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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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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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Top customer reviews
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.