Foreign Policy
Summer 1999

War Games?


If you buy conventional wisdom, the U.S. military developed the Internet as a communications resource that could withstand a Soviet nuclear attack. The truth, however, is more Thomas Edison than Tom Clancy. The Net was the brainchild of tinkerers—university researchers and government scientists who, by all reliable accounts, had scientific motives in mind.

In the early 1960s, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor J.C.R. Licklider began writing scholarly papers about the benefits of computer networking. In 1962, Licklider became the first head of computer research at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). A few years later, fellow MIT researcher Lawrence Roberts joined DARPA. Roberts had been influenced by a pioneering paper by Leonard Kleinrock of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) on packet-switched communication. Unlike the circuit-switched communication of telephony, packet switching allowed messages to be broken up into packets, which could travel separately to a destination and then recombine.

At a conference in 1967, Roberts proposed a packet-based computer network that would come to be known as the Arpanet. At the gathering, Roberts met scientists from Britain’s National Physics Laboratory who also were working on packet switching, and he learned that there was another group of researchers led by Paul Baran of the RAND Corporation also studying the issue. As it turned out, the RAND team seemed particularly interested in creating a decentralized computer network that could survive a Soviet nuclear attack and preserve critical communications.

By the end of 1969, the first four nodes of the Arpanet were installed—at UCLA, the Stanford Research Institute, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah. The precursor of today’s Internet was up and running. Although RAND’s nuclear survival focus was well known to the computer jocks at DARPA, their primary goal remained research for research’s sake. If there was a utilitarian goal, it was to allow disparately located university researchers to share computing resources and data.

The mythos surrounding the military need for the Internet may seem harmless. Yet, it has likely worked to the advantage of those who are intent on ignoring the Internet’s origins as a tool for scientific research and informal communication. As recently as the early 1990s, Vice President Al Gore and others proposed a National Research and Education Network that would focus primarily on making networked computing a tool for education, scientific progress, and community empowerment. Instead, the federal government privatized the Internet in the mid-1990s and left us with all the mixed blessings of today’s commercially driven Net. The tinkerers, of course, still have their network. Only now they have to share it with a bunch of Yahoos.

— A.L.S.

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