Book Review - The Internet Protocol Journal, Volume 13, No.4

A History of the Internet

A History of the Internet and the Digital Future, by Johnny Ryan, Reaktion Books, ISBN 978 1 86189 777 0, September 2010.

Any attempt to document a 50-year history of people and activities that had such a profound and global effect as the Internet faces some challenges. Sequences are complex; written source materials are sketchy; and the many different memories conflict. Added to this reality, of course, are legitimate disagreements about intents and effects. To evaluate such writing effort means first looking for useful criteria. Here are mine: In terms of basic research, was the effort extensive, looking for multiple, appropriate sources and exploring a wide range of probing and constructive questions? Were the sources and questions interesting? This line of thinking leads to a query about the way the author integrates the resulting massive body of data. Is there an effort to develop critical analyses? Are alternative explanations explored?

Johnny Ryan's ambitious A History of the Internet and the Digital Future is a rather modest 246 pages, including 28 pages of references. Overall my feeling is that he does quite an interesting job of satisfying the first half of his title, but a somewhat disappointing job with the second half. His research was extensive throughout, but he takes a more critical view of the history than he does of the social aspects of our digital future. In the first half, he integrates information and reports discrepancies and curiosities. In the second half, he indulges in the common, wide-eyed wonderment that technology futurist efforts inherently risk. (Full disclosure: By way of demonstrating the thoroughness of his research, Ryan even included me as one of his many sources.)


The book is divided into three parts. Broadly, they cover origins, growth, and social effects. Ryan's use of "centrifugal" is contrasted with "centripetal" and is meant to distinguish paradigmatic tensions between approaches that centralize control versus approaches that distribute it. (Oddly, neither of these pivotal terms is in the index.) On page 8 he sets the stage:

"Three characteristics have asserted themselves throughout the Internet's history and will define the digital age to which we must all adjust: The Internet is a centrifugal force, user-driven and open."

By "centrifugal" he means moving outward, away from centralized control. For me, the terminology proved distracting, because I kept hearing my 8th-grade science teacher condescendingly explaining that there is no physics force called centrifugal. Rather it is a perception of the interaction between inertia and centripetal force.

For those with less compulsive (or effective) science teachers, the analogy might prove more helpful, because the design choice really is central to the history of networking. The tension between centralized versus distributed has marked—and continues to mark—much of the development of networking. In fact, I wish Ryan had explored its continuation as much as he explored its effect on origins.

Early History

In general, Ryan presents a narrative with fine-grained detail of the different players who played a critical role in the creation and pursuit of packet switching and then its evolution to link independent networks and technologies [1]. Efforts to take credit for the former have often become quite public and unseemly; Ryan dissects the play of actors, the essence of their technical ideas, and the details of their activities with documentation and diligence, and even uncovers some discrepancies. He develops a narrative that I found intriguing, enlightening, and credible. What I especially liked was that he explored the organizational milieu in which the activities took place. So we hear of the origins of groups such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), Lincoln Labs, and The Rand Corporation; the social and political forces that created them; and the roles they played.

Narrative Arcs

The following is really the strength of this book: It develops narrative arcs about social, political, and organizational environments and the steps taken within them that moved along the path of the Internet. It explores who, when, how, and what, both overall and in detail. At its best, the book provides comparative perspective to help the reader understand what was risky and truly innovative and thereby understand what was really challenging to develop and get adopted. As a minor example, Ryan deserves credit for his exploration and debunking of the media distortions surrounding Al Gore's role and statements concerning the Internet. Strictly speaking, debunking media excesses would not normally seem relevant to a review of the history of a technology, but Ryan uses this example for some consideration of the role of politics in the development of the Internet. The U.S. government could have chosen to assume more control over the Internet; it might have quickly turned it into a telecommunications monopoly, rather than letting it develop through independent market forces.

