I have been a fan of Jacques Vallee's books for some time, and when I spotted this book, published in 2003, I had to have it. It turns out to fill in the gaps in one of my favorite topics, computer history, and - even better - it is a personal memoir of important events to which Vallee was a participant.
-- DOUG ENGELBART'S VISION --
Jacques Vallee worked for the legendary Doug Englebart back in the 1960s counterculture days of SRI when long-haired, sandal-wearing hippies experimented with computer technology to "augment human capabilities." Englebart's project introduced some of the elements of modern computing: the mouse, graphical interfaces, and remote participation. He demonstrated these in a famous 1968 presentation he made to academic and military bigwigs.
Vallee gives us a mixed view of Engelbart, who he obviously respected, but who he regarded as a bit out of touch and at odds with his funding source, the Pentagon. His description of the crazy collection of idealistic researchers who worked for Englebart is funny and fascinating as Vallee watches their project, which had once reached meteoric heights of excitement with their famous demonstration, descend into despair and disintegration. Englebart fell under the spell of "EST," a counterculture seminar movement in which people were locked up without food or bathrooms and confessed their faults to one another. Vallee resisted this, despite enormous pressure to attend the seminar, and finally left SRI and the dying "human augmentation" project. Many of the researchers also left to work at Xerox PARC, where the computer mouse was further developed and later picked up by Steve Jobs and Apple.
-- THE BIRTH OF ARPANET --
Vallee went on to found a company offering network conferencing based on the packet switching technology used in the ARPANET. Vallee had created the first database for the first Network Information Center (NIC) used by participants in ARPANET. This was the basis for the Internet, so Jacques Vallee, who I first encountered in his books about UFOs, has a claim to being one of the fathers of the Internet.
-- THE PARALLEL HISTORIES OF MICROCOMUTING AND NETWORKING --
The history of networking is actually even older than the history of personal computing and the two developed side-by-side. Back in 1978, when my husband brought home a TRS-80 microcomputer from our local Radio Shack, I had no idea it would change my life, but it did. We developed word processing software for it and launched a company in our basement from which we sold software to eager buyers around the world who were hungry for useful applications for their 16K machines. We later had a small office and hired some college kids for staff.
Like Jacques Vallee, I have observed how most people know little or nothing about the real story behind the technology they use every day. In the same time frame that Vallee was writing this book, I was writing my own book, Priming the Pump: How TRS-80 Enthusiasts Helped Spark the PC Revolution. David and I wrote the book to tell the story no one else had told about microcomputer pioneers who took their vision of what these little machines could do and created products that people bought and used, to the scorn and disbelief of those still mired in the world of IBM. The power of personal computing was not understood by the giants of industry and that left the door open for computing enthusiasts and visionaries to make a revolution in computing happen.
-- NETWORKING TAKES OFF --
It seems networking followed a similar course, with great early products being gobbled up by pioneers who understood and shared the vision, although they were a fairly small group. But eventually, the power brokers who control the big corporations take notice of something like this, and once they enter the picture, everything changes. It's no longer about the vision or the potential for making a better world, but it's about profits and control.
Networking, of course, has been a huge success and today almost everyone is connected to the Internet. Networking has eclipsed even personal computing, with many people now using hand-held devices to stay in touch with the world. But Vallee's concern in this book is about the negative effects of so much connectedness and who might be controlling access as well as censoring what gets communicated. There's no question this kind of peer-to-peer communications is powerful and offers the possibility of going around the usual control points. That's what packet-switching is all about. Its original purpose was to keep communications open in the event of a national catastrophe such as a nuclear attack. That's why the military funded and then adopted the packet-switching model. The network can stay alive even when pieces of it are destroyed. But that same ability means subversives can keep on talking too.
-- CAN SOMEONE CONTROL COMMUNICATIONS THROUGH A MASTER SWITCH? --
Can the Internet be brought under someone's control? Can all content be filtered through a central censor? I found some interesting observations on this in Tim Wu's book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Vintage). He relates the previous history of mass communications and shows how AT&T was able, for so many years, to keep control of "the master switch" of long-distance communications and how this might happen to the Internet as well. There's no doubt that there are powerful organizations and governments that would like to find and turn off (or at least control) the master switch on the Internet.
But maybe what is turning the Internet into a portal for mere shopping and gaming does not require anything as obvious as an "off" switch. Maybe the takeover of the Net by commercial interests is casting a fog over the original idealistic intentions of the internet's designers, and users who know nothing about its origins accept superficial transactions as its purpose. But from the perspective of almost ten years since Vallee composed the words of this book on his laptop computer, it seems that the Internet has not been completely the province of shallow information about trendy products and the latest in entertainment. The recent Arab Spring shows it can still be used to bring together people who topple a dictator.
The Internet has spawned plenty of companies who will host your website or blog for little or no cost, and anyone can still put up a website (I personally have two I maintain, and I have hundreds of photos on Flickr that have helped me meet people who share my interests). Vallee's concerns about the end of privacy are real, and all of us need to stay on top of who is taking our data and which organizations are out there trying to control access. As Julian Assange discovered when he released tons of sensitive data onto his Wikileaks website, the power structure is still out there and it will go after you if you irritate it too much. The Internet may be in danger of becoming a tool of the elite, the wealthy and the powerful, but if enough of us remember how this technology began, they may find it is more difficult to do so than they imagine.