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A Brief History of the Future: From Radio Days to Internet Years in a Lifetime Hardcover – June 26, 2000


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 327 pages
  • Publisher: Overlook Hardcover; 1st edition (June 26, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1585670324
  • ISBN-13: 978-1585670321
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #356,572 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

John Naughton, to judge by this learned but lightly written history of modern communications technology, is deeply interested in just about everything. It mystifies the Irish-born Cambridge University scholar that so few people share his fascination with the Internet--and, he grumps, "the higher you go up the social and political hierarchy the worse it gets."

A Brief History of the Future, whose title is just right, is Naughton's attempt to educate the uninitiated in how the Internet came to be. Although its development occurred in starts and stops over a half-century, the Internet came into its own only in the 1990s, with the arrival of the World Wide Web and widely available software to negotiate it. Each of those innovations, though, drew on work that sometimes extends deep into the past, and Naughton does a good job of tracing technical lineages. Though studded with geekspeak, his narrative doesn't presuppose much background knowledge on his readers' part, unlike Stephen Segaller's worthy Nerds 2.0.1., which covers some of the same ground. Naughton's cast of characters includes such scientific and administrative luminaries as Norbert Wiener, Vannevar Bush, Paul Baran, Bill Gates, Linus Torvalds, and Tim Berners-Lee (but, sad to say, not Al Gore), each of whom made contributions large and small to what Naughton insists is a technological revolution with endless possibilities for the common good.

Well-written and richly detailed, Naughton's book is a fine introduction to the Net, and to the countless, largely unsung innovators who made it possible. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

One of the better meditations on technology and the Internet to burble up from the digerati in recent years, this fact-filled volume offers a selective history of computing as it traces the dawn of the World Wide Web and honors the engineers who created it. Naughton, a Cambridge fellow and a columnist for the Observer (U.K.), plunges into the nuances of packet-switching and compression algorithms as he indulges his obsession with communication, first evidenced by an intense interest in short-wave radio during his childhood in rural Ireland. Conveying detailed aspects of programming with relative ease, Naughton surveys the heroes of the Internet and reviews their achievements. We meet J.C.R. Licklider, the MIT-trained engineer who first pondered the tantalizing potential of "man-computer symbiosis," and the great Paul Baran, a talented young engineer at the RAND think tank who in 1959 developed the first distributed digital network for the U.S. military (which was stoutly resisted, Naughton points out, by top brass at the analogue-based AT&T). The heaviest hitter, however, is probably Tim Berners-Lee, who got interested in the idea of hyperlinks as a way of aiding his terrible memory and went on to develop the first Web browser and the now-ubiquitous HTML language for the Web. With amusing asidesAthe first e-mail message may have been sent by an engineer in L.A. asking his colleagues to retrieve a razor he left at a conference in the U.K.Athis is a particularly thoughtful and readable history of the Web to date. (July)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Ray Thompson on October 9, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I loved this book because, while semi-technical, it is mostly about events and people that brought us the internet revolution. It took many "small bricks" to build the internet we know today, and hundreds of unsung hero's are revealed. Although I was not intimately involved in this revolution, it has touched my life over and over again, and now, at 70 years, I feel I am a part of it! I especially love the beginning of the authors personal story, which perfectly parallels my life and makes a marvelous connection between short-wave listening, ham radio, and the advent of the internet! The author is very clear in stating where there are "differing stories" about some of the events, which speaks well of his research in preparation for writing the book. This is a book for those that lived through the "beginning" of the future, and for those young people are pushing the future forward in the new millennium!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Eager Reader on April 20, 2002
Format: Paperback
Next time you take a transcontinental flight to a technical conference, skip the airline movie and just read this wonderful book cover to cover. I wish history class in high school had been this much fun. Naughton has written the definitive history of the Internet so far. For example, when the Pentagon asked AT&T to build an early prototype of the Internet for them, AT&T pooh-poohed packet switching as a worthless idea concocted by some young whippersnapper (Paul Baran of the Rand Corp.) who knew nothing about proper telephone engineering. The book is full of anecdotes and funny stories. Great reading for old fogies and young fogies alike.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Sam Adams on November 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This book is essentially an overview of the development and evolution of the Internet, ending with the browser war between Netscape and Microsoft. It was initially published in the UK in 1999, then in the US in 2000. There is some discussion of the intellectual backstories such as Norbert Wiener's cybernetics and JCR Licklider's ideas on interactive computing, but the book is mainly about the birth and growth of the Net. This book lacks detail - and is in that sense superficial - but it works well as the general overview the author meant it to be.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By mbaer on July 15, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I recently bought the book after having read the raving reviews here on Amazon. Before I turn to my critique, it has to be said that Naughton makes a fine effort in bringing together the whole context (or at least some sort of plausible context) of "the internet". There are some not uninteresting bits of information on various side issues such as ham radio.

Anyway, as for the core topic -- the internet -- it turns out the book is little more than a mix of pieces taken very much in sequence from the awesome and much underrated Hafner and Lyon book, some actually very funny manual type of sections on things like how to use a browser to click on hyperlinks, and towards the end a little bit of Raymond and Lessig inspired musings about how much open source is better than proprietary software, and how the internet is threatened by corporate giants.

For a serious researcher this book is almost totally useless as an original source of information. Also, there are some strange asides such as on page 147 "'Real e-mail dates from 1970" with a footnote stating that "For some reason, Hafner and Lyon ... date it as 'one day in 1972', but this must be wrong because the RFC archive shows a flurry of discussions of a mail protocol in the summer and autumn of 1971." This explanation makes no sense to me, for there have been all sorts of dead end RFCs, especially in the very early days. I could elaborate the discussion on what qualifies as the "first email ever" much further, but the crucial point is that Naughton offers very little authoritative information and introduces quite a bit of subjectivity on the sources he builds on.

As an aside, don't even waste your time with the Abbate book, just get the Hafner and Lyon book and get to the original sources of the BBN guys, the NWG, Pouzin, Cerf, and the more recent Dave Clark papers on design principles and the internet.
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