First Nation in Cyberspace

Twenty million strong and adding a million new users a month, the Internet is suddenly the place to be

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Back in the mid-1960s, at the height of the cold war, the Department of Defense faced a tough question: How could orders be issued to the armed forces if the U.S. were ravaged by a nuclear assault? The communication hubs in place at the time -- the telephone switching offices and the radio and TV broadcast stations -- were not only vulnerable to attack, they would also probably be the first to go. The Pentagon needed a military command-and-control system that would continue to operate even if most of the phone lines were in tatters and the switches had melted down.

In 1964 a researcher at the Rand Corp. named Paul Baran came up with a bizarre solution to this Strangelovian puzzle. He designed a computer- communications network that had no hub, no central switching station, no governing authority, and that assumed that the links connecting any city to any other were totally unreliable. Baran's system was the antithesis of the orderly, efficient phone network; it was more like an electronic post office designed by a madman. In Baran's scheme, each message was cut into tiny strips and stuffed into electronic envelopes, called packets, each marked with the address of the sender and the intended receiver. The packets were then released like so much confetti into the web of interconnected computers, where they were tossed back and forth over high-speed wires in the general direction of their destination and reassembled when they finally got there. If any packets were missing or mangled (and it was assumed that some would be), it was no big deal; they were simply re-sent.

Baran's packet-switching network, as it came to be called, might have been a minor footnote in cold war history were it not for one contingency: it took root in the computers that began showing up in universities and government ^ research laboratories in the late 1960s and early 1970s and became, by a path as circuitous as one taken by those wayward packets, the technological underpinning of the Internet.

The Internet, for those who haven't been hanging out in cyberspace, reading the business pages or following Doonesbury, is the mother of all computer networks -- an anarchistic electronic freeway that has spread uncontrollably and now circles the globe. It is at once the shining archetype and the nightmare vision of the information highway that the Clinton Administration has been touting and that the telephone and cable-TV companies are racing to build. Much of what Bell Atlantic and Time Warner are planning to sell -- interactivity, two-way communications, multimedia info on demand -- the Internet already provides for free. And because of its cold war roots, the Internet has one quality that makes it a formidable competitor: you couldn't destroy it if you tried.

Nobody owns the Internet, and no single organization controls its use. In the mid-1980s the National Science Foundation built the high-speed, long- distance data lines that form Internet's U.S. backbone. But the major costs of running the network are shared in a cooperative arrangement by its primary users: universities, national labs, high-tech corporations and foreign governments. Two years ago, the NSF lifted restrictions against commercial use of the Internet, and in September the White House announced a plan to make it the starting point for an even grander concept called the National Information Infrastructure.

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