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"Will the Internet Survive?"

early U.S. Army computer use
Early computer use by the U.S. Army. PDP-11/70, Vector General display of XM-1 tank.
Courtesy Michael John Muuss, U.S. Army, 1985

The Internet traces its origins back to a U.S. Defense Department project during the hottest part of the Cold War. The system was originally conceived as a way to let computer users, attached to different networks, exchange data with each other.

The key questions were:

  • How useful would the Internet be in the event of a nuclear attack?

  • If a bomb in the Midwest took out the shortest path between New York and Los Angeles, for instance, could information be routed around the damaged section?

  • Could the system continue delivering e-mail, even if a large section of it were destroyed by a nuclear bomb?

  • Could computers continue to communicate with other computers?

  • Would communications between military officials and communications with their weapons (via computer) come to a halt?
two early U.S. Army computers
Sun-2/50 and SGI 3030 computer workstations on U.S. Army desk.
Courtesy Michael John Muuss, U.S. Army, 1985

The Internet system was designed, in part, with just that scenario in mind. It was supposed to be based on a technology that would route information around damaged parts of the network and arrive safely at its final destination. Vinton G. Cerf, one of the Internet creators, stated that, if properly constructed, the system could remain functional after a nuclear strike.

Simulations were done using special radios equipped with Internet technologies. What happened? At first, the network splintered, but the remaining sections of the network sought out each other and hooked up, continuing to transmit information across the surviving parts of the system.

Cerf, however, hastened to add that there was no truth to the belief that the Internet was impervious to nuclear attack. If there is no path the routers can use to get data to locations on a given path, Internet access will disappear for anyone connected to that path.

While it is true the Internet has its roots in the Cold War and was a Defense Department project, the system wasn’t really designed for war. Initially, it was designed to allow computing resources to be shared among a dispersed group of users. Of course, the idea could also be translated into military command and control scenarios.

Cray XMP48 supercomputer
The Cray XMP48 was the world’s fastest supercomputer from 1983 to 1985.
Courtesy Michael John Muuss, U.S. Army, 1985

It’s ironic that the Internet, a Cold War technology, will likely make its greatest contribution to promoting democracy in a post-Cold War world. It greatly increases the free flow of information into even totalitarian societies. Dictators depend upon control of information. Control is essential to maintain a dictatorship. But the Internet makes it impossible for governments to control access to outside information. The Internet could be a tremendous democratizing force.

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