How I Spent My Christmas Break
In a hammock, I read a few books and pondered fantasticals and previously unsuspected historical convergences. I read Where Wizards Stay Up Late, Kate Hafner and Matthew Lyon’s history of the engineers who invented the internet. A few days (and a few books) later, I found myself in the grip of Bob Spitz’s page-turning Beatles biography simply (and rightfully) titled, The Beatles. What took me halfway through Spitz’s 900-page opus to realize was that great chunks of the two books took place over virtually exactly the same time period.
The Beatles cut their first single, "Love Me Do," in September 1962 and finally disintegrated, more or less, during the fall of 1969. The internet’s precursor, the ARPANET, meanwhile, was dreamed up by J.C.R. Licklider in August 1962 and connected for real — between UCLA and Stanford’s Augmentation Research Center — on October 1, 1969. For virtually every major development in the ARPANET, there was a Beatles single to match (though it’s hard to imagine any of our mighty foregeeks being excited by this).
Compared to Spitz’s book, Where Wizards Stay Up Late weighs in at a slim 270 pages (not counting the mezzanine). By the time Spitz was detailing the gruesome minutiae of the Beatles’ management issues at the time of their dissolution, I was wondering about the relative values of the books’ subjects. Clearly, and absolutely inarguably, a gigantic book about the Beatles is of more interest to a general audience than even an austere book about the makings of the internet.
That certainly doesn’t mean that the Beatles were more important than the men responsible for the most meaningful invention of their generation (maybe even more meaningful, in terms of literal real world consequences, than walking on the moon). But who knows who Licklider, Bob Taylor, and Larry Roberts are? (I sure didn’t before my hammock sojourn.) Mainly, I think and hope, it is because history is still acting. The Beatles did their work in the moment, while these Pentagon and university scientists built for the future. I’d be curious to know if this stuff is taught in schools yet, and — if it’s not — whether it ever will be.
Value judgments tend to be stupid (and, extended to an extreme, like on the now-defunct WhatsBetter.com, quite fun) but that doesn’t mean we don’t make them, and it can be instructive to examine how we do. In June 1967, John Lennon sang and recorded "All You Need Is Love" over an international television broadcast. On the Saturday before Labor Day in September 1969, Ben Barker and Truett Thach plugged in the computer known as IMP Number 2 and, within days, turned on the ARPANET.
As a simple action, Lennon singing "All You Need is Love" has made more people directly happy than Barker and Thach’s plugging in. But in terms of actual, quantifiable benefit to the world, ARPANET probably trumps "All You Need Is Love," mostly because you need more than love to spread information around the globe in a manner of seconds. On other hand, though, it could be argued that most of what you need is love, and Lennon should still be lauded even though he was off by a little bit (or perhaps just willfully exaggerating for the sake of the rhyme scheme).
And, anyway, what’s it all matter? Fuck history, all that matters is that we can use the internet and listen to the Beatles (though, thanks to the Fabs’ Apple Ltd’s ongoing suit against Steve Jobs’ Apple Computers, it’s hard to have the two together). All it shows is that history plays in strange manners: sometimes it happens that the history happens in the moment and then looms over people for the next generation or two, sometimes it happens that history just happens and nobody notices for a few decades.
Where the Beatles pulled themselves together in a working class seaport town, the ARPANET’s funding came thanks to a strikingly different source: President Dwight Eisenhower himself, who authorized the January 1958 creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), whose bulging coffers fed the Pentagon’s communications experiments.
If all of this was going on at the same time, though, is it possible (or even useful) to draw any kinds of connections between the two? It was a turbulent period, filled with war, political assassination, civil rights movements, and all those other things that were most definitely taught when I was in junior high school. It was also a mundane period, with the vast majority of Americans continuing to exist perfectly normally with cars and laundry and garbage and groceries. That’s the world that the internet grew from, just as the Beatles came from drab old Liverpool. If there’s any connection, that’s it: both the internet and the Beatles were unexpected and new. But we knew that already.
What it means, though, is that no matter how terrible things get (or however normal you think they may have stayed) is that things are always afoot in the most unpredictable of places. The government didn’t have any clue what would happen when they fed Ken Kesey and Robert Hunter acid, either. Somewhere, something unrepeatable is happening, maybe in some nearly anonymous Midwestern town with commercial parks and strip malls. Maybe we’ll find out about it now. Maybe we’ll find out about it later. Of course, it’s easy to think that when you’re in a hammock.