The wedding of the century

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
11 April, 2017
Editorial: 87
Fecha de publicación original: 30 septiembre, 1997

Fortune is blind

In four days’ time we celebrate an event of global importance. No, don’t worry, I am not talking about the royal wedding in the Cathedral in Barcelona, although in many ways they are related. On the morning of the 4 October, forty years ago, the inhabitants of this planet awoke with the now famous beep-beep of Sputnik dancing about in orbit above them. The launching of the first artificial satellite for meteorological and communications purposes, whose possibilities Arthur Clark had predicted in his science fiction writing only a decade before, shook a world then completely divided into two blocs. The Soviets and Americans, rapidly began the space race in the wake of Sputnik, but little imagined that those very artifacts would end the Cold War and, at the same time, open the way to hitherto undreamed of possibilities – terminating the confrontation between the two empires and the beginning of the Information Society. That Soviet satellite and the space race that followed in the USSR, which were much exalted as the maximum achievements of a hermetically sealed, rigidly heirarchified, authoritarian and impermeable society, became, during the 30 years that followed the perfect metaphor of that regime’s incapacity to accept all the social, political and economic consequences of its own technological development. The price it paid now forms part of our recent history.

So, what were those consequences? The myriad of satellites that began to orbit the Earth from 1957 onwards meant that in outer space the foundations were laid for a new construct sustained by a variable which then — and for a long time to follow — was hardly perceived as a key factor in economic and social change, namely communication. Perhaps one of the reasons for this was that the market, the sacrosanct market, had not given birth to it. Satellites, like the telematic networks and information technology they engendered, which in turn created the conditions for, amongst other things, the Internet in the US and the political debacle in the USSR, were the product of a bi-polarisation on the world stage in which the armed forces of the two super powers played the role of discreet midwives.

The repercussions of appropriating outer space, although at first fundamentally benefiting just the super powers, were global. On 11 July 1962, two receivers from Europe and the US were united for the first time in a historic television programme. Thanks to the satellite Telstar, which the US had recently sent into orbit, the image of Vice-President Johnson and members of the construction company, as well as some notes from the US national anthem, clearly reached receptors on both sides of the Atlantic after a voyage of 4.800 kilometres Earth-satellite-Earth. A receiving station on the Breton coast said that the quality of the images received in France were so good that they could have been broadcast from 40km away. Two weeks later, on 29 July 1962, at a quarter to ten in the evening, the deputy mayor of Bilbao, Emilio Ybarra, talked on the phone via Telstar to the mayor of Pittsburgh, the first time that this kind of communication had been established with the US from Spain. A few hours later it was the mayor of Toledo’s turn and he spoke to his colleague in another Toledo, in Ohio, USA. I mention this just to demonstrate the fact that despite the physical and spiritual barrier which the Pyrenees still represented, Spain also took part in the tentative babblings of globalisation via the subtle hand of communications.

In the 80s, following in the wake of Sputnik, another event occurred which was seen at the time as fundamentally political, but which had an astounding impact on communication: the Star Wars programme. The US, with Ronald Reagan in power, tightened the screws of the Cold War and, in passing, on its political stance of the 60s and 70s. For the White House (that lobby made up of the most powerful sectors in politics as well as the civil and military industries, in the words of Eisenhower, one of its presidents), the question was not maintaining their capacity for response to a nuclear attack (the origin of the telecommunications system that produced Internet), but instead directly preventing it. The aim of Star Wars was to develop the capacity to destroy inter-continental missiles from the Soviet Union in mid-flight. To this end they needed to develop a complex, multi-command mechanism capable of detecting the firing of enemy missiles, calculating their trajectory, preparing a response and launching it into space, discriminating decoys in flight from the bombs themselves, aiming weapons especially designed for this task (laser, microwaves, direct impact pulses guided by radar and other sensors, etc.), at the objective, and completely destroying all enemy weapons high up in the atmosphere. All this had to be done in the time between zero to 7 or 10 minutes from the time the weapons were fired in the USSR (or from any other point in the ocean). There was no more time than this to detect, verify, calculate, fire, intercept, discriminate and destroy the enemy arsenal before it rained down on the heads of the American people. In other words, a job which no human brain was capable of processing in the time necessary for taking the correct decisions in each case. The only way out was to automate the whole process from beginning to end. So, it was necessary to create a communication system which did not yet exist, capable of condensing all the capacity and power reached up to that moment by the three crucial developments of the future Information Society: satellites, computers and telecommunications networks.

The Star Wars programme did not produce a single weapon worthy of its galactic name. However, from the point of view of the automation of telecommunications, the increase in the operative capacity of satellites and, above all, the operation and proliferation of telecommunications networks, the impact was definitive. Practically all the essential research for Star Wars was done through ArpaNet which, in time, directly benefited from the advances made in the functioning of telematic networks. ArpaNet channelled communications between research centres and increased the turnover in scientific and technological production to unprecedented levels. It even made some people feel that the aims of the Star Wars programme were possible, could be achieved. ArpaNet had a decisive effect on the economy of the US from the mid 80s to the end of the decade. The USSR tried to keep up with the pace but it was materially impossible to do so. A country in which the unauthorised use of a photocopier could lead to prison or exile was trying to stop its gigantic enemy by throwing a handful of beans at it. The tensions created by the need to improve communications within its own system in order to keep up with the United States brought it down in the end. As Popov, one of Gorbachov’s closest assessors at the start of the perestroika said, “not a single one of the social, economic or political structures in the USSR was ready to deal with more fluid communication and improve the way it worked. As soon as the floodgates were opened, the changes were so great that the whole structure came down like a pack of cards.” In the end, almost from one day to the next, the whole empire fell. The globalisation process entered a new phase upheld and transported by telecommunications networks. At the beginning of the 90s, when the Berlin Wall had already tumbled, ArpaNet became Internet.

It is worth remembering that it was precisely the modest Sputnik that fired one of the most important starting guns leading to the world in which we live today. Had it not been for that gadget beep-beeping away, now, for example, there wouldn’t be millions of people whose bums are itching to sit down in front of television to see another wedding of the century. That of technology and communication.

Translation: Bridget King.