There’s a paradise in cyberspace

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
8 October, 2017
Editorial: 139
Fecha de publicación original: 27 octubre, 1998

There’s no absence that kills and no pain that destroys

The Internet is getting old. An unfailingly clear indication of this is that it is reaching that risky age when its founders are starting to die, although some are doing so very early for an invention that only saw the light of day in the 60’s. Despite the fact that for the vast majority of internauts nowadays the Internet is part of their very recent memory, something that started well into this decade, the fact is that the Net is about to turn 30, which means that its original promoters have a long history behind them. Last week one of those pioneers, Jon Postel, died at the age of 55. Unknown to the general public, he was much admired by thousands of internauts as someone who always popped up when they wanted to find out just how the hell the Net was organised. Then they found an unusual kind of face in which it was not difficult to read the contradictory spirit of the Internet. While his straggly beard and long hair pointed to the anarchy of the hippie generation, the sardonic, intelligent look in his eye was clear evidence of an alert mind. And that is exactly what he meant to the Net: he was the advocate of its anarchic organisation. Postel has gone. Welcome forever, Jon.

The Internet hardly has its historians, biographers or a doctrinal “body” yet. That’s only natural. The process unleashed by a bunch of fresh-faced engineers in the US bopping to the music of the Beatles, is still too hot, too alive, to be subjected to the historians’ scalpel. Anyway, all of them are, in some way or another, still active on the Internet. Their paths can be easily traced on the digital map. And they will endure in that ghostly world they have contributed to building, as though they had designed a paradise in cyberspace where their living memory will continue to feed the growth of this constantly expanding organism without head or tentacles, which is the Internet. This will be its last metamorphosis, the mutation where bodies are left behind to guarantee the survival of the mind. Postel is already there.

Postel was in charge of a job which most people run a mile from, an apparently tedious, boring, finicky job but an essential one: keeping track of all the protocols, the identifiers, networks and addresses and ultimately the names of everything in the networked universe. In 1969, so we are told by all those around at the time and involved in the design of a new type of network, Postel had the list of numbers written down on a piece of paper. Luckily for him, three years later e-mail was invented making his life a little easier. But not that much, because the number of machines hooked up to the Net grew exponentially every year, as it does today. But from his initial determination we have reached IANA (the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority), the organisation that assigns and manages numbers and individual names in the Internet’s Dominion Names System (DNS), without which we would have no Net today.

Postel formed part of a team of engineers still little known by the general public. But there will come a time when they will be raised up on the altars as “founding fathers of cyberspace”, however weird that might sound (our myth making capacity knows no limits, not even on the Internet). In that limbo, together with Postel, we will also find Barry Leiner, Vinton Cerf, David Clark, Robert Khan, Leonard Kleinrock, Daniel Lynch, Larry Roberts, Bob Taylor, Ray Tomlinson or Stephen Wolff, along with premature visionaries such as J. C. R. Licklider. The latter imagined the “Galactic Network” in 1962, long before the aforementioned started to scribble down their revolutionary ideas. Licklider proposed a constellation of interconnected networks on a global scale that would allow everyone access to information and computer programmes from anywhere in the world — and the Net–.

Just like the Blues Brothers, Licklider turned his vision into a mission from God and he transmitted it to anything or anyone that happened to be around him. Then, in the days of rock and roll and the first artificial satellites, this evangelist landed up at ARPA (the Advanced Research Projects Agency, sometimes called DARPA when its daddy’s name – the Defence Department – was added), as director of the computer research programme, no less. Necessity quickly became the mother of invention. There were plenty of disciples floating around there in search of a master, like Larry Roberts and Bob Taylor. In the mid-60s when love and flowers were about to meet on university campuses, these guys spent their time inventing a theory which would leave even the most daring daisies perplexed: the substitution of circuit networks for switching packet networks. The keystone of the future Internet was solidly installed in four computers (hosts, in fact) which were interconnected in 1969: two at UCLA and the other two at the University of Santa Barbara and the University of Utah, respectively.

In just two years things began to grow too rapidly and it became clear to all of them that if they didn’t establish some kind of system for assigning numbers and individual identification for each new machine and protocol in the system, chaos would reign and ruin everything. Fortunately, there was Jon Postel, who up until the day he died put just that essential little bit of order into things so that the chaos could keep on working. Without his contribution, it would be difficult to imagine just how those figures which are now landmarks in the evolution of the Net (4 million hosts in 1994, 8 million the year after, etc.) would have evolved. For these and other services, the International Telecommunications Union gave him a silver medal this year, an award normally reserved for Heads of State. It was the first institutional admission that a different type of government is taking root in the virtual nation.

Nevertheless, the key concept of the Internet, which allows us to communicate the way we do today, that which has surprised people in-the-know and otherwise, especially governments and their police, conspiracy theory lovers, the sceptics and the disillusioned, those who’ve seen everything or see the military under every carpet, is that which laid the foundations of the development of an open net. The person responsible for that is Robert Khan. His idea of an open architecture network made it possible to imagine the coexistence of individual networks designed and developed separately, each with its own interface. The addition of new networks simply increased the global coverage of the whole system without any big traumas, because there was no central axis, no set of computers which outweighed the rest, or which established a hierarchy to which other networks would have to submit. The protocol for these open networks was TCP/IP, the protocol jointly developed by Khan and Vinton Cerf, thanks to which the growth of open, decentralised and de-heirarchified networks was guaranteed.

In fact, this decision turned the whole framework into a collection of communities not determined by their technological options. This community spirit was born with the first net, continued in ArpaNet and lives today, despite the extraordinary changes the Internet has undergone over the last three years. And, it was this spirit that Jon Postel himself embodied, adding hippie warmth to something as serious as switch packet networks. The question now is whether that “Postel heat” can survive the battalion of serious people who want to convert the Net into the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Translation: Bridget King.