As would be expected for a story this sweeping, Ryan is sometimes redundant and sometimes inconsistent. Overall, the book would have benefited from more careful editing. So it has a quick reference to the "invention" of e-mail messaging at Bolt Beranek and Newman, but later has a more accurate, detailed account of Ray Tomlinson's 1971 effort, there, to add networking to the existing e-mail mechanism. (E-mail messaging was present on the first time-sharing systems of the 1960s, but these systems were standalone services. Tomlinson got them to talk each other.)

Another touchstone I use for discussions of Internet history is the role of the Computer Science Network (CSNet), because I worked on that. CSNet served as the forerunner of the larger and more obviously pivotal National Science Foundation Network (NSFNet). With NSFNet the Internet developed the ability to support multiple backbones—essential for a truly competitive Internet—and the market-priming creation of regional operational services, from which the seeds of the commercial Internet were sown. Ryan notes the role of CSNet as a kind of market research that led to NSFnet, and in this observation his discussion is notable. But his account of CSNet details is somewhat skewed, because CSNet is cast as having full packet-level connectivity, with e-mail-only telephone-based linkages as a secondary service. In reality full connectivity came later; the original years of CSNet were e-mail-only. Why this fact is important to note—besides overly personal fault-finding—is as a reminder that the accounting efforts for this sort of history are always noisy; the story signal is never pure, even with a diligent effort.

A further touchstone topic is the Domain Name System (DNS) and the development of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). The interesting part of this saga is later-stage Internet history, and Ryan is relatively sloppy with the details. For example, he muddles what generic Top-Level Domains (gTLD) already existed and what new ones were proposed, such as .com versus .biz; he also muddles the distinction between gTLDs and national domains, such as .uk. On the other hand, he certainly captures the continuing tone of controversy that surrounded the development and operation of ICANN, the organization now managing assignment of IP addresses and domain names.

But the most obvious, later-stage touchstone for a history like this one must be the development of the World Wide Web. Ryan gets mixed marks here. He misses the long history of open document publishing that existed even in the earlier Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), with "anonymous" FTP, and he misses that the use of Gopher predated the web by several years. He also misses just how complete and useful a "dynamically linked document" system Doug Englebart's NLS (computer) system provided 20 years before the invention of the web [2]. Hence, he misses the long, historical arc for publishing on the Internet. On the other hand, he does discuss Gopher and explores some of the reasons it lost the competition to the web. He focuses on management and intellectual property issues, whereas I tend to consider Gopher as having a much poorer cost/benefit mix. Gopher was text-only and required going down a potential long lookup tree—quite a few "clicks"—before getting any content. The web is mixed-media and can provide utility to the reader—that is, content—at each step down a lookup path. So the web is more complex to develop than Gopher, but it provides enough additional power and better human factors to be worth it.

Ryan's discussion of the commercial explosive growth of the Internet is a good read, including the Dutch tulip market reference and his introduction to some relevant tidbits of economics theory. However, as the book moves into "Web 2.0" and beyond, it provides reasonable descriptions of who did what to create popular new services, but his critical eye largely stops providing serious analysis. Explanations sound more like exuberance than examination. On the other hand, he certainly provides substance to the view that the Internet enables "long-tail" market opportunities to discover and satisfy specialized segments. His discussion of politicians' inventive use of the Internet is nicely concise and integrated. Again, it provides a narrative arc with substance. But his predictions for the future of users as news consumers or as citizens in political processes have too much tone of certitude and positive outcome than is justifiable in my opinion.

Worth Reading

In sum, the book is certainly worth reading. You will likely learn quite a bit, but make sure you read with glasses that have no hint of rose coloring!


[1] Debating which milestone marks "the beginning of the Internet" is a favorite pastime, including among those around during the period in question. Various definitions are legitimate, as long as one is clear about the choice. For me, the operational demonstration of packet switching was when the world changed, so I choose 1969 and the first four nodes of the ARPANET; or its public demonstration in 1972. TCP/IP built on this, by refining and minimizing the work to be done within the infrastructure and by linking independent networks.

[2] In the early 1970s, my job at UCLA included technical documentation and supporting online use by the Computer Science Department's secretaries. We did all our editing remotely, on the Engelbart system, because it was so powerful.

—Dave Crocker, Brandenburg InternetWorking

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