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Mother Earth Mother Board (1996) (wired.com)
71 points by DarkContinent on July 23, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 23 comments

Yes, it's been posted before, but I will upvote this again and again. I attribute this essay with sparking my interest in engineering and changing the course of my life. Neal Stephenson also happens to be my favorite author.

Similar story here - I was already interested in tech, so my parents bought me a subscription to Wired. This article was in the first issue I got in the mail, and it definitely nudged me in the networking/infrastructure direction my career has followed.

Wired, before the boom/bust, was a massive inspiration for me. Growing up in Central Florida in a “BBS rustbelt” area code it was one of the only places I could find quality writing on a broad spectrum of tech. Or any writing on tech, for that matter.

During and after the boom it seemed to lose its focus on quality writing and countercultural verve, particularly when it got flooded by blurbs and articles about $10,000 wristwatches and stock picks.

There were still some gems though, here and there. But I don’t think much of the writing ever approached this in terms of timeliness and caliber.

Anyone who likes this article may also enjoy The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage.

It is about the human and cultural impact of the telegraph as much as the technology. The telegraph enabled instant communication, and when the first undersea cables were laid in the mid-1800s, that communication stretched from one continent to another. This changed many things.

One of my favorite chapters is "Love on the Lines", about the telegraph operators who flirted with each other in Morse code and even got married "on line".



This is a fantastic piece of writing that is worth re-reading.

Neal Stephenson just appeared on Tyler Cowen's Conversions with Tyler Podcast: https://medium.com/conversations-with-tyler/tyler-cowen-neal...

The first time I remember reading this, one of the comments mentioned Arthur C. Clarke's "How The World Was One" as a deeper dive into the same subject. If you enjoy this article I highly recommend picking up a copy, it's a fascinating read.

I did the exact same thing. Can also highly recommend both. The beginning of the Clarke book was more interesting to me because it was a broader history of laying cable. The second half is more of a personal history of comsats, which, while interesting, goes a bit far into Clarke’s life while leaving out the nasty bits he is known for.

Worth reading either way!

Genuinely curious, what are "the nasty bits he is known for"?

This is probably a covert reference to his homosexuality which was plagued by accusations of having exploitative relationships with minors, in low-justice economies. The Stanley Kubrick biography around 2001 talks a bit about the dynamic in the Sri Lanka Clark household.

It is absolutely NOT a reference to his homosexuality.

It is a reference for his taste for under-age boys, which seems to be from what I can tell, the reason he lived in Sri Lanka

Which part of ... which was plagued by accusations of having exploitative relationships with minors, ... Did you miss?

Ah, the golden age of Wired. I was 12 when this article was first published and we'd not long got online at home with a 28k modem. My Dad went on regular business trips to the US and used to bring back Wired and .Net magazines for me all the time as they weren't available here in the UK. Good times.

It's sad to see what Wired (and mainstream tech journalism in general) has become in recent years.

This do reminded me of Cryptonomicon I felt I still have to post this comment even though I realized there were others like me.

In 1996 I was a little kid, but one of the first books I read on my PC somewhere around 2000 was Cryptonomicon. Back then I didn't have dialup, what I had instead was a cherished copy of a CD full of pirated books, called something like Pocket Library.

If only my parents realized back then how much ... questionable material was there, I would probably have been banned access to that PC forever.

But Cryptonomicon was fine.

My favorite old school internet article. It’s how I learned the internet was a great place to read. Anytime HN mentions submarine cables, I post a link to this.

This was one of the most meaningful geeky joys of my teens. I read this over and over, and shared it with my disinterested parents and teachers. I can’t find my original printing of Mother Earth Motherboard and would pay good money for one.

Hmm, reminds me to dig up the old Wired issues I must have somewhere. I remember buying them regularly in the nineties. I bought Wired mainly for the interviews with wacko visionaries and the outrageous typesetting.

I also remember vividly the expensive advertisements: complete 3d pyramids popping up when you turned the page, and once (my personal favorite) an ad with that Frenchmen scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which included a scratch-and-sniff sticker that read: "scratch here and I will fart in your general direction". Try to resist an ad like that...

This piece is fantastic. If you'd like it as a book you'll find it in Stephenson's "Some remarks", together with other essays.

WARNING: reading the original article takes 2 hours.

This is a timeless classic from Wired, written by Neal Stephenson in 1996. I love this article not only because of the article itself, but its enthusiasm and energy from the age it was written in.

Today, Wired is a mainstream tech magazine written mainly for a nontechnical audience, which has said stupid things like "a new evolution of DDoS [is] known as Memcache" (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18020811), and only occasionally has good articles. But back at that time, it was just before the dotCom bubble, Wired represented the avant-garde of Silicon Valley that was going to revolutionize everything through computing and the Internet, the free and fast flow of information enables decentralization, and would liberate us from all the old forms of political control. It was an age with a bright future where everything seems possible.

You can see many of those optimisms from this article.

For example.

> Q: Why not just go south around Singapore and keep the cable in the water, then?

> A: Because Singapore is controlled by the enemy.

> Q: Who is the enemy?

> A: FLAG's enemies are legion.


> In any case, the deal fell through because of a strong anti-FLAG faction within KDD that could not tolerate the notion of giving any concessions whatever to IDC.

One goal of constructing FLAG was explicitly reduce United States's and challenge traditional ISP's control over the infrastructure. Decentralization!

> The lack of freedom stems both from bad laws, which are grudgingly giving way to deregulation, and from monopolies willing to do all manner of unsavory things in order to protect their turf.

With a techno-libertarian free capitalism "innovation/disruption" spirit.

> Douglas Barnes, an Oakland-based hacker and cypherpunk, looked into this issue a couple of years ago when, inspired by Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net, he was doing background research on a project to set up a data haven in the Caribbean. "I found out that the idea of the Internet as a highly distributed, redundant global communications system is a myth,'' he discovered. "Virtually all communications between countries take place through a very small number of bottlenecks, and the available bandwidth simply isn't that great.'' And he cautions: "Even outfits like FLAG don't really grok the Internet. The undersized cables they are running reflect their myopic outlook.''

Cypherpunk! And yes, Neal acknowledged multiple times in the article that FLAG was not the holy grail, it still had a lot of problems and far from the libertarian ideal of decentralization, but he still believed FLAG was going to be the beginning of the new network order.


However, the dream eventually came to an end.

Wired-inspired dotCom bubble busted.

Although FLAG was the first move to break U.S. and traditional ISP's monopoly, future projects in the next 10 years didn't quite accomplish this goal.

Silicon Valley became the new giant establishment and monopoly, and the massive deregulation was partially responsible to that.

Authoritarian regimes have done a good job preventing the information flowing online to bring liberal political changes.

Arab Spring ended horribly.

The revolution of the Internet has been seized as the means of mass surveillance.

The unfortunate side-effects of empowering individuals created wild populism, "Fake News", and flat Earth, and we started to suffer from them. I know it's unavoidable to an extent and I feel the freedom from the Internet is still worthwhile even with these side-effects, but back to 1995, it was pure utopianism and we were too overoptimistic and completely ignored this aspect.

> WARNING: reading the original article takes 2 hours.

More like endorsement.

Better luck next time, right?

More like good riddance.

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