A teacher in high school once told me that the way to win a war was not through nukes and weapons. He told us that wiping out a country’s electricity was the way to really break them, ‘they’d be screwed!’ It makes total sense; the electricity system is comprised of central hubs which create and distribute matter. This was the standard design for most information networks prior to the birth of the internet (source), the logic of which was the ideas of control and communication. If one of these hubs is destroyed, then the potential for electricity to move from point A to point B is reduced, or even removed – and there goes just about all sources of communication and control. The diagram below provides a basic visual representation of this idea. If the hub is destroyed, there is no way for information or matter to reach from one yellow square (node) to another.
The flaw in the design of information systems was noticed by Paul Baran, who came up with the idea of a distributed network. Baran was interested in the ‘survivability of communication networks in the event of a nuclear attack’ (source).
The internet was totally unprecedented in design; it went against the aforementioned logic and became the first distributed network. The internet gave each end node (or user) equal control. Until this point, nodes had merely been access points to the central mainframe, or hub. Paul Baran came up with the idea of building the distributed network and followed this with a new technique of data transmission known as packet switching (see diagram below).
This meant that the internet became virtually unbreakable. Even if a whole bunch of nodes were destroyed, a message could still be sent to its destination. This is because there is no planned path of travel and no central hub. A message is effectively tossed like a hot potato between nodes until it reaches its destination. It doesn’t matter which route it takes, it will eventually settle at its intended recipient. Additionally, each node has the ability to broadcast information to the entire network and is designed to be equal to its peers. This removes any sort of hierarchy, gatekeepers or control.
This idea is cemented in John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (1996). Barlow distinguishes between tangible matter, which the government has control over, and ‘cyberspace, the new home of mind’.
“You have no sovereignty where we gather” (Barlow, 1996)
The impact of the internet’s design is huge; it is anarchy in a pure and perfect form. It’s not overly efficient and not regulated, but it doesn’t matter. It’s invincible by design, which is actually really comforting. Nevertheless, the government have been on the tail of the internet for decades, and it is imperative that they do not gain control of it (assuming they haven’t already). Regulation and control, or attempts thereof, by the government have the capacity to harm the internet’s anarchic state. This is an area which needs to be treated with caution in the future.