Where Wizards Stay Up Late
The Origins of the Internet
Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, 1996
With more than a passing similarity to the omnipresent and omniscient gods of old, it's hardly surprising that the Internet (and its Old Testament precursor, the ARPANET) comes replete with its fair share of contradictory creation myths. By far the most famous of these, certainly the one I'd been told my entire life until picking up Wizards, is the tale that the ARPANET was created to provide redundant, decentralised communications for the US military in the event of a nuclear war. It was interesting to learn that the purpose of the ARPANET was actually the far more wholesome mission of sharing expensive computing resources between far-flung universities, and indeed that the original network would have been woefully unsuited to the outbreak of war. This fact encapsulates important lessons about our willingness to accept, without evidence, narratives that we find just counterintuitive enough, clickable yet not confronting, shareable yet not shocking. It holds a lesson that's far more important in the Internet of 2017 than the Internet described in Wizards, and is quite easily the most interesting passage in the entire book.
Unfortunately, it appears on the second page of the prologue.
Unlike Tracy Kidder's The Soul a A New Machine, a true engineering ethnography par excellence, Hafner and Lyon researched their subjects from a distance, through interviews conducted decades after the fact, rather than by living with the team and documenting the endeavour from the inside. Without enough technical detail to be considered a truly definitive history, and lacking Kidder's ability to capture the air of excitement that accompanies grand feats of engineering, Wizards is left as little more than a list of names and career milestones, a 300 page compendium of LinkedIn pages with scatted anecdotes for flavour. I struggle to think of a single reader whose time would not be better spent reading The Soul of a New Machine instead.
The cover image shows a replica of Léon Foucault's famous pendulum demonstration, hung in the lobby of MIT's Lincoln Laboratory. Lincoln Lab was one of the premier sites for military science during the Cold War, and the nexus for a great deal of the research leading to the early construction of the Internet.