Where Wizards Stay Up Late
by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon
Simon and Schuster, 1996
[Challenge # 4: A book about a historical event that took place in your lifetime.]
Of all the books I’ve read so far this year, Where Wizards Stay up Late, a history of the development of the Internet, was the toughest to read. Not unpleasant like Twilight was, just very dense and sprawling. That sounds like a contradiction, but it wasn’t. The genesis came about from a congruence of computer theory, technological advances, government agencies, private sector research groups, universities, and programmers. The book tried to cover everything, and to its credit, it did. But in covering everything, there was lack of a common narrative thread. It was really more like a historical monograph than a work of popular fiction. This isn’t to say I didn’t like it; I did. But if I didn’t have a background in computer networking I would have given up on it very quickly. In other words, if I hadn’t been a nerd to begin with.
For more mainstream readers, the authors were careful to give real-world analogies for the concepts, such as how digital information – bits and bytes, zeroes and ones –”packaged” in a TCP/IP cargo container and sent off to its destination. Some of these analogies I remember from school. They worked then, and they still work, even though 22 years have passed since the book’s publication. I would have liked to see a sample of the source code, and though it wouldn’t have told me anything because I’m not a coder, it would have helped me understand the complexity. The way coding was presented in the book was as a kind of magic, deliberately, going by the book’s title.
Though I did wind up feeling edified at the end, I have to say I didn’t exactly look forward to reading it each day. I could only digest it a half hour at a time. I had the feeling the authors were squeezing in every little thing they researched and didn’t want to waste a bit of it. To my mind the book would have been readable if it were narrower in focus, like concentrating on the MIT/Boston crowd of developers, or the Pentagon/ARPA one, or the UCLA one. It was hard to keep all the managers, programmers, and debuggers straight. There were a lot of acronyms as well, not only the protocols but also names of businesses and college campuses. This also made the reading best in small doses. A glossary would have helped.
The book ended in 1994 and was published in 1996, a time when the Internet was shiny and new, so new that mass-market services like AOL and Compuserve (remember them?) weren’t even mentioned. Neither were newsgroups, chats, or BBS forums. I’m guessed all that was outside the scope. The book’s final chapters were very innocent in how they presented the benefits of online connection. I remember that time in the mid-1990s, and indeed, it was very Utopian. But from a viewpoint of today, 2018, I can’t help feeling the technology has escaped from us somehow, to go on its own lurching, crunching rampage like a Frankenstein’s monster escaped from the lab.
And some of this, I found from reading, actually came from the personalities of the people who worked on it. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, computer science WAS a freewheeling, eccentric culture, valuing open communication and share of ideas, and casual approach to the exchange of those ideas. Which led, inevitably, to Flame Wars (remember those?) and Open Source. And actually a few times in the Internet’s history things could have developed more differently. For example, at one point AT&T might have purchased the proprietary code and technology. Or it might have never have been commercialized, which happened in 1991. It could have remained something only found on college campuses and large business.
I can’t rate the book too highly, because it was, as I’ve explained, too sprawling. But by god did it make me think.