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From Silicon To Memes: Part 1

by Seth Noble |  Blog Jul 09, 2019

This is part one of a four-part series published on which explores how automated arithmetic machines have come to dominate human communication and the consequences for our culture and economy.

How Automated Calculators Grew Into A Global Communications Network

Smartphones, laptops, desktops, tablets and the many other devices that dominate our daily lives all share a common label: computer. But the most familiar use of computers is not to compute. More than anything else, computers are used to communicate. From tweets to novels, voicemails to operas and snapshots to movies, almost all communication that travels more than a few feet is handled by computers.

There is computing involved in the sense that a CPU is executing mathematical functions in service of communication. But how we get from automated arithmetic to the mass exchange of ideas involves a lot more than just electrons following circuits. Looking at both the history of digital communication and the technical processes behind it reveals layers of complexity, which impact nearly every facet of our economy and culture.

Prior to the invention of general-purpose electronic computers in the 1940s, the word "computer" was a job description. For example, during World War II, women operated mechanical calculators to compute artillery tables for the military.  Their work led directly to the invention of programmable electronic computers for the same purpose.

As electronic computers grew faster and more flexible in their calculations, they also gained the ability to store data persistently. Magnetic tapes, drums and disks were among the devices that allowed computers to keep and organize data. This organizational ability led to a major abstraction of computing: from data to information. Computers grew to allow us to rearrange our ideas, as well as record them. As mainframes gave way to microcomputers, the notion of a computer as a personal information device began to take hold.

This ability to store large amounts of organized data in a small space also made it much easier to move that data around. Whether it was a plastic case full of floppy disks or a station wagon full of tapes, it became possible to communicate immense amounts of information with relative ease. As storage media evolved, computers moved beyond numbers, text and simple pictures to carrying high-quality voice, music and video. CDs and DVDs marked the transition of computers from mass storage to mass communication.

But it was the interactivity of computer networks that really pushed computers into the realm of personal communication. From dial-up bulletin boards to the internet, computers have made it possible to transform our thoughts into data, transmit that data around the world and transform it back into another person's mind in a matter of milliseconds.

Of course, mass communication and long-distance real-time interaction have been around a lot longer than computers. Whether it was drums, flags or just a loud voice, people have been carrying on conversations across great distances for thousands of years. What computers have brought to the process is the ability to organize, store and move large amounts of data very quickly. What started as automating the movement of simple numbers has, in less than 80 years, evolved into automating the movement of abstract ideas. This is what now allows us to carry on a dozen or more different conversations at once or exchange the nuances of facial expressions and body language among dozens of faraway people.

For better or worse, this automation has changed the daily lives of most human beings.

It would be natural to assume that this rapid change in how computers are used has been accompanied by an equally rapid change in how they work. For many aspects of hardware and software, this is true. But there are some aspects of computing technology that have lagged decades behind.

Conceptually, platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Skype, FaceTime or venerable email all do basically the same thing: They encode some aspect of our thoughts, communicate that data and then decode it to be consumed by other people. What distinguishes each of them is how they perform that encoding and decoding -- which aspects of ourselves they record, as well as how they organize and represent that to others. Those technologies continue to evolve, and tech fortunes rise and fall on finding novel ways to represent and organize our ideas.

But underneath all those familiar platforms, the same software is used to manage the actual movement of every type of data. In fact, nearly all modern communication uses the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) to perform the computing involved in figuring out how to move those bits from one place to another. Even more surprising is that this mechanism has remained largely unchanged since 1974. Imagine a car built today with a carburetor from 1974 controlling its fuel flow. Or imagine trying to build an electric car with a carburetor as a required component.

To be clear, TCP has had many tweaks and adjustments, but the data model of a generic, bi-directional byte pipe with a single 32-bit number controlling security, flow control and error recovery remains the same as it was more than 40 years ago. Some of TCP's legacy can be attributed to its brilliantly simple and general-purpose design. But considering the vital role played by digital communication in our lives, culture and economy, a deeper look at exactly how this lynchpin of modern life works and why it perseveres is more than warranted.

In the next part of this series, where we will look at how TCP evolved from the analog public switched telephone network and the legacy that has created for modern applications.