I was there at the almost-unnoticed Big Bang-the silent blast of bits that begat the new communities of the digital era. It was UCLA, fall 1969, and I was a very young assistant professor writing primitive CAD software and trying to imagine the role that designers might play in the emerging electronic future. In a back room just down the hallway from the monster mainframe on which I worked, some Bolt Beranek and Newman engineers installed a considerably smaller machine that booted up to become the very first node of ARPANET -the computer network that was destined to evolve into the worldwide Internet. 1
From this inconspicuous point of origin, network tentacles grew like kudzu to blanket the globe. By December there were four ARPANET nodes. In April 1971 there were 23, in June 1974 there were 62, and in March 1977 there were 111. Soon, cyberspace was busting out all over: two more important networks, CSnet (funded by the National Science Foundation) and BITNET (funded by IBM) developed in the early 1980s. A high-speed backbone (NSFnet) was in place by July 1988; this connected thirteen regional networks scattered across the United States-much as the interstate highway system linked local road networks-and the whole loosely organized system became known as the Internet. During the late 1980s and early 1990s more and more networks connected to the Internet, and by 1993 it included nearly two million host computers in more than 130 countries. In the first six months of 1994 more than a million additional machines were hooked up.
In the United States, by that point, there was one Internet host for every couple of hundred people. 2 (Take care in interpreting these figures, though; the actual density is likely to be much higher in affluent, computer-literate places like Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Palo Alto, California, and much lower in inner-city Detroit or East Los Angeles.) According to the best estimates-but in truth, nobody really knew-there were more than thirty million active users. 3
While the Internet community was evolving into something analogous to a ramshackle Roman Empire of the entire computer world, numerous smaller, independent colonies and confederations were also developing. Dial-in bulletin board systems such as the Sausalito-based WELLmuch like independent city-states-appeared in many locations to link home computers. 4 Commercial online services such as Compuserve, Prodigy, and America Online emerged in parallel to the government-sponsored, education-and research-oriented Internet. Before long, though, most of these erstwhile rivals found it necessary to join forces with the Internet.
There would not have been a great deal to connect if computers had remained as large and expensive as they were when ARPANET began in 1969. But as networks developed, so did inexpensive personal computers and mass-marketed software to run on them. The very first, the Altair, showed up in 1974, and it was followed in the early 1980s by the first IBM PCs and Apple Macintoshes. Each one that rolled off the assembly line had its complement of RAM and a disk drive, and it expanded the potential domain of cyberspace by a few more megabytes of memory.
Somewhere along the line, our conception of what a computer is began to change fundamentally. It turns out that these electronic boxes are not just big, fast, centralized calculating and data-sorting machines, as ENIAC, UNIVAC, and their mainframe successors had led us to believe. No, they are primarily communication devices -not dumb ones like telephone handsets, that merely encode and decode electronic information, but smart ones that can organize, interpret, filter, and present vast amounts of information. Their real role is to construct cyberspace-a new kind of place for human interactions and transactions.