Origins


Andrew Blum, in his new book Tubes, describes a scene taking place late in the summer of 1969—an excited group of grad students had gathered on an otherwise placid Saturday afternoon in the courtyard of Boelter Hall on the UCLA campus.  This was the summer of Woodstock and, even though they were exclusively science geeks, no doubt a few of them wore bell bottom pants, and more than one moustache adorned an eager young face.  Somebody clutched a bottle of champagne.

220px-Interface_Message_Processor_Front_PanelThe occasion was the arrival of the very first “IMP”—interface message processor—a 900-pound behemoth costing $80,000 ($500,000 in today’s dollars) which was nevertheless referred to as a “minicomputer.”  It had been air freighted from Boston by the engineering firm of Bolt, Beranek and Newman, who a few years earlier had signed a one million dollar contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop an impervious computer network to be called the ARPANET.

This celebratory event harkened directly back to 1957, when a Polish-born engineer named Paul Baron landed a new job at the RAND Corporation, where he soon became involved in a project to design a nuclear-attack-proof communications system for the U.S. military.  Elvis Presley made his seventh and final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show that year, and in November of 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first earth satellite, traumatizing the American psyche and prompting the federal government to call for the building of more backyard bomb shelters across the nation.

Baron began experimenting with different communication models, and soon fell upon the advantages of a ‘fishnet’ design, as opposed to the ‘star’ design employed by the then monopoly AT&T system.  The AT&T model featured a focal hub through which nearly all information flowed, making it especially vulnerable to a nuclear attack.  The fishnet model had no vulnerable centre; if one part of it was damaged or destroyed, any bit of sent information could still reach its final destination by flowing through an alternate set of nodes.

These occurrences in turn of course relate directly to the birth of computers connected via the internet, the single most disruptive technological transformation humankind has witnessed.  Economists have labeled these kinds of innovations general purpose technology (GPT), that is technology which can be applied in a great many situations, work and play, thus resulting in far greater social and economic impact than any kind of industry-specific invention.  Prior GPTs include steam power, electricity and the internal combustion engine.

Recent studies—Race Against the Machine, by MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee is a particularly apt and concise summation—have shown that, while productivity has grown with the onset of digital technology, employment has not.  Median family income has stagnated in recent years, and the last decade is the first since the Great Depression which saw no overall net gain in job creation.  We have the phenomenon of the ‘jobless recovery’ from the crash of 2008, and Brynjolfsson and McAfee are clear about a major contributing factor that’s often been ignored by both business and government:

“… there has been relatively little talk about the role of acceleration of technology.  It may seem paradoxical that faster progress can hurt wages and jobs for millions of people but we argue that’s what’s been happening.”

The military origins of the internet are unmistakable, but I think we can safely assume that the Generals never foresaw that their nuke-proof system would one day be used by so many civilians in so many different circumstances.  Similarly, we’ve done a poor job of foreseeing the economic consequences of rapidly evolving digital technologies, in part because this evolution has been so incredibly rapid.

Ned Ludd and his followers were wrong about the loss of jobs inherent in the steam-powered weaving machines they were smashing back in the early 1800s.  As the industrial revolution progressed, more, not fewer jobs were created.  Those new jobs were more often in the city, not the village or farm, but there were nevertheless more of them, and what’s more they often required more than just an able body.  Sometimes they even required genuine creativity.

We’re living in a new post-revolutionary world, where again jobs are not what they used to be, and where right now there may be fewer of them.   Whether we can adapt to, work with rather than against the new machines to create a new and better society is the question once again at hand.

 

 

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