Drama: Just imagine how Mom feels
Glory of the Geeks Channel 4
Sunday 04 October 1998
This being the history of the internet and the people who built it, it's also chock full of flash cars, big boats, stately homes and posh offices. A big theme of Glory of the Geeks is the Revenge of the Geeks: you beat them up in high school, and now they own your baseball team. The idea that "geek is good" is one of the few things that comes across clearly in the series, which tries to tell the history of computer communication without a real feel for what the viewer does and doesn't know, or even what he does or doesn't want to know.
The thing about geeks is they only have two extreme modes of communication with ordinary earthlings: extremely incomprehensible and extremely patronising. One minute they're talking about "transmission protocol" in a way that makes your head spin, the next they're telling you that a computer is "just a box of switches". Bob Cringely, who has something of the trendy vicar about him, finds a happy medium, in that he manages to explain things in a way that is incomprehensible and patronising at once. He dons a silly lab coat before defining some terms in his "glossary of geek", but he should be smart enough to know that telling us what TCP/IP stands for (transmission control protocol/internet protocol, since you ask) does nothing to aid understanding. Often he bandies acronyms without explaining them at all.
Most of the time, however, he's trying to make things "fun" by going on boat rides or checking out some 23-year-old web baron's new BMW. It's as if the series, made in cheap and cheerful fashion by Oregon Public Broadcasting, was designed to appeal to two groups at once: those who already know a lot about how computers work, and those who don't really care. The history of the net is neither linear nor chronological, but the programme doesn't help things by cutting away or changing the subject just as you're beginning to follow along. We spend a lot of time talking to geeks about their geeky hobbies or re-enacting Spock's death scene with a geek-like attention to detail. Like the internet itself, Glory of the Geeks is all over the place.
With liberal use of the fast-forward and rewind buttons, I was able to glean the following: In the late 50s a paranoid and flush Pentagon was funding big mainframe computers at universities across the United States, via something called the Advanced Research Projects Agency. In the late 60s ARPA hired a team of top geeks to invent a way to link all these computers, in spite of some protests from the universities, who jealously guarded both information and computer time. Nevertheless the ARPAnet was born, thanks to something weird called "packet-switching", about which one of its inventors has since written a poem.
The first message transmitted across the net was, in typical geek fashion, "LOG IN", or it would have been if the link didn't crash halfway through. The real difference between geeks and you and me is that geeks do not cry and kick things and give up at this point. For reasons which are not in the least apparent, they plough on. Thanks to the above-mentioned TCP/IP, by the mid-1970s the internet was a practical reality, even if nobody knew what to do with it. Then a guy called Ray Tomlinson invented e-mail. Suddenly all this expensive, cutting-edge military technology was being pressed into service so that people could type little notes to each other. For a long while this primitive cyberspace remained the exclusive province of scientists and Grateful Dead fanatics. It took the creation of the worldwide web (a universal address system developed at the CERN lab in Geneva) and the relatively recent development of the user-friendly web browser to bring the whole mess to a point where John Q. Public could use it to find himself a picture of a naked lady.
In telling the internet's story, Glory of the Geeks takes up many threads to stitch together a narrative which could use a little unpicking. The battles between upstart software inventors and the venture capitalists they get into bed with are certainly intriguing, but the financial side of the computer industry seems a different subject altogether, one which was covered in the previous (and much better) Channel 4 series Triumph of the Nerds.
The fact that as a student Sandy Lerner snaked cable through sewers at night to create a prototype network on the Stanford University campus is certainly an important part of the internet's history, but the programme chooses to dwell on her sacking from Cisco Systems, the company she founded with her husband, which is just another of those Silicon Valley hard-luck stories in which all the characters end up millionaires. Most of the early work that led to the internet was done by hippies and academics, and the programme's retracing of the fortunes of big software companies like 3Com, Cisco and Novell serves little purpose except to sketch in the early 80s, a period when the internet seemed almost dormant.
It is difficult to view the history of the internet as history, since no one yet has any idea where it's going to end up. It's possible that the internet revolution hasn't really even started, and that 1968-1998 will be covered on page one of the History of Cyberspace. It's also difficult to say how something that in its pre-history was of no interest to anyone but the geekiest of the geeks could ever be made into interesting television. As James Gosling, the visionary inventor of the Java computer language, says, "the kind of stuff I do is stuff I have no idea how to explain to my mom." The one thing I do understand after watching Glory of the Geeks is how his mom feels.
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