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THE GOODS | CYBURBIA

Looking Into the Origins of the Online Universe

August 20, 1996|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I have a basic problem about the Internet--I don't actually know how it works. That doesn't keep me from spending far too many hours there, surfing for cool sites, sending e-mail and researching a variety of serious and frivolous topics.

In most of the many how-to Internet books you can find at least a couple of pages on the origins of the Internet and its technology. This information is often sketchy, however, and sometimes contradictory.

Finally, a new book--"Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet" by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon (Simon & Schuster)--has arrived. It's a serious attempt to dispel some myths about the creation of the Net and to give us non-techies a basic lesson about its underpinning.

While the book is admirable in many ways, I hope it is not the final word on the topic. It leaves a lot of questions unanswered (I still want to know just who pays the fees for the use of the communications lines used in the Internet) and it's written in a fairly flat style.

"Where Wizards Stay Up Late" (the wonderful title comes from a poem by James Merrill) begins 30 years ago in the Pentagon offices of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a generously funded military science program. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose administration created the agency, was in awe of scientists and believed their work should be supported with few strings attached.

One long-held rumor holds that the Internet was created to decentralize the military communications system and make it less vulnerable to nuclear attack. Indeed, according to this book, one of the Internet's founders, engineer Paul Baron, did argue in favor of a decentralized network for that very reason. But most scientists were interested in the network because it would theoretically allow them to link up their computers to jointly work on problems.

The technological obstacles were formidable, especially considering that there was little standardization in computer languages back then. In 1969, the first network link was established between UCLA and Stanford Research Institute, now an independent organization known simply as SRI.

None of those scientists, of course, could imagine what their network would become in less than 30 years. After all, the computer they were using to operate their network was as big as a refrigerator and weighed more than 900 pounds.

An awareness of how the Internet functions is certainly not a prerequisite to using it. After all, how many television producers can tell you how (not to mention why) a signal sent through the air becomes "Regis and Kathie Lee"? But even a bit of knowledge about the origins of the Net makes this chaotic and sometimes wonderful medium seem all the more wondrous.

* Cyburbia's e-mail address is david.colker@latimes.com.

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