Friday, March 21, 2008

Thanks to Arthur C. Clarke for Virtual Joy

In an obituary earlier this month, I read that one of Arthur C. Clarke’s stories, “Dial F for Frankenstein,” inspired a British scientist “to invent the World Wide Web in 1989.” This struck me as an unlikely story.

I have no doubt that a Clarke story may have inspired scientist Tim Berners-Lee (hyphenization courtesy of the obit’s author). I just question whether he, or anyone else, can be said to have “invented” the web.

Over the last couple of years, my son Brendan and I have had several conversations about such things. Brendan, now nine years old, has initiated these discussions with the regular claim that Bill Gates invented the internet.

His nearly habitual assertion would launch what became, in repetition, a conversation both tedious and infuriating. It is with some relief that I can say that it has been some time, six weeks or more, since he last made his emphatic Bill Gates claim.

He stopped, I think, because we found a book at the DC public library that helped to ground our discussion. The book, called Cyberspace and written by David Jefferis, is aimed at kids. Jefferis manages to write about the development of the internet without a single reference to Bill Gates.

The internet, it turns out, “developed because of the ‘cold war,’ a power struggle between communist and non-communist countries that lasted from 1945 to 1989.” Defense planners were looking for a way to maintain communications in the event of nuclear attack. They explored a network of connected sites that did not depend on a single hub.

“This first Internet, named the ARAPnet, was set up in the 1960s.” Apparently, it solved the planners’ problem. “From then on, there was no stopping the growth of the Net,” Jefferis wrote.

(It may seem to readers as though I'm not following a strict system for capitalizing words here. But this is the rule I’m following: If I’m quoting someone who capitalizes “internet” or “web,” the capitalization stands. But if I’m using those words to make a point—entirely my own or paraphrased—I’m not capitalizing. I don’t capitalize the word “god,” either. On this point, my Bill Gates/Microsoft-developed Word program disagrees. Word underlines, in red, every instance of my use of “internet” that I don’t capitalize.)

In any case, I used passages from “Cyberspace” to help make the point to Brendan that the development of the internet was a collective achievement. Gates, after all, hadn’t even been born when the cold war began.

Though he’d never been persuaded by me before, the notion that the “military,” another legendary entity in Brendan’s mind, might have a hand in inventing the internet, relieved him greatly and he was able to set aside his faith in the omnipresence of Bill Gates in the history of Everything. (In this paragraph, for reasons unknown to me, Word has begun underlining in green each use of “internet” that I fail to capitalize.)

So, when I read that Berners-Lee had been moved by Clarke’s story to invent the web, I persuaded Brendan to take another trip to the library with me (the Lamond-Riggs branch of DC public.)

Now, as Brendan settles in with a baseball book—“Rookie of the Year”—I have retrieved “Cyberspace” and am consulting it for a bit of info about Tim Berners-Lee. As it turns out, Clarke’s obit writer has not stretched the fabric of truth quite as far as Brendan did in his story of the internet.

There’s a small photo of this guy, Berners-Lee on page 10 of “Cyberspace.” The caption, which has done away with all hyphens, says Lee, “of Switzerland’s CERN laboratory, is thought of as the brains behind the World Wide Web.”

Of course, that achievement has broader roots than Lee’s brain, also. “Cyberspace” says that in 1945 American scientist Vannever Bush “proposed using a ‘memex,’ a machine that [could store] information. [And] lay a trail of related words and pictures.”

Vannever Bush, says the book, “is often called the father of the information age.” Further, writes Jefferis, “the memex was never built, but in 1960, programmer Ted Nelson was inspired by the idea to write the hypertext computer language. This used hyperlinks to take a user on a trail of linked information sources.”

All of this actually suggests that the web and the internet were “born,” ultimately from the fertile partnership of Metaphor and Hyperbole (caps mine), which themselves originated in once both ritualized and spontaneous social, cultural and collective activities like storytelling or, perhaps, originated in the domestications of grains and the brewing of malt beverages some 10,000 years ago.

Personally, I find that my own use of the internet (and my laptop and other related items) is a mixed benefit to me. Just two days ago—ironically or not, the same day I read the Clarke obituary—I composed several clever e-mails to my landlord and to other correspondents. And, even more cleverly, but mistakenly, copied those messages to two of Brendan’s teachers; people who had no interest whatsoever in the content or style of my e-mails about sewers and lunch.

In the process, I discovered that in the wake of the internet and the web, it is possible for me to sit at home, entirely by myself, and use these developments to embarrass myself publicly.

In a final connotative leap, I’d like to volunteer another tidbit from “Cyberspace.” A picture of a young man, posing near two large, now archaic, computers and staring bravely (visionarily?) off into space is captioned this way:

“Ray Tomlinson devised the electronic mail system in the US in 1972. He used the now-universal ‘at’ symbol to show an e-mail address: this person @ that computer.”

It is therefore thanks to Ray, Arthur, Tim, Vannever and countless other less well-known brains, "fathers of," and inventors—me, you, Al Gore, Emma Goldman, and millions of servants, serfs and slaves throughout history—that I can anticipate yet another time in the future when I might sit home by myself and somehow commit one more public faux pas.

It makes me want to both blush and jump for virtual joy.


  1. "In the process, I discovered that in the wake of the internet and the web, it is possible for me to sit at home, entirely by myself, and use these developments to embarrass myself publicly"

    This makes me cringe because I've done it myself on more than one occasion. But its still funny.

  2. Hey, Barb. Of course, the internet did not originate self-humiliation in all its many forms. We did. But at least before the internet (and telephones and really thin walls), it was possible to sit home and confine one's exposure. Public embarassment, therefore, must be the outcome of some kind of personal empowerment process. One must decide to do something in front of a real audience (however virtual it might seem) in order to achieve public embarassment. It's sort of a "I blush (cringe, grovel, shrink, etc.), therefore I am" statement.