Posts Tagged ‘information technology’

If you are in a Cold War, worried that your enemy is going to destroy your military headquarters, including your main information hub, what do you do? Design an alternative information technology in which knowledge is diffused around the whole system and accessed through many different portals.

Paul Baran, who died a fortnight ago, was one of the two inventors of packet switching, without which we wouldn’t have the internet. Martin Campbell-Kelly explains:

In 1959 he joined Rand, which had been established in 1946 to do military research for the US Air Force. By the late 1950s, it was at the centre of nuclear politics and strategy. An issue of great concern at this time was the vulnerability of US military communications to a nuclear strike from Russia. If the command-and-control network was destroyed, the ability of the US to retaliate would be threatened.

Baran invented a futuristic solution to this problem in the form of a network held together by scores of small computers. Messages would be passed (“like a hot potato”) from one computer to the next towards its destination. Even if the network was massively damaged, the message would still get through. Another innovation was to chop all messages into small blocks so that they would not be delayed by long messages clogging the network. The blocks would arrive at their destination in a random order via different routes, and the computer at the destination end would reconstitute the original messages from the individual blocks.

Baran’s digital network proposal was at the cutting edge of computer technology and would have been hugely expensive to build. Numerous technical objections were raised by senior engineers steeped in the old analogue technology. In order to answer his critics, over the next few years Baran compiled a series of 11 reports. These were never secret, because it was believed that resilient networks were needed by friend and foe alike to resolve an escalating nuclear standoff. In the end, Baran failed to gain support for his proposal and, in 1968, with two other Rand alumni, he established the non-profit Institute for the Future, where he became an authority on the emerging digital networks.

Around this time Arpa was designing the Arpanet, the prototype of the internet, and their attention was drawn to the work of both Baran and the British computer scientist Donald Davies, who had developed similar ideas at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex. Davies (who was unaware of Baran’s work) called his system “packet switching”, and that name stuck, although the underlying concepts were the same in both proposals. Most importantly, both Baran and Davies had conducted and published detailed studies which established packet switching as a viable technology rather than just a bright idea. This enabled Arpa to commit to the system, and it remains the underlying technology of the internet.

It makes one reflect on how knowledge is stored and shared in other systems – in academia, in politics, in family life, in religions, etc.

Baran seems to have been very humble about his achievements, and keen to acknowledge the work of many others in building the internet. Katie Hafner writes:

In recent years, the origins of the Internet have been subject to claims and counterclaims of precedence, and Mr. Baran was an outspoken proponent of distributing credit widely.

“The Internet is really the work of a thousand people,” he said in an interview in 2001.

“The process of technological developments is like building a cathedral,” he said in an interview in 1990. “Over the course of several hundred years, new people come along and each lays down a block on top of the old foundations, each saying, ‘I built a cathedral.’

“Next month another block is placed atop the previous one. Then comes along an historian who asks, ‘Well, who built the cathedral?’ Peter added some stones here, and Paul added a few more. If you are not careful you can con yourself into believing that you did the most important part. But the reality is that each contribution has to follow onto previous work. Everything is tied to everything else.”

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Cyber-scepticism: not that we are actually unplugging and switching off, but that more and more people are questioning whether our frantic social networking is really helping us to connect, to deepen our relationships, to share our lives.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle is one of many people wondering where we are really going in the information age. Her new book is appropriately titled Alone Together. Paul Harris reports:

Turkle’s book, published in the UK next month, has caused a sensation in America, which is usually more obsessed with the merits of social networking. She appeared last week on Stephen Colbert’s late-night comedy show, The Colbert Report. When Turkle said she had been at funerals where people checked their iPhones, Colbert quipped: “We all say goodbye in our own way.”

Turkle’s thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.

But Turkle’s book is far from the only work of its kind. An intellectual backlash in America is calling for a rejection of some of the values and methods of modern communications. “It is a huge backlash. The different kinds of communication that people are using have become something that scares people,” said Professor William Kist, an education expert at Kent State University, Ohio.

The list of attacks on social media is a long one and comes from all corners of academia and popular culture. A recent bestseller in the US, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, suggested that use of the internet was altering the way we think to make us less capable of digesting large and complex amounts of information, such as books and magazine articles. The book was based on an essay that Carr wrote in the Atlantic magazine. It was just as emphatic and was headlined: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Another strand of thought in the field of cyber-scepticism is found in The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov. He argues that social media has bred a generation of “slacktivists”. It has made people lazy and enshrined the illusion that clicking a mouse is a form of activism equal to real world donations of money and time.

Other books include The Dumbest Generation by Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein – in which he claims “the intellectual future of the US looks dim”– and We Have Met the Enemy by Daniel Akst, which describes the problems of self-control in the modern world, of which the proliferation of communication tools is a key component.

Turkle’s book, however, has sparked the most debate so far. It is a cri de coeur for putting down the BlackBerry, ignoring Facebook and shunning Twitter. “We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, yet we have allowed them to diminish us,” she writes.

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