…one small step to the web…. who knew?
Fifty years ago this week, the Soviet Union gave approval for the launch of Sputnik, the first man made satellite. Although it launched in October 1957, the Politburo gave approval for launch on May 24th. It was a moment that changed the world.. but not in the way you might think.
The Internet and all that we do here is a direct consequence of Sputnik.
Its a classic case of the unexpected consequences of new technologies.
The path to the Internet actually began in 1949, when the Soviet Union set off its own Atomic Bomb.
This terrified the Americans. They no longer had a monopoly on weapons of mass destruction.
The Americans responded to the technology of the time, as they understood it. Almost immediately, they conjured up images of imagined massive fleets of long-range Russian bombers winging their way over the pole to attack New York in a 1950’s replay of Hiroshima.
The best defense against the Russian air force, it was then thought, was to build radar stations, and set up a defensive fighter plane force to intercept them. (It is a bit astonishing to realize that Pearl Harbor happened before there was even radar to see the approaching Japanese).
At enormous cost and great effort, the US Government built the DEW, or Distant Early Warning system, a string of over-the-horizon radar stations laced across the far arctic, stretching from Alaska, across Canada to Greenland. It delivered 24 hour a day, real time nformation to NORAD, buried deep under a mountain in Colorado.
If you’ve ever seen Fail Safe or even Dr. Strangelove, you’ll understand how this works.
But the success of Sputnik made the whole advance technology of DEW, and the billions sunk into it, almost instantly obsolete.
If the Soviets could put satellites into orbit, they could also put nuclear warheads into orbit, and warning time went from hours to a very few minutes – not enough to do anything… except perhaps kiss your a** goodbye.
And being under a mountain was no longer any kind of defense, because the Soviets could up the megatonnage of the warheads faster and cheaper than the Americans could dig deeper shelters and pour more concrete. The US needed a radically new approach.
The Rand Corporation gave it to them:
Instead of having just one Command and Control Center under Cheyenne Mountain, they would have lots of them. All over the country. If one was taken out, another would take its place. It was a network, with lots and lots of nodes. Very clever. Simple. And cheap.
Bolt, Beranek and Newman, a Boston based engineering firm was hired by the Department of Defense to build the ‘network’ called ARPAnet, for Advanced Research Projects Administration. A series of mainframe computers were wired together into a primative network.
Thus did the Internet come into being. As a very minor offshoot, almost a footnote, of the Cold War. And built at a cost far below the cost of even one B-52 bomber.
The astonishing thing is that now, fifty years later, rockets and even nuclear warheads didn’t really have a lot of impact on world events, or on our lives. Rocketry is pretty much relegated to a third rate pursuit of a few; nuclear warheads are an anachronism, albeit a dangerous one – but still a remnant from another time and place.
Yet the Internet, that very minor footnote to nuclear and ICBM history proved to be the most powerful agent of change to come out of that era – far surpassing almost anything else, and frankly, still just getting started.
It is, more often than not, the technology that you don’t pay any attention to that has the greatest impact on your life and on the future, rather than the one you are watching.
Call it the law of unintended consequences.
Today, in our own industry, network television and the film industry careen from pillar to post, investing billions in a wide range of fortifications against the coming threat of cheap, easy to reproduce content and barrier-free distribution platforms.
But you can be sure that the real mover; the real fulcrum for change is already here.
We just haven’t noticed it…. yet.