Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom

Digital Media and the Internet


About thirty years ago, the Rand Corporation, America's foremost Cold War think-tank endeavored to construct a postnuclear communications system that, like the Hydra of Greek Mythology, would survive even if one of its limbs were destroyed. The Rand proposal, which went public in 1964, was to create a communications network that (1) had no central authority, and (2) would be designed to operate while in disrepair. All the nodes in the network would be equal in status to all other nodes, each node with its own authority to originate, pass, and receive messages. The messages themselves would be divided into packets, each packet separately addressed. Each packet would begin at some specified source node , and end at some other specifies destination node. Each packet would wind its way through the network on an individual basis and be passed around from node to node until it ended up in its proper place.

During the '60s, RAND, MIT and UCLA researched this decentralized, imperishable, packet-switching network idea, and in 1967 Britain's National Physical Laboratory developed the first test network. The US followed suit in 1968 with a more ambitious project under the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency where the nodes of the network were, relatively speaking, highspeed computers which were good for data swapping among national research institutions . By 1969 ARPANET was comprised of four nodes (the first of which was installed at UCLA); by 1971 there were fifteen, and by 1972, thirty-seven. ARPANET was embraced as an invaluable research tool for scientists and academics, and especially for casual interpersonal communication, which led to the development of e-mail and mailing-lists.

Throughout the '70s ARPANET grew rapidly and with ease because of its decentralized structure and the fact that it became accessible to a variety of different computers. By 1977 other networks were linking to ARPANET by means of the newly standardized "Transmission Control Protocol" and "Internet Protocol." TCP "converts messages into streams of packets at the source, then reassembles them back into messages at the destination" ; IP "handles the addressing, seeing to it that packets are routed across multiple nodes and even across multiple networks with multiple standards" (Sterling column #5). This standardization allowed what was once just ARPANET to become a "growing network of networks" wherein a group such as the military could break off and become its own network, MILNET. In the '80s more and more commercial, academic, governmental, and social subgroups entered the network.

In 1984 the National Science Foundation entered the scene, setting

a blistering pace for technical advancement, linking newer, faster, shinier supercomputers through thicker, faster links, upgraded and expanded again and again in 1986, 1988, 1990. And other governmental agencies leapt in: NASA, the National Institute of Health, the Department of Energy, each of them maintaining a digital satrapy in the Internet confederation. (Aether Madness 36).

Six basic Internet domains emerged, and were denoted with abbreviations for their addresses: governmental (gov), military (mil), educational (edu), commercial (com), organizational (org) and net, which served as a gateway between networks. Due to its overwhelming successes, ARPANET surrendered to the phenomenal metanetwork, the Internet, in 1989. Now there are hundreds of thousands of nodes that comprise the Internet, though if it is the "world-wide encyclopedia" that critics are calling it, it isn't yet comprehensive: few Third World countries have access, not to mention the fact that less than half the of the America's population is on line. According to Dana Hoffman, a researcher at Vanderbilt University and founder of Project 2000, which examines Internet statistics, today an estimated 33 million Americans above the age of sixteen have access to the Internet, and 22 million have used it in the last three months. On average, participants spend about six hours a week online. With regard to gender, Internet users are roughly 85 to 90 percent male and 15 to 10 percent female. For now, statistics show that democracy is limited, but provided that computers become more intellectually and economically accessible, we've got the means to create a global village.

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