Inventing Things Without the Words

Inventing things without the words

On October 29, 1969, the first node of a network called ARPANET was connected. There wasn't a word for what was happening yet. That came later. Internet and TCP / IP, its fundamental protocol for the transmission of information, became a word a few years later.

But the vision was to create a “unique intergalactic network.” That's what one of the pioneers of that company said in early 1960s. No word, no word of mouth, apparently.

It was hard to predict what that connection would mean, exactly. On the morning of 29 October 1969, at 3420 Boelter Hall of the University of California in Los Angeles, there were zero reporters.

A few months later, on July 15, 1969, a tiny article appeared  in UCLA's student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. “Country's computers linked here first,” it said, explaining that they were working on a new network. The first computers would be connected to it, and it would be up and running the following year.

Internet pioneer Leonard Kleinrock is quoted in the article. Kleinrock's early work on queuing theory would contribute to the basic technology that allows the internet to function. Gizmodo published the full text in 2013.#

People had no idea how important this would be. And that's the thing, it usually works that way. Bringing something knew to the world takes a lot, including redefining some of the truths we consider sacred.

But imagination is invention's friend when applied to a question. What would  happen if we connected all existing computers to each other, so we could communicate using this protocol we've identified to transmit information in seconds?

Take a step back in time with me.

It was 1964. RAND researcher Paul Baran began thinking about the optimal structure of what we would call the Internet. He envisioned a network of unmanned nodes that would act as switches, routing information from one node to another to their final destinations.

Baran suggested there were three possible architectures for such a network — centralized, decentralized, and distributed. While he felt the first two —centralized and decentralized— were vulnerable to attack, the third distributed or mesh-like structure would be more resilient.

His task of designing a “survivable” communications system led him to suggest the Internet's design should have a distributed architecture. But because the analog communication system of the time could not handle messages broken down into small packets able to travel independently of one another along the network, his proposal was nixed.

Jack Osterman of AT&T quashed Baran's vision saying it couldn't possibly work, and if it did, “damn if we are going to allow the creation of a competition to ourselves.” AT&T was the communication monopoly at the time. It had all the words.

Years later, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), President Eisenhower's answer to the Soviet's Sputnik's launch, came up with the same vision independently of Baran's proposal. “By that time,” says  Albert-László Barabási in Linked, “the Internet was well along its course of development.”

The Internet was designed as a network of routers that communicate with each other through protocols. Once it was out there it took a life of its own, and it looks more like as an ecosystem —as in Baran's original vision— than a centrally-driven structure.

Inventing things without the words is possible. It takes the ability to look beyond the things and the words we use currently, and observe the relationships and structures in which they do and could engage.

Ecosystems are more resilient than monopolies in the end, because they become stronger based on shared values, each voice able to travel independently of one another along the network.

The word comes next. New words make connections visible. That's when building on top of the idea scales.

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