Hafner, Lyon: Where Wizards stay up late

If you are 30 years old or about to turn 30, you might still remember Boris Becker doing commercials for AOL. One day – in the mid-90ies the internet was here, and with it its culture. Why? Because the internet has just evolved organically from the day it was born – without much planning. Freedom and neutrality were always fostering principles, say Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon in „Where wizards stay up late“. This is the only way the internet could have been.


„The Interface Message Processor would be built as a messenger, a sophisticated store-and-forward device, nothing more. Its job would be to carry bits, packets, and messages: To disassemble messages, store packets, check for errors, route the packets, and send acknowledgements for packets arriving error-free; and then to reassemble incoming packets into messages and send them up to the host machines – all in a common language.“

The book takes the reader to the 60ies and introduces him to a few well-known names – such as Paul Baran oder Joseph Licklider – but also confronts him with a bunch of young people working on hugh machines, such as Bob Taylor or Vint Cerf, trying to connect the computers of several US universities. It reads like the logical next step after Dyson’s „Turing’s Cathedral“. Once the computer was there, it is only logical to let them interact. What surprises is the beauty and smoothness, this all happened.

„Where Wizards stay up late“ is a very interesting read if you want to understand, why the web has its structure and why making an impact on neutrality is against ist DNA. Even before the internet had its first participants, it was clear to its inventors that the Arpanet had to be a „distributed network“ – „able to support almost any imaginable traffic volume“. And even in the case of a nuclear attack it would have be able to keep operating: „a network of unmanned switches, or nodes – stand-alone computers, essentially – that routed messages by employing what he called a „self learning policy at each node, without need for a central, and possibly vulnerable, control point“.

The book also emphasizes in what manner of hands on-hacking and DIY all the general agreements and standards of the web were designed. Such as the RFC (Request for Comments) 354, which is nothing less then the file-transfer-protocol, „the digital equivalent of breathing- data inhale, data exhale, ad infinitum“. It is obvious, that no commercial use was on the minds of these hundreds of programmers, who were just hacking there own network.

Hafner and Lyon also report how the Arpanet changed from being a network „intended for resource-sharing“ to this global communication network it is today: By 1972 and the early 1980s, e-mail, or network mail, was discovered by thousands of early users. „The decade gave rise to many of the enduring features of modern digital culture: Flames, emoticons, the @ sign, debates on free speech and privacy, and a sleepless search for technological improvements and agreements about the technical underpinning of it all.“

Conclusion: Many of the webs most essential features were already in place before it became available for commercial use. Hafner and Lyon’s „Where wizards stay up late“ is a nice to read first hand account on how these were designed. And more what people fought for during the early days oft he Arpanet. It makes obvious that topics such as net neutrality aren’t new struggles, they are inherited, because they are the core of the internet.

„Where Wizards stay up late – The Origins of the Internet“ from Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon. Published in 1996 by Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 16,00 US-Dollar. 



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