On common language, the Internet, and donuts

A map of ARPANET circa 1973. Credit: David Newbury’s Twitter

Somehow two years ago I surprised myself for spurting out the word ‘Esperanto’ to an interviewer to refer to the situation of having a common understanding when conducting a user experience-based project. Essentially, no matter how complicated the project is to a layperson, everyone in the team developing the product must make it as easy and enjoyable as possible so the users (the laypeople) can use it and benefit from it. The reason I was surprised because for someone whose first language isn’t English, Esperanto, and the whole concept of what it is, is entirely new to me. It was also a new word I just picked up from reading heavily on sociology textbooks soon after enrolling into my doctoral programme, and to be honest I was quite pleased to be able to use it within an accurate context (well I hope!).

The reason this came up today was because my nephew came up to me, asking who invented the Internet and why couldn’t we see it the way we could see… donuts, out of all inanimate objects. Being the nerdy yet the coolest aunt he could ever have, we sat down and I relayed him what had been taught to me in my design and technology school — the whole journey of ARPA, the ARPANET, how the Internet actually began by having it solely for US military purposes, of Robert Khan & Vint Cerf creating this sort of ‘digital Esperanto’ (of course, for the benefit of my 9-year-old nephew, I told him, “they build a language so every data big and small could understand”) for the data packets to pass through effortlessly through multiple networks, and of Don Nielsen and his team putting the language to the test and working on transferring the packets successfully.

What I didn’t tell my nephew, and I do plan on telling him this when he gets older (also I didn’t get to tell him because he already ran off to beg his mother for actual donuts before I could finish my story) is how the story of the invention of the Internet — more so than a technical decision — was also a design decision. The US military at the time needed flexibility because the ARPANET computers, as robust as they already were, were not mobile. And they were humongous so there was no way to carry them around to transfer data across the US militaries which were situated, well, everywhere. As it gets commercialised after 1970 (citation needed), this is how we get the Internet — all the flurry of online arguments in 280 characters, the mindless swiping for dates, the exchange of memes, the start of a new project and wonderful community, and many more.

As for who invented the Internet? It’s really hard to tell. I would say that because there were so many individuals and organisations working on realising the whole thing, and in a lot of ways unintentionally too, leading to the Internet we are using today, I would say it’s a whole group effort. My nephew is going to get disappointed with the answer once he comes back from the donut shop, but he will have to accept the truth — we all make the Internet, boy.

(Update: It just came to me, another word for Esperanto could also be ‘lingua franca’.)

Comment 1

  1. Pingback: How much credit do we deserve for who we are? – Two Kinds of Intelligence

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