What If?

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, July 2016

Many novels have portrayed alternative versions of history, such as Robert Harris’s “Fatherland” or Philip K Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” in which the axis powers are victorious in World War II, and the world today is dramatically different.  However, in spite of technology’s role in shaping history, there appear to be few books in which history is altered by imagined changes in technological innovation.  An exception is the 1990 novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, “The Difference Engine,” in which Charles Babbage perfects a steam-driven analytical engine and the information age arrives a century earlier.

Perhaps this dearth of historical technology fiction is because technology seems to evolve in a robust and inalterable manner, unchanged in the long run by outcomes of individual events.  For example, suppose that the transistor had not been invented at Bell Labs in 1947.  In all likelihood, that invention would have occurred soon thereafter at some other place.   Before long someone else would have fabricated the first integrated circuit, and ultimately technology might be little changed today.  It’s as if there are pre-ordained stepping stones along a pathway of innovation, and which are simply uncovered when the time is right.  The paradox, of course, is that those stepping stones are only evident in retrospect.

I tried to imagine a substantial revision of technology history.  Could I envision a singular event that, when changed, would have resulted in there being no Internet as we know it today?  This seemed difficult, because so many different people and organizations were involved in its evolution.  Nonetheless, I thought: what might have happened if in the 1960s and 70s if ARPA had had other priorities and had decided not to fund work in computer networking?

Without ARPA’s funding, vision, and project management there would have been less R&D in computer networking, but even so there still would have been many pockets of work in the field.  What would have been absent would have been the role of government as a neutral convenor and steward of the evolving network.  So in my imagined scenario information networks, instead of being designed by the users themselves empowered by the open TCP/IP platform, get designed by the telecom industry.   Now, Instead of an Internet, there is a balkanized tapestry of many competing proprietary systems largely controlled by telco service providers.

Each country has its own system, and in the US the FCC never acts to exempt data from interstate tariffs, so it is very expensive to transmit across state lines.  The browser and World Wide Web never evolve as such.  Telephones have built-in displays and are programmed to log in automatically to the local service provider, where users immediately encounter an enormous tree of menus.  Charging is by the bit and for selected interactions, so the service is relatively expensive and take-up is sparse.  With the low participation, regionalization, and tight control of information services, national brands do not emerge -- no Google, Amazon, or Facebook.

Well, all this seems like a bad dream, but in truth such a scenario would have been very unlikely.  My own belief is that something akin to today’s Internet would have been so compellingly attractive that it would have emerged nonetheless from some alternative pathway through the swirling chaos of ensuing actions and interactions.

But we’ll never know.