Where the Wizards Stay Up Late book review

Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the InternetWhere Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet by Katie Hafner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a fun and detailed look through the early history of the Internet. I revisited key figures like JCR Licklider, Vint Cerf, and Jon Postel, who I first learned about during my freshman year of information technology education at RIT. And I learned the inane origins of the inane debate between TCP/IP and OSI that added mind-numbing tedium to my computer networking courses in high school.

The majority of the book though focuses on the relationship between the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and Cambridge, MA-based Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN) that won the contract to construct the ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet. I didn’t appreciate the impressive feat of engineering undertaken to connect the first mainframe computers together. Over the course of months, programmers, engineers, and computer scientists, largely coming from MIT / Lincoln Laboratory and inspired by a few crude experiments, some mathematical theory, and the visionary scientists cum policymakers at ARPA, willed computer networking into existence.

At least that’s how it seems from the dramatic retelling offered by Hafner and Lyon in this book. For a nonfiction examination of technical protocol creation, this is a pretty decent page-turner. They don’t spare too many technical details either, which I absolutely drank up—probably because I was familiar with the basic concepts already and so could simply enjoy the backfill of context and sweat.

I definitely recommend this to folks interested in getting a better sense of how we came to have the “series of tubes” we call the internet, and in appreciating the openness, pragmatism, and genius that built it. I also think the book helps us appreciate the fragility of what we have come to take for granted, and the rarity of the moment in history where federal funding and a willingness to experiment allowed the ARPANET to happen.

Finally, I want to recognize the grad students. While the core hardware of ARPANET was a perfect example of government contracting with a determined company, the success of the internet as a broader experiment was built on the free time and inquisitiveness of graduate students who wanted to play and push the system further: creating an ad hoc system of protocols and proposals (RFPs) that led to the internet transforming how we live our lives. Those early pioneers deserve all our thanks for their late nights.

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