Web Posted: 12/26/2004 12:00 AM CST, San Antonio Express-News
The origins of the Internet lie two generations in the past in Cold War fears of nuclear destruction.
The original concept, spelled out by RAND Corp. scientist Paul Baran in a 1962 study, called for a decentralized communications network that would allow the military to maintain command and control of its forces in case of Soviet attack.
The proposed network would contain multiple nodes and connections so that if some locations ó and the data they possessed ó were destroyed, surviving locations would retain the ability to communicate and possess the database of the entire network.
This conceptual framework reveals much about the differences that underlie free and unfree societies. Knowledge is power. Fascism, communism and socialism ó political philosophies that rest on the concentration of power ó could never have conceived of an Internet. The protection of knowledge, which is to say the protection of the totalitarian regime, requires centralization not dissemination.
In ways that could not have been foreseen four decades ago when the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects began work on ARPANET, the decentralization of knowledge is generating historic revolutions. In science and medicine, researchers collaborate across continents and marshal decades of accumulated knowledge at their fingertips.
In politics, the Internet combines the historic impact of every technological innovation that preceded it: the printing press, radio, television, the photocopier, the fax machine, the VCR and the cell phone.
The rulers of closed societies are fighting a losing battle against a technology that no weapon, no censor and no physical or digital barrier can ultimately impede. China's attempt earlier this year to block 1,000 words ó including "democracy," "freedom" and "liberty" ó from the nation's most popular instant messaging service is emblematic of this futile effort.
The most important book on the reading list of policy-makers and military strategists right now is "The Pentagon's New Map." In it, Thomas P.M. Barnett, a professor at the Naval War College, suggests that the great fault line in international relations is not along religious or cultural divides. Rather, it is between a functioning core of nations and what Barnett calls the "non-integrated gap," between nations connected to the modern age of knowledge, wealth and progress and those disconnected from it.
Barnett's specific prescriptions on how to shrink the gap will be debated for years to come. His basic strategic assessment, however, is sound: "All we can offer is choice, the connectivity to escape isolation and the safety within which freedom finds practical expression."
In presenting this choice to the world ó in Afghanistan, Iraq and scores of other nations ó the United States and its allies in the functioning core are engaged in a desperate race against time. As 9-11 foreshadowed, the confluence of violent ideologies with modern technologies makes the destruction of one or more great cities far more likely than the Cold War did.
Recently Google, the company that revolutionized Internet searches, announced a historic development in the history of the Internet and mankind.
Google revealed its plan to index, scan and make available through its search engine what may eventually be tens of millions of books from five of the world's greatest libraries: Oxford University, Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Michigan and the New York Public library.
A derivative benefit exists to decentralizing so much knowledge ó including hundreds of thousands of rare editions to which the public has had little or no access ó beyond simply sharing it. Should we lose the footrace with nuclear terrorism, our modern body of knowledge will not go the way of the ancient Library of Alexandria, the great repository of classical knowledge lost to history in the cataclysmic fires of some forgotten conflict.
The Internet and its philosophical propositions ó conceived in response to the threat of a different cataclysm ó are now among the chief weapons deployed against a disconnected enemy. It also serves as a digital storehouse for humanity should that enemy ever achieve its apocalyptic goal.