The Least We Can Do...

You've Been Standing There How Long? Geez, Where Was My Mind?


Last updated: 2020.01.08

There is so much to say. There is so much to teach.

We've spent the last couple of decades working on these arcane, mysterious boxes called "computers." You probably remember them from movies as these large, impossibly intelligent, dispassionately malevolent machines, with lots of pretty blinking lights, and completely incomprehensible to people without extraordinary intellect or education.

Now, just twenty years later, they're ubiquitous. They're in your office, your car, your home. The burger jockey at McDonald's punches your order into one. Your microwavable meals are cooked by one. Your telephone conversations are processed and routed by one. Your VCR is controlled by one (which mocks you by blinking 12:00 for months on end).

Yet the fear, the nagging anxiousness, remains. Headlines scream at you about "pornography" being freely shuttled back and forth. The six o'clock news barrages you about teenagers lured into dark and unspeakable fates through computers. The world around you is changing; new forces are entering your world which you don't understand, and which you're sure are out to screw you. You're scared shitless, and you don't know what to do.


Stop whatever it is you're doing, find the most comfortable chair you have, sit down with your favorite drink, and read on, because I'm going to tell you about these machines. I'm going to tell you about what it is that we've created, and why we did it. I'm going to tell you as much as you want to know so you don't have to be afraid of them anymore.

Because, you see, we've failed. We as human beings have failed in our duty to you, our fellow human. We have changed your lives without your knowledge or consent, and have failed to tell you what it is that we did, and why we did it, so that you would understand and be able to enjoy the benefits we created not only for ourselves but for everyone. I mean, it's kind of pointless to go to the trouble of building a whole new kind of car if nobody else knows how to drive it.

So I want to help atone for that failure. We've frightened you, and because we were so obsessed with our work, we failed to see your fear until it reached the fever pitch it's at now. We're sorry. I'm sorry.

So sit back, relax, and read at your own pace, because this stuff is really quite easy.

Phew. Where to start?

I guess the best way to explain computers and the Internet is to explain what it was we tried to build. After all, invention of new technologies is usually driven by a desire to fix a perceived problem, or to make life a little easier... To make the world a better place. Computers and the Internet are the embodiment of that drive. To tell that story, I'll need to dive into a brief and wildly inaccurate history lesson.

The birth of modern electronic computers happened fifty years ago with the ENIAC. It was built completely out of vacuum tubes. The Army wanted it so they could build and fire weapons more accurately. But the Army wasn't the only agency that needed a high-speed calculating machine. The US census bureau also needed a machine to tabulate the census, taken every ten years. The 1940 census very nearly took ten years to complete; the 1950 census would have been a complete mess without a machine to automatically count and sort the results by various criteria. So the census bureau contracted with a small company called UNIVAC to build just such a machine.

Note that this wasn't an evil, dark conspiracy to put people out of work. The amount of work the census bureau and the Army needed to do exceeded the ability of humans to do it in a timely fashion. There was just simply too much stuff to slog through. The job wasn't about to get any easier, and you can't keep forever adding new people to the task, so they created for themselves a new tool to help out. The goal was not to screw anybody, just to make the assigned task possible. Ergo, the computer.

Time passed. For over three decades, though they became more powerful and sophisticated, computers remained large, arcane behemoths exclusively the domain of the government and large corporations. It was during this time that The Rest Of Us learned anything at all about computers. Movies like Desk Set and The Forbin Project portrayed them as mindless, idiotic -- or worse, malevolent -- machines exceeding the ability of anyone to control them. If you think about this from Hollywood's point of view, this actually makes sense. After all, if you're a storyteller, and you want to engage the primal emotions of your audience, you can't tell much of a story about a computer that simply sits there, doing its assigned job, virtually never screwing up. A computer that starts turning on its creators, however... Quick! Get the cameras rolling! This is news!

