The Room Where the Internet Was Born – The Atlantic
In a strikingly accurate replica of the original IMP log (crafted by UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History) on one of the room’s period desks is a note taken at 10:30 p.m., 29 October, 1969—“talked to SRI, host to host.” In the note, there is no sense of wonder at this event—which marks the first message sent across the ARPANET, and the primary reason the room is now deemed hallowed ground.
Room 3240 reminded me of another telecommunications landmark I’d visited while on the road: the Golden Spike National Monument in Promontory Summit, Utah, where the first transcontinental railroad united in 1869. The monument features two replica steam-powered trains, maintained by National Parks Service employees, that perform the task of going up and down a small railroad track on a daily schedule.
Very little at the Golden Spike is from the original time. The actual spike is in a museum at Stanford University, the original trains long ago scrapped. No railroads run through Promontory Summit anymore—eventually the Lucin Cutoff and Salt Lake Causeway superseded the original route through Promontory. In 1942, the route was ceremoniously “unspiked” and its tracks ended up being subsumed in World War II’s scrap-metal drives, viewed in its time with the same dull pragmatism that left Room 3240’s furniture in storage.
Technology doesn’t lend itself well to landmarking and memorializing, because when a tool stops working we don’t archive it, we just stop using it. When we do commemorate, it is in search of a singularity where there may only be a series of convenient confluences, a statement of significance where there may only be a line in a log book.
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I wanted to start this trip with some grounding in history (or, as it turns out, anxious historiography) because one of the most pernicious aspects of The Cloud as an everyday metaphor we live with is that it is ahistorical. Not so much as it is not of its time as it feels outside of time itself, placing past and present in a state of perpetual future-perfect, an accumulation of once-consecutive facts now ignoring all space-time distinctions (and yes, dear reader who appreciates a bad Nabokov reference, beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody).
But The Cloud, and the conditions that shape the way we live with it, had to come from somewhere. It’s not a somewhere that can be seen as a coherent whole, but one that emerges in fragments, in particular sites: cornfields of the American midwest, remote beaches in California, unmarked buildings in Northern Virginia.
We left L.A. late, with warnings of flash floods in Arizona. For a few hours, we remained just beyond the storm, literally following clouds into the desert. It seemed like a pretty good omen.