Threat of Disconnection – Re-thinking the Internet

Tero Karppi
Any network connecting people, devices or systems meets its adversary in disconnection.

Generally disconnection means a break or rupture in communication. It, however, is not exclusively a negative concept. On the contrary, when disconnection is turned against connection new modes of communication emerge. In the following it is argued that the myth of the military origins of the Internet can be understood from this basis.

As it is well known the foundations of the internet were created during the Cold War era in the shadows of the potential nuclear war. Especially the writings of Paul Baran, one of the developers of a distributed network and packet-switching, make the connection between the threat of nuclear war and the emergence of a particular network model imminent. For example, “On Distributed Communications Networks” (1-9) a famous report by Baran, “roots the Internet in the darkness of the Cold War and emphasises surviving (or fighting) nuclear war rather than sharing computer resources” (Rosenzweig 1533).

According to Baran, in the political climate of the 1960s, the “most dangerous situation was created by the lack of a survivable communication system” (“An Interview with Paul Baran” 10). Nuclear weapons were scattered around the nation in order to survive a centralised attack. However, to remain operable these weapons were also dependable on a functioning network of command and control communications. With this in mind Baran outlined fