Review: Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner | Posted at 7:39 PM
Ever wonder what that little "@" sign means in your email? What about why we put "www" before we visit a website? How about the origin of email itself? Look no further than Katie Hafner's Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The origins of the Internet. In it, Katie and co-author Mathew Lyon outline the origin of the Internet from concept to implementation, from the very first networked terminals in ARPA to the modern TCP/IP-driven Internet we know and [mostly] love.
This is not so much a book of the technical underpinnings of the Internet, though there is much of that, so much as it is about the people who did it all. Let it be known that I love technology, I live for it. What amazed me while reading this book was the people who were involved that no one except people knee-deep in computer science/networking talk about. Take J.C.R. Licklider, a prominent psychologist turned computer enthusiast. He was put in charge of ARPA (the Advanced Research Projects Agency department), a strange choice considering he was a behavioral psychologist. However, without him we may not have had the Internet as we see it now. The ARPANET was the predecessor to the Internet and without ARPA and Licklider's passion for keeping the department alive there would not have been an ARPANET. The book says it best:
"Lick's thoughts about the role computers could play in people's lives hit a crescendo in 1960 with the publication of his seminal paper "Man-Computer Symbiosis." […] In the moment Licklider published the paper, his reputation as a computer scientist was fixed forever. He shed the mantle of psychology and took on computing. There was no turning him back." (pp. 34-35)
To think a former psychologist would be the one are the forefront of computing, it was amazing even back then.
There were other fascinating facts that I had never read about before contained in the book. For example, people keep citing the development of ARPANET was a way to protect national security after a nuclear attack. In fact, my IT Infrastructure teacher cited this reason! I didn't know better until I read this book. Bob Taylor, one of the former heads of ARPA and the starter of ARPANET, has tried his best to distill this common myth, having known "the project embodied the most peaceful intentions—to link computers at scientific laboratories across the country so that researchers might share computer resources" (p. 10).
Later in ARPANET's life, there are still surprises to be had. Will Crowther, who I had never heard of, developed a game called Adventure for ARPANET. It was a cave exploring game, it even had graphics, and "was a simplified, computer version of Dungeons and Dragons" (p. 206). When Crowther, dispirited by a recent divorce, ceased development of the game and left it on a BBN computer, Don Woods, a graduate student at Stanford heard about the game and downloaded it from there. He got the source code from Crowther and fixed it up, adding new features and ridding it of bugs. He created a guest account for people to login to the Stanford computer to play it and it was a huge hit. Myself being a gamer, this little tidbit of fact was especially fun to read.
Reading Where Wizards Stay up Late is definitely not a chore. I definitely recommend picking this one up, you won't be disappointed. It's a joy to read, both for the interesting historical anecdotes along with the conversational and engaging storytelling nature of the narrative. It is definitely not a vanilla history book but rather is a deep and fascinating read about the lives of those who spent nights upon nights building us one of the most valuable tools in human history: the Internet.