ARPAnet to Internet in 30 years TV: PBS tells how the 'Net grew from research byway to information highway in a few short decades.

November 25, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

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What is all this stuff?

Those of us still searching for an on-ramp to the information highway should pay close attention tonight to PBS' "Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet." Although host Robert X. Cringely has an unfortunate habit of being cute when he should be informative, this three-hour look at the dizzyingly fast-paced history of the Internet goes a long way toward making the Information Age user-friendly.

The Internet's origins go back to 1957 and the launch of Russia's Sputnik satellite. Alarmed by the Soviets' apparent leadership in technology, President Dwight D. Eisenhower pushed for Americans to catch up. The result was two-fold: NASA and what would become the ARPAnet, a system whereby researchers at universities scattered throughout the country could share information via their computers.

From such small acorns -- at first, only a handful of universities were involved -- do mighty oaks grow. And steadily, over 30 years or so, grow it did, to the point where today, the ARPAnet's great-great grandson, the Internet, is used by more than 100 million people.

Such a number may seem staggering, but get used to it, for "Nerds 2.0.1" is full of numbers, and none of them is small: 100 million e-mail messages are sent daily; $31 million a day gets pumped into Bill Gates' personal fortune; a $1.5 billion Internet media company was founded by six Stanford grads who left college four years ago (they started with $18,000, a garage office and a shared bag of rice).

What "Nerds 2.0.1" does best is give some credit to the pioneers, those computer geeks back in the '60s and '70s who, working alongside computers the size of a living room, made possible both the PCs that students today carry around in their knapsacks and the World Wide Web that allows Joe in Towson to read the musings of Jane in New Zealand with only a few key strokes.

You'll meet the lowly Pentagon employee who came up with the idea of the ARPAnet, the Boston programmers who designed it (including one who reminisces, "Sure, we could build it, but I had no idea why anybody would want such a thing") and even the guy who stared at his keyboard one day and elevatedfrom a symbol hardly anyone ever used to the most important signpost on the information highway.

It's amazing to watch the Internet develop, and to realize how fast it's come so far. While the Internet was around in the '80s, you practically needed a degree in computer science to find anything on it. It wasn't until the '90s and Netscape's introduction of its Navigator browser (which Bill Gates, much to his eternal chagrin, deemed unworthy of his attention) that the Internet became universally accessible. And until 1991, it was illegal to buy and sell on the Internet.

"Nerds 2.0.1" also puts personalities to the names and faces of the battling computer giants who have been so much in the news lately. Besides Gates, who seems far more engaging than his reputation suggests and who often does a better job of putting things in perspective than Cringely, the talking heads include Marc Andreesen and Jim Clark of Netscape and Steve Case of America Online.

Cringely and his show seem to stretch for some of their points -- talk of knowledge advancing in dog years, with people learning in one year what would normally take seven, seems a little arbitrary and a lot self-aggrandizing. And his "Glossary of Geek," in which he attempts to explain such terms as "browser," "protocols" and "packet switching," doesn't always work; you might tape the shows for later review.

Still, the growth of the Internet is an amazing story, perhaps the most remarkable of our time. If nothing else, "Nerds 2.0.1" goes a long way toward explaining why.

'Nerds 2.0.1'

Tonight, 8 p.m.-11 p.m.

MPT, Channels 22 and 67

Pub Date: 11/25/98

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