Then something interesting happened around 1970: Someone built a computer small enough and cheap enough that people could own one. It was still relatively expensive (about $3000 in today's money), but when you consider that the next cheapest machine was on the order of $250,000, this was an astonishing development.

Now why would anyone want to build such a thing? After all, IBM, UNIVAC, Digital Equipment Corporation, and others were all doing rather well for themselves making computers, and they were doing a good job; many of their machines from that era are still in use today, still doing their assigned work. In fact, a lot of people back then asked that very question: "A computer for an individual? What the heck is that good for?" So why would someone want to make a small computer that individuals could afford?

I've never spoken to the creators of that first small computer (the Altair 8800), but I suspect it was because they wanted their own computer to play with, just to see what you could do with it. You see, back in those days, if you wanted to run a computer program, you had to submit a proposal to be approved by Management (hey, they paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for this thing; they want to make sure the use of the machine meets company objectives), then you had to write your program off-line, submit the program to the machine operators -- not unlike Oracular priests -- who would feed your program to the machine, and then hand you the results some time -- sometimes weeks -- later.

As you can imagine, this sucked.

Now it just so happens that some of the people who built the Altair had attended MIT, where they had a couple of "small" (in relative terms) machines which just sat there, waiting for anyone and everyone who was interested to just jump on and see what the machine would do. The machine was not purchased to accomplish a specific goal; it was Just There. So the students did stuff with it. They wrote the first chess-playing programs. They wrote the first graphical user interfaces. They wrote the first video game. They wrote programs to solve really nasty mathematical problems...

Every new person who sat at those machines brought with them a fresh set of ideas and an imagination. Their exploration of those ideas brought forth a class of computer applications that had never before been imagined (I mean, come on, could you justify writing a video game to a management-type, especially if it had never been done before?). What's more, these students took a look at all the completely new things they were creating for themselves, and came to a realization: There was no way they or anyone else could have predicted what they had come up with. And even after looking at all they had done, they further realized there was no way they could predict where things would go. They couldn't say whether this development or that program would or wouldn't be valuable to someone. More than once, someone took a program everyone thought was completely uninteresting and turned it into something compelling.

So they decided -- more or less by happy accident -- to share everything they created with everyone else. Source code to programs were put into an unlocked drawer where anyone could read them and improve on them, or turn them to a completely different purpose. Just open the drawer, pull out whatever was there, and see if you could use or improve it. After all, one person alone cannot explore the whole world; but if you leave out the maps you made, others can go where you did, and find places you missed, and add them to your map. And then you can go back and visit that new place, and perhaps discover something else... This was the only way, the students felt, that the new realm of computing could be best explored.

As you might suspect, the students rather liked this state of affairs. The only flaw was that you had to be a student of MIT's computer science/mathematics department to get at their machines at all. So I suspect some of the students got tired of the Tyrrany of Limited Access, and went and built the Altair, thereby giving more people the freedom to explore. At first, there wasn't a lot to explore in these new machines, but a few obsessive- compulsive geeks saw the potential for incredible possibilities (or, like me, they just wanted to make the lights blink in interesting ways). Over time, the machines got more and more powerful, and the result is the kind of microcomputer you can now buy at Office Depot for a thousand bucks.

Now around the same time as those insane MIT students were building the Altair, the US Department of Defense was building something called ARPANet, a system that would let the computers owned by defense contractors (Lockheed, Martin-Marietta, and that crowd) talk to each other. Oh, this wasn't anything sinister and indecipherable like in the movie The Forbin Project; this was an attempt to let defense contractors share unclassified information so that they could work more effectively. If they could get the data they wanted in seconds (in machine-readable form) as opposed to days through the mail (on paper), they could check vital data and engineering results much more quickly and reliably.

Well, some universities heard about this (partially due to the fact that universities frequently work on government projects), and decided to put their machines on the ARPANet as well. Now, unclassified government research was available not just to defense contractors, but ordinary students as well. What's more, students could use the network for non-defense-related activity (as long as it didn't interfere with the Real Work).

Remember what happened with the computers at MIT when those brilliant students got a crack at it? Well, the same thing happened when students got access to the ARPANet. They created electronic mail. They created network-wide message forums (the Usenet). They created network- wide talk and chat systems. When they got tired of trying to keep track of the exact path of machines to send their email through, they invented tools that would keep track of it for them, and update it automatically.

In short, they created for themselves the tools that would allow themselves to share ideas and talk to each other freely and efficiently. Just like that drawer in the MIT computer lab, except now you didn't have to walk over to the lab.

This is the world we wanted to live in: A world where everyone could talk freely to one another, without regard to what they may have to say. That's why the Internet has such a wide variety of things on it, from the unspeakably profane to the touchingly beautiful.

Why did we do it this way; allowing complete freedom? Well, there was no way we could know what would and wouldn't be "important." Imagine if the cleaning staff threw out Alexander Fleming's moldy bread because they couldn't think why anyone would want to keep it around; we wouldn't have penicillin today.

Even people in our own industry, people who made their reputations and their fortunes on guessing right, have been flagrantly wrong about what would or wouldn't be useful. Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM in 1943, thought the entire planet would never need more than five computers. Back in the 1970's, when the microprocessor was invented and could be manufactured by the tens of millions for very little money, someone stood up and asked incredulously, "What, are you going to put a computer in every doorknob?" Have you been to a modern upscale hotel lately, with the electronic cardkey locks on the doors? Yup, there's a computer in every doorknob. As little as fifteen years ago, we thought bubble memory was going to be the future of digital storage. Well, it hasn't happened yet, and so far, it doesn't look like it will happen.

Do you see the pattern? Even we have been wrong about what's important and what isn't. That's why the systems we built are designed to not exclude anything, because anything may turn out to be important. Sure, there's some stuff that flows through our machines that doesn't interest us, or that we may even object to. No problem; we just don't look at it. But we can't abide throwing away information. Even if you and I think the information is absolutely useless, someone somewhere thinks it's important, or else they wouldn't have gone to the trouble. We didn't make these machines to serve just our needs and our interests; we made them to serve all needs and interests, even needs and interests that don't yet exist. We saw how our own needs and interests have changed over time, and gave our tools the ability to adapt. Otherwise, we'd have to do the work all over again.

This is what we wanted: A world where everyone was free to explore and express themselves. A world where people could learn from the direct experiences from others, whatever they may be. A world where our contributions could be shared with anyone who was interested. A world where we could share our thoughts and feelings and ideas with others who, like us, took joy in the uniquely human act of discovery and exploration. We knew people could do some magnificent and touching things, given the chance. We wanted to give people that chance.

The result was the Internet. A whole new world ripe for discovery and exploration.

Neat, huh?

I'm sorry we didn't tell you this sooner. Our intent was not to scare you with all this; we just got really caught up in what we were doing. But like I said way back there, once you understand that this is not about deception or taking away your job or corrupting your children, but about pure exploration and discovery, maybe you'll be a bit less afraid of what we've built. Maybe you'll try doing a little exploring yourself. Don't worry if you accidentally collide with someone; chances are, they're just exploring, too.

Still a little scared? Tell you what; I'll make you a promise. If you happen to bump into me, take me aside and I'll try to answer all your questions, whatever they may be. If you can't find me, find another long- standing Net citizen. The way things are going, chances are there's one of us standing in front of you at the supermarket checkout stand. Ask them your questions; I'm sure they'll be happy to help as best they can.

Because, you see, this is really nifty stuff once you get the hang of it. And it's really easy. And once you see how fun this can be, once you see that this is all about exploring the infinity of creation, we think you'll enjoy it too. Maybe one day, you, too, will help guide a newcomer.

So, if what we built has confused you, if it has made you feel lost, if it has frightened you, ask us for help.

It's the least we can do.