Monday, October 22, 2018

It is always useful to go back and read the contemporary accounts.

One of the nails I've pounded flush to the board recently (apologies to long-suffering regular readers) is that much of the standard 21st-century narrative of technology consists of things that were at best sometimes true in the past and are almost entirely false now. The best example is probably the idea that the advances of old invariably came as a thief in the night with almost no one imagining the magnitude of their impact and what now seem obvious applications going undiscovered for years.

There are, of course, technological developments that caught people off guard or that moved in unexpected directions, but in most cases, if you go back and read early speculations about the potential of breakthrough technologies in the late 19th/early 20th centuries or the postwar era, you'll generally find that people had a pretty good sense of what was likely to come.

The same can be said for the dawn of the personal computing era



  1. This is indeed interesting for what it does and doesn't include. At the end it references the Dynabook (Alan Kay's thesis, when this was written he was a Xerox PARC). I agree that by the time PARC was building Altos, the future of personal computing was clearly visible.

    However... There's no mention of the internet. My metaphor is that having personal computing without the internet is like having a gasoline powered vehicle that you can only drive on your own property. Adding the internet is like adding a world-wide road system on which you can drive that vehicle -- except at the speed of light.

    I have not been able to find any true prefigurement of the public internet in science fiction or other forms, except for a RAND memo by Paul Baran (one of those who helped it take form).

    I'm pretty sure high speed global networking is a discontinuous innovation, in the sense that even those who were directly involved all along (such as me) couldn't imagine what was going to happen until it actually poked its nose under the tent.

    1. I started using the internet back in 1973, and we all knew what we were building. It was how we were all going to communicate and collaborate in the future. I remember visiting sites around the world back when the internet had only 256 possible addresses. There was email, file sharing and instant messaging. I was involved in a remote sketching project, but the graphics of the day were too primitive for it to be useful.

      The network was social. You could find your friends and see what people were up to using finger and "plan" files. Some friends of mine set up a protocol called FOODP which found other people who wanted to go out to dinner with you. There were distributed bulletin boards and mailing lists.

      We understood the security issues. Richard Stallman may have believed in the goodness of man, that no one would hack anyone else's system because what kind of jerk would do that, but the rest of us realized that strong security would be necessary. We followed work in cryptography closely. We came up with lots of interesting solutions for running untrustworthy software safely. Modern browsers have even started incorporating some of those ideas recently. (Yeah, it sometimes takes 40 years for people to do the obvious.)

      The internet was a next logical step after the packet switching networks of the 1960s which were descended from the hard wired teletype systems before then. The cool now-a-go-go thing to have in the 1950s and 1960s was a Telex (TWX) address. Buckminster Fuller was BUCKY. It was on his business card. People could converse with you by teletype.

      Packet switching came in the latter part of the decade. There were two big outfits, Tymenet and Telenet - I may have the spellings wrong - that provided packet switching access from your teletype or terminal to other teletypes or terminals or computers around the world. It was wretchedly clunky by modern standards, but a lot of companies used it along with the mail-like systems it enabled.

      The internet was the next natural step, a more advanced, faster, decentralized, heterogeneous, lower cost network. The applications, mail, instant messaging, file sharing, social networking, were already available on time sharing systems where multiple people logged into the same mainframe system. There were multi-user games, some with hundreds of users on some large time sharing systems.

      Networking just expanded the world a bit by enabling existing services to span multiple systems with different architectures.

      There were two factors the prevented a wider roll out. One was the PC revolution that restructured corporate computing and nearly killed system development for decades. It was only the US government funding things like BSD and its TCP stack that kept the internet alive. The other was corporate resistance since corporations wanted walled gardens, so the internet was limited to government organizations and contractors for decades. When it rolled out in the 90s - thank you Al Gore - it was surprisingly mature for a reason.

  2. This would have come out in 1979 or so. It was an interesting time with Xerox PARC, SRI and even the early microcomputer companies like Apple selling personal machines.

    The internet had been running email since 1971. In 1980 or 1981 the US Post Office actually set up a hybrid email system. You could log in by phone with numbers in most major cities to send or receive mail. If you sent mail to someone who didn't have an electronic mailbox, they would print out the letter as close to the destination as practical and send it as a letter from there. I remember using it and being pretty impressed. I sent a letter to my parents, but they didn't understand what was happening. It was just a letter. (There were options for corporate logos, artwork and mailing lists. The USPS did a pretty good job.)

    Private competitors including MCI got it shut down arguing that the private sector could do it better. That delayed the general use of email by the public for maybe 20 years. Go private sector.