Reflections of a ModemJunkie

June, 1998

A Matter of Perspective -Two Unrelated Events

by Leonard Grossman

My wife, the Realtor(tm), was getting a bit impatient. She had submitted offers on behalf of two clients that afternoon and her beeper was silent. Why were the other agents not getting back to her? In fact, her beeper was strangely silent for this time of year. Usually at this time of year it is impossible for her to finish a cup of tea, much less a meal, without that consarned thing calling her to the telephone. But no messages for two hours, Why is this happening to me?

Then, she decided to call her voicemail service to see if there had been any calls. Normally, if someone leaves a message on the system it automatically pages her. Two hours of silence was too much to bear. So even though she hadn't been beeped, she called in.

Both offers had been accepted. And there were other messages, too. Why hadn't the beeper worked? Had the battery died Then she learned the pager system was down. Why was this happening during the busy season? It never occurred to her that 90 percent of beepers around the world had gone silent. Only the next morning did she learn that not only brokers, but doctors and news feeds, and t.v. networks around the world had lost their links to the world.

During the same week, Bill Gates continued his counter attack against the Federal Government. He ranted on and on about the evils of big government. But he went too far in his praise of private industry and his attack on Washington when he insisted that the Internet was one of the blessings conferred upon the world by private industry. As to government's contribution, the words of the late Mayor Richard Daley, suffice: "What trees do they plant?" he seemed to say.

Crediting private industry, to the exclusion of the government, for the TCP/IP protocol and the computer chip, is simply wrong. It is true that Microsoft was late in coming to the Internet, just as it has often been late in other areas as well. Microsoft's genius has been in co-opting and consolidation, not in creativity. But that does not excuse ignoring history - ignoring the basic foundations of the industry.

The early days of the computer industry were vastly underwritten by the government. And the Internet was almost totally the creation of governments as the Defense Department and the universities began their experiment in communication and began the creation of the backbones upon which today's Internet depends.

How easy it is to forget that four years ago Mosaic, purely the product of the government funded university environment, was virtually (no pun intended) the only graphical browser available. Real commercial competition didn't arrive until mid 1994 when upstart Netscape came on the scene. (Why is it I don't feel sorry for Netscape in the anti-trust battle? After all, Netscape was the benificiary of the Mosaic research. The DOJ is wrong if it thinks the question is whether Netscape is bundled with Win 2000 or whenever. There are much more important questions of open systems and contracts. But that is another story.)

But back to my story. The foundations of the Internet go back decades. Long before Microsoft saw the light. It is interesting that only three years ago people were questioning the commercial value of the Internet. Interesting, everyone said, but show me the money.

Industry's contribution to the Internet? Commercialization! Java, plug-ins. Fancy fonts and HTML formatted e-mail. The medium is getting in the way of the message. Take another look Mr. Gates. Private industry is milking the Internet. Or at least trying to find out how to do so. It doesn't get the credit.

So my wife's beeper goes down and Gates blasts the Feds. Is there a common thread? Actually there are two very different but very important threads weaving these stories together.

First, both Bill and Sally share the common virtue of viewing events from their own perspective. But more important, both points of view failed to take into consideration the vast, hidden, infrastructures which make possible our daily lives.

Way back in high school, I had a great Social Studies teacher, who made at least a couple of points I still remember. One day he was talking about the fields of civil administration and civil engineering. How often do we think of what happens when we flush the toilet? We take for granted the infrastructures upon which we so much depend. This is not necessarily bad. How could we walk down the street if we were constantly aware of our personal infrastructures -- our skeletal system, out muscles and blood vessels. What if we were constantly conscious of our nervous systems. Could we function?

Still, there are many infrastructures which require our attention. Who would have ever have imagined that the loss of one satellite could disable 90% of the worlds beepers and so much more? Who would have ever suspected that the PBS news feed shared the same system as a local pager? So much we take for granted.

And so much Mr. Gates takes for granted, too.

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Copyright 1998 Leonard Grossman

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