(Roughly) Daily

“Reality is not a function of the event as event, but of the relationship of that event to past, and future, events”*…

 

ARPAnet

Dr. Leonard Kleinrock poses beside the processor in the UCLA lab where the first ARPANET message was sent

 

The first message transmitted over ARPANET, the pioneering Pentagon-funded data-sharing network, late in the evening on October 29, 1969, was incomplete due to a technical error. UCLA graduate student Charley Kline was testing a “host to host” connection across the nascent network to a machine at SRI in Menlo Park, California, and things seemed to be going well–until SRI’s machine, operated by Bill Duvall, crashed partway through the transmission, meaning the only letters received from the attempted “login” were “lo.”

Kline thought little of the event at the time, but it’s since become the stuff of legend and poetic reinterpretation. “As in, lo and behold!” ARPANET developer and early internet icon Leonard Kleinrock says, grinning as he recounts the story in the 2016 Werner Herzog documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. Others have interpreted the truncated transmission as “a stuttered hello”; one camp argues it was a prescient “LOL.”

It’s a staple of tech hagiography to inject history’s banal realities with monumental foresight and noble intentions; Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated as much recently, when he claimed Facebook was founded in response to the Iraq War, rather than to rate the attractiveness of Harvard women. It’s understandable to wish that ARPANET’s inaugural message, too, had offered a bit more gravity, given all that the network and its eventual successor, the internet, hath wrought upon the world. But perhaps the most enduring truth of the internet is that so many of its foundational moments and decisive turning points—from Kline’s “lo” to Zuckerberg’s late-night coding sessions producing a service for “dumb fucks” at Harvard—emerged from ad hoc actions and experiments undertaken with little sense of foresight or posterity. In this respect, the inaugural “lo” was entirely apt…

Fifty years after the first successful (or, successful enough) transmission across the ARPANET, we’ve effectively terraformed the planet into a giant computer founded on the ARPANET’s architecture. The messages transmitted across it have certainly become more complex, but the illusion that its ad-hoc infrastructure developed in a political vacuum has become harder and harder to maintain. That illusion has been pierced since 2016, but the myth that seems poised to replace it—that technology can in fact automate away bias and politics itself—is no less insidious.

The vapidity of the first ARPANET message is a reminder of the fallacy of this kind of apolitical, monumental storytelling about technology’s harms and benefits. Few isolated events in the development of the internet were as heroic as we may imagine, or as nefarious as we may fear. But even the most ad hoc of these events occurred in a particular ideological context. What is the result of ignoring or blithely denying that context? Lo and behold: It looks a lot like 2019.

Half a century after the first ARPANET message, pop culture still views connectivity as disconnected from the political worldview that produced it.  The always-illuminating Ingrid Burrington argues that that’s a problem: “How We Misremember the Internet’s Origins.”

“Is everyone who lives in Ignorance like you?” asked Milo.
“Much worse,” he said longingly. “But I don’t live here. I’m from a place very far away called Context.”
Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

* Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men

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As we ruminate on roots, we might send carefully-coded birthday greetings to Gordon Eubanks; he was born on this date in 1946.  A microcomputer pioneer, he earned his PhD studying under Garry Kildall, who founded Digital Research; his dissertation was BASIC-E, a compiler designed for Kildall’s CP/M operating system.  In 1981, after DR lost the IBM operating system contract to Microsoft (per yesterday’s almanac entry), Eubanks joined DR to create new programming languages.  He soon came to doubt DR’s viability, and left to join Symantec, where he helped develop Q & A, an integrated database and wordprocessor with natural language query. He rose through Symantec’s ranks to become it’s President and CEO.  Later he became president and CEO of Oblix, a silicon valley startup that creates software for web security (acquired by Oracle in 2005).

eubanks source

 

Written by LW

November 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

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