the reader doesn’t see any delay.

ISDN gives the benefits of a 24-hour dedicated connection, but you only get charged for the hours you use! The website answering machine is just around the corner. Pour me another cup of coffee, slice me another piece of pie.

There’s something happening here...

Why is a history important? History is important because it tells us what happened tomorrow. Picture yourself living a subsistence life as an Australopith. You put in your four hours every day gathering food for yourself, and then you settle yourself down and loaf. Across the savannah, you occasionally see male and female Homo exchanging food. Why? Ignore it. It doesn’t affect you.

Picture yourself living a laid-back neanderthalis life on a plain in Spain. Your son-in-law is a nice enough guy, but he sure does look weird. And he talks up a storm, moving from today to tomorrow to yesterday and back to tomorrow again every other minute. All his friends are the same. You find it hard to follow their conversations, so you mostly hang out with your own neanderthalis friends. Are you missing out on anything? Is it anything important?

You’re a potter in a small Mediterranean city, but the last few years you’ve barely managed to barter enough food for your family. The value of your cookery has fallen considerably ever since those damn Phoenicians started bringing in pottery from Egypt, Spain, and Arabia. What in the world can you do? You’ve always been a potter. Your father was a potter. You’ve trained your sons as potters. Why can’t those Phoenicians just leave Arabian pottery in Arabia and let you sell your stuff to your friends? Or is there something you’re missing? If you’re lucky, one of your sons will figure it out. You’re too busy making pottery that no one is buying.

You’re the mayor of a small town in Britain, fifty miles from London. You thought you’d have things a whole lot easier--your nearest rival expended a lot of political capital to get something called the “post” set up in his town instead of yours. You didn’t see the point, it’s just a couple of carriages every few days, the carriage-drivers aren’t going to spend that much money. But it’s almost as if he’s had the ear of all England since then. And all of your merchants do practically all of their business in his village. Maybe this “mail” thing was a little more important than you thought?

You’ve been a politician all your life, and you’ll be damned if you’ll let the rabble’s opinion rule your life. In fact, you said so publicly just yesterday. This morning, the headline spread across the front page was “Public Opinion be Damned”, and none of your friends in the House think you’ve got a hope in hell of winning the next election. They’re avoiding you like the plague, as if bad public opinion were catching.

You’re Mr. Jones, the patriarch of a family of Minnesota farmers in 1885. You’ve been trying to sell your wheat to Amalgamated Bread and Crackers all year, but they never answer your letters. Now it turns out Mr. Smith has a deal already made and signed. You know him. You’ve seen him occasionally when you go to post your mail. He’s usually wasting his time on Alexander Graham Bell’s contraption. Perhaps there’s a connection?

Nobody likes talking to an answering machine, they’re so impersonal. Everyone who gets one is a snob. That’s what your parents say, and maybe they’re right. But you just found out from a friend of a friend of a friend that dreamy Johnny B. Kinde tried to call you up before he called dorky Sarah Smith, but you and your family were out at a movie. Sarah’s family was out too, but she called him back: he’d left his phone number and an imitation of the pop group Air Supply on their answering machine.

It’s 1989, and you’re the president of a major superpower. Half the reports you get back from your spy organization, the company, are breaking over CNN before you even get a chance to read the damn things. The company is a royal pain in the butt and siphons hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars, out of the national budget. CNN, however, comes free with cable.

There’s something happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

  1. I made most of this stuff up. Please don’t use it in your thesis. Other sources include Alvin Toffler’s PowerShift, Andrew Sheratt’s The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Archaelogy, Bernard Grun’s The Timetables of History, and Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great.
  2. Larry Gonick, “Sticks and Stones”, The Cartoon History of the Universe, p. 58. For a more traditional source (why am I telling you this? Read more comics, for Christ’s sake!), see The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Archaeology, p. 70.
  3. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Archaeology, p. 199.
  4. Or, to quote Larry Gonick, from The Cartoon Guide to the Computer, after the alphabet, “any idiot could learn to read, whereas previously, only an idiot with leisure could learn.”
  5. Actually, A=65, B=66, a=97, b=98. This is called ASCII, or American Standard Code for Information Interchange. Other codes exist, such as IBM’s EBCDIC (Extended Binary-Coded Decimal Interchange Code), but ASCII won out for normal use because it’s easier to pronounce, both as an acronym and a phrase.
  6. If they’ve converged onto each other, that is.
  7. Sören Kierkegaard, The Last Years: Journals 1853-55
  8. It’s really kind of strange that they didn’t. If you’ve got an old Macintosh Classic, and you’re looking to upgrade to a new computer, your current choices are Macintosh or Windows. But if people knew that one of their options was to keep the old Mac down in the family room, plug it into the telephone, and it would have access to all the software and files on the new Mac, the choice of upgrade would be a lot simpler, because this just ain’t something that Windows does.
  1. Internet World
  2. Can’t get there
  3. The History of the World Wide Web