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Signs of age

Signs of age

I'm getting old, dear readers. No, not really old, or even what you'd call very old. But I've reached a point where I can't call myself young anymore. Not really young, anyway. I had a birthday a couple of weeks ago that drew me closer to a particular milestone I've been dreading, and this week I have someone doing work experience in my office who is almost exactly half my age.

When there are people of employable age in the world who were not born when you entered the workforce, I think that counts as getting old. No matter what I achieve from this point on, no matter how great or influential my accomplishments, no one will think they're remarkable for my age. I'll never again be called precocious.

It's depressing.

There is hope for me, though. At least I'm not ageing as fast as the Internet. A few years ago, I wrote a column bemoaning the fact that people seemed to think that the Internet was about five years old and had been spontaneously invented by some guru in California or something. I pointed out that the Net's lineage dates back to the early 1970s and the US military industrial complex. Anyway, late last year I read several articles about the Internet's 25th birthday - holy accelerated chronological advancement, Batman!

Now, it's gotten worse. I've been invited to a party later this month to celebrate the 30th `birthday' of the global computer network we all know and love. This is ridiculous. At this rate of accelerated ageing, the Internet will be older than the earliest computers within three years. In a decade, it will predate human beings harnessing the power of electricity, and by 2025 it will be older than Earth.

Like all good computer journalists, I blame Y2K. By forcing everyone to scapegoat programmers from the 1960s for all the problems of the world today, the Y2K thingummybob has at least forced people to realise that there were programmers in the 1960s. Of course, I wouldn't be willing to bet that any real lessons will be learned from the whole Y2K experience. Just because we're aware of history doesn't mean that we'll pay any attention to it, and right now there's a programmer somewhere taking a quick and dirty shortcut in their code. The cosmic ballet continues.

Anyway, where was I? A couple of years ago, the Internet was dated back to when we all got Web browsers and Amazon.com. Now, the new histori-cally-aware tech industry dates the Internet back to when computers first communicated on a network.

Between September and October 1969, the first packet-switched network was developed at UCLA. The party I've been invited to marks the occasion, on the 29th of October, when one com-puter first spoke to a remote computer via a switch. Saying that this is the birth of the Internet is akin to saying that McDonald's was founded the first time a cow got burnt beyond recognition - the idea is there, but there's more to it.

There was no e-mail before 1971. No Usenet groups before 1977. No one used the word `Internet' until 1983, by which time they were referring to a different network based on TCP/IP, not the ARPAnet that got switched on back in the 60s. ARPAnet was switched off in 1990, having lived for 21 years before its entire function and content were subsumed by the growing Internet.

I basically date the Internet back to the birth of e-mail. The day when Ray Tomlinson sent the message `testing, 1-2-3', presumably to a tech support person at Lotus, marks the moment when the idea of a global network actually became useful, as an independent and secure communications channel. That's worth marking. One computer making another computer go bleep while a light on a switch flashes on and off doesn't really inspire me to party.

Of course, by that measure, I should date the Internet back to 1994, when Pizza Hut delivered a pepperoni and mushroom pizza with extra cheese that had been ordered via its Web site. Pizza is even more party-worthy than e-mail. But that takes me back to the historical agnosticism that I had railed against in that column years ago.

So what I'm saying is that the useful bits of the Internet date back about 28 years or so. As I know all too well, that's the point at which people start saying that you're `about 30', and it's near enough for them. But, on behalf of the Internet and all the rest of us `near enough' types, I'd like to request a bit of leniency. A few more years, perhaps, or even just months, when we can still be called young.

Matthew JC. Powell is the editor of ARN's sister publication PC Buyer. E-mail him at matthew_powell@ idg.com.au


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