The Kinder Gap: The Underground Highway

  1. Faceless on the Net
  2. The Kinder Gap
  3. Cerebus the Gopher

The Internet is not the only international network in common use. FIDO runs Usenet-like discussion groups throughout the world, over private telephone lines. Amateur Radio operators run a related K9IP across the radio waves. The FIDO charter prohibits use of the Internet to propagate FIDO traffic--which means that should the Internet disappear, FIDO will still be here. Usenet itself isn’t part of the Internet. It takes advantage of the Internet to propagate itself, but it also gets ‘propagated’ through other networks and network protocols.

The Internet superseded something called ARPANET, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Net. ARPANET grew out of a 1964 proposal by the RAND military think tank. RAND’s original proposal was a network with no center, “designed from the beginning to operate while in tatters.” (?) That is, the net was designed to continue operating even after a nuclear war. There was no ‘central command’ to this hypothetical network, because any such central command could be destroyed. Computers on the ARPANET did not answer to a central supercomputer, or any central authority. Each computer took the responsibility for itself. If half of ARPANET were destroyed, the other half, hopefully, would continue operating.

The Internet grew out of the ARPANET, and operates on the same principle. Nobody, not even the federal government, owns the Internet, they only own individual computers ‘on’ the Internet. If the federal government were to retreat completely from the Internet tomorrow, taking all its equipment away, the Internet would continue to exist. It might be a little slower, because some of the fastest ‘links’ are owned by the government. But there are too many people on the Internet today for that to bring on the “death of the Internet.” The educational institutions, individuals, and businesses who rely on the Internet would step in to fill the void. They’d have to. How else could they get their e-mail?

The Internet is not really a “network” that can be taken down. It’s a way of hooking different networks up to each other. The Internet is far more an idea than hardware. The idea is, “why shouldn’t all these computers talk to each other?” Once that idea’s out in the open, it’s pretty hard to shut it up again.

Parts of the Internet itself is already transmitted across radio waves rather than physical lines. There is no cable going between the Internet and the space shuttle; the shuttle’s Internet connection is via radio. Radio provides a strong alternative if the need arrives to build an “underground” network. Digital broadcasting is already transmitting high quality television, and the cable industry seems to fear that digital satellite broadcasting may prove a rival to cable broadcasting. Certainly, the digital broadcasters believe themselves to be a rival: as a friend of mine at General Instruments, once the technology behind PrimeStar, said, “We are betting on broadcast technology to kick their butts.” (?)

By mid-1996, PrimeStar expects to be delivering to the public a fully interactive service that’ll allow, besides the normal satellite options, interactive games and downloadable movies.

  • On the Sega channel, children and college students will be able to play games against others on the PrimeStar network.
  • Movies can be purchased from their central database and stored in a “satellite cable box”--which might as well be your personal computer. You’ll be able to pause and rewind just like a VCR.

And radio waves don’t know any borders.

The Internet isn’t a network at all. It’s an idea. That’s it. That’s all it is. It isn’t expensive hardware, it isn’t expensive computers, and it isn’t the telephone lines. It’s a way for other networks to talk to each other. The current Internet isn’t a network of computers: it’s a network of networks. People who come off the net onto Cerebus the Gopher aren’t talking to Cerebus, the computer on my desktop. They’re talking to our Appletalk network, which Cerebus, an Apple Macintosh, is part of. Some of our IBM compatible computers are on a different network, and it, too, “speaks Internet”.

The Internet Protocol is a language for computer networks: using this language, any network can make itself part of the Internet. It’s a way for computers to talk to each other without knowing what kind of a computer or what kind of a network each partner is.

When the cable companies and the telephone companies and the digital broadcasting companies finally get around to bringing interactive services to their customers, the more aggressive ones will learn to talk Internet as well, and they will then be “part of” the net.

Neither ideas nor radio waves know borders.

This also means that the Internet is not a physical entity that can be torn down. Bringing down the net would mean convincing every individual network not to talk the lingua franca and thus isolate itself from the rest of the world. Wherever two or more computers are gathered in its name, the Internet exists. And the corollary is that this kind of gathering is so necessary that if you tear down the net it will rebuild itself in three days. If networks are hobbled with censorial edicts, underground networks will, by natural law, spring up to fill the void.

  1. Bruce Sterling, “Internet”, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1992.
  2. Virginia Walker, private e-mail March 8, 1995, by permission.
  1. Faceless on the Net
  2. The Kinder Gap
  3. Cerebus the Gopher