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History of Internet engaging, but skips too much information

Nerds 2.01: A Brief History of the Internet
Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet
By Stephen Segaller

TV Books: 1998

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This review first appeared in the American Reporter in 1998.

The Internet has become the quintessential icon of the '90s, what personal computers and punk were to the '80s or Vietnam and the Beatles to the '60s.

When you look at how much of contemporary life is permeated by the 'Net, how it is helping to redefine our culture and economy, it's remarkable that the very concept of the Internet isn't much more than 40 years old, or that 30 years ago this fall (1999) the first computer network was hooked up.

Last year, Public Television aired "Nerds 2.0.1," a sequel to the popular "Triumph of the Nerds." (The sequel is focused on the Internet, while the first show is a look at personal computer pioneers such as Bill Gates of Microsoft and Apple's Steve Jobs.)

The producer of both shows, Stephen Segaller, has now turned the second into a book. (The first show was based in large part on a book by Robert X. Cringely, who was also the on-camera host and narrator for both.)

It's an ambitious undertaking, to be one of the (if not the) first histories of the 'Net. Segaller turns in a well-written story, one that stretches from the earliest days of the ARPANET when scientists and engineers struggled to make two computers talk to one another up through the present age of the World Wide Web where tens of millions of computers are all hooked into one giant network.

But entire swaths of the history of the Internet, and the online world in general, are missing from this book (and, apparently from the series on which it was based). Admittedly, it's touted as a "Brief History of the Internet," but incomplete is more like it. The entire explosion of computer bulletin board systems (BBSs) in the mid-'80s is omitted, as are the pre-Web online communities that sprung up on the Usenet newsgroups and the early dial-up online services like CompuServe, GEnie and Prodigy. Other important parts of the Internet either skipped entirely or glossed over with too little detail are the early Internet search tools like Gopher, Archie and Veronica, and File Transfer Protocol (ftp), the tool that allows files to be transferred via the Internet.

Perhaps few people know of these portions of the Internet and maybe fewer still would have been interested. But before the existence of the graphical world of the Web, the text-based worlds of Usenet, e-mail, ftp and Gopher were the 'Net to those of us lucky to have discovered it.

The omission of the BBS phenomenon is the most egregious of the above holes in Segaller's history – before you had dial-up Internet accounts, most folks who had e-mail had it either through a local university or a BBS. More importantly, when the Internet was still closed to the public, the BBS community came up with its own alternative to the Usenet, FidoNet, in which each participating BBS was a link in a global web of personal computers, each moving messages from one node to the next, helping create a truly worldwide sense of community rivaling that of Ham radio operators.

The fact is, without the BBSs and early commercial services – and the millions of computer users who logged onto them – the world wouldn't have been nearly as ready for the commercialization of the 'Net or the World Wide Web as it has been. But Segaller and the other producers of the show decided not to include those elements, and Segaller the author only reflects that in his book.

So instead of the pre-Web online revolution brewing in the mid-'80s to early-'90s in millions of homes around the world, Segaller focuses on the innovators and visionaries who created the structure of the Internet.

And in that, he does a wonderful job. Obviously sympathetic to the engineers and tinkerers who invented the 'Net, Segaller shows less patience for the corporate suits who invested in the engineers' startups and all too often squeezed the dreamers out once the companies were profitable. He focuses quite a bit on Cisco Systems, the company founded by Sandy Lerner and Len Bosack that sells routing equipment. As with many engineers running startups, Lerner and Bosack were only too happy to let corporate types take care of the business side of things – only to find themselves dumped from the very company they had begun in their home (albeit millions and millions of dollars richer than when they began).

Few, it would seem, have managed to combine Thomas Edison's combination of inventive brilliance and entrepreneurial savvy.

That seems to be the overriding theme of "Nerds 2.01": Technical whizzes constantly being elbowed aside by speculators and sharks.

Of course, were it left up to the engineers and programmers, commercial activity might still be prohibited on the 'Net, and it wouldn't be nearly the omniscient presence it has become.

Segaller is a solid historian, avoiding speculation and sticking to a straight narrative. The only glaring error of fact comes when Segaller writes at one point, "If a Computer Hall of Fame is ever built, (Doug) Engelbart will be among the first half-dozen honorees." Well, there is a Computer Hall of Fame, located at the Computer Museum of America in San Diego. Segaller is correct in arguing that Engelbart belongs there – and although he was not yet in it when this was written, he has subsequently been inducted for his inventions of the computer mouse and multiple-window desktop.

Segaller belongs on the must-read list for those interested in the 'Net. His look at the early years of ARPANET, his many interviews with the characters and players who were there, his willingness to debunk the many myths surrounding the birth of the 'Net (it was never designed in order to provide military computers with redundancy in case of nuclear attack, for instance) are all invaluable in understanding how the Internet came about and what it's potential is for the future.