A Brief History of the Future: The origins of the internet

Sudhir Raikar | Mumbai | January 05, 2015 17:03 IST

Naughton is brilliant in the poignant case he makes for engineers, a largely unsung and invisible tribe which achieves the unthinkable and yet is invariably accorded a lowly status compared to actors, musicians, artists, athletes, doctors and scientists.

By John Naughton
 
There’s plenty of literature devoted to the Internet’s origins, early days and growing advancements that explain how this network of networks gradually became a household phenomenon worldwide. But John Naughton’s book has enough differentiators that make it a special fruit in a basket crammed with flowers.
 
Majority of us, Naughton points out, are devoid of a sense of wonderment. We hardly marvel at technology in readily becoming its pompous users. He asks us a moot question– ‘Are we not taking progress for granted in casually floating towards the next Big Thing at any point of time?’ Yes, we seem to be doing just that, all the time – be it about electricity, the telephone, the DVD player, the latest cell phone or the tablet PC.
 
Naughton is brilliant in the poignant case he makes for engineers, a largely unsung and invisible tribe which achieves the unthinkable and yet is invariably accorded a lowly status compared to actors, musicians, artists, athletes, doctors and scientists. He openly admits his personal grudge, given that he is an engineer himself, but rightly observes this plight is embedded in the very role they perform. While they focus on the technical means, the ends are invariably decided by a superior, a client, a government agency or a company. Naughton pays homage to the engineers of the Internet on two counts – one, because they built an amazing world open to all and two – because they invented institutions and traditions in the process that made the world a better place.In throwing light on the origins of the Net, its creators, mechanics and protocols, he also spares a thought or two on its social significance and impact. As he aptly puts it, ‘the real question is not what has the Internet to learn from us, but what might we learn from it?’
 
He begins the voyage under the section - A Brief History of the Future - before devoting a chapter to the Radio days. Since the story of the Internet is closely entwined with computers, Naughton briefly traces the origins in Blaise Pascal’s adding machine, Scchickard’s mechanical calculator and Babbage’s Analytical Engine before finally zeroing in on the sprawling campus on the East Coast of the United States – the legendary Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As the story unfolds, he pays rich tribute to a host of visionaries including Joseph Licklider, Robert Taylor, Douglas Engelbrat, Norbert Weiner, Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson and engineers like Paul Baran, Donald Davies, Larry Roberts, Bob Kahn, Vint Cerf and Tim Berners- Lee.
 
For those who overtly condemn Naughton’s erroneous mention of Robert A. Heinlein’s science fiction novel (The Moon is a March mistress instead of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) try writing a book of given genre and you’ll realise the depth and gravity of the challenge. Naughton elucidates the anatomy of a computer, devices like the modem, or demystifies core concepts like packet switching, messaging protocols and email in extremely reader-friendly fashion – a rare feat for books devoted to technology.  One printing error can’t bring Naughton’s superlative effort to naught.
 
Here’s a timeless book written with passion, not just for the sake of history. It is only fair that we readand reread it in the same spirit.

 

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