Many years ago, computer scientists at the Advanced Research Projects Agency, chief among them Robert Kahn and Vincent Cerf, had a wacky idea. What if, instead of having computers talk to each other like people do on the phone–with dedicated long-term connections, hello and goodbye messages, and a centralized service responsible for connection reliability–we created a new kind of system, where the chopped-up pieces of information moved autonomously through a network of abstract nodes and edges, to be assembled by the recipient, where only the sender was responsible for correctness? This idea–championed throughout its lifecycle by, yes, Vice President Gore–undergirds what we now call the Internet. It is fault-tolerant, able to route messages around broken nodes, and it can scale so effortlessly that we have repeatedly run out of addresses for nodes. And it is proving itself right now as never before.
Few pieces of modern information technology have reached this level of longevity. Few pieces of historical information technology are so important to the world–the book; the data-transmission cable; the human-readable programming language. You may have seen one of the latter in the news–COBOL, one of the first modern programming languages. People like to make fun of how it’s still in use today, but the fact is, you only hear about it when the world breaks–when, say, New Jersey’s COBOL-based comptroller system can’t handle the influx of unemployment claims caused by a pandemic unprecedented in modern history. Contrast that to a website such as this one, which probably doesn’t run correctly on half our computers, though the Internet happily routes its packets to us almost instantly. (Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, while awesome, was not actually heavily involved in COBOL’s development, but go ahead and watch her explaining a nanosecond anyway.)
Mr. Cerf recently recovered from the coronavirus. “I don’t recommend it,” he said. The Washington Post had a good article about him, and the Internet, and the test it is currently passing. So let’s hear it for the things keeping the world from completely shutting down, especially Kahn and Cerf and their team; truly, they have won the Internet. A series of interconnected, independent systems through which we can all communicate, even when some of them are bad actors–a model of collaboration we should all aspire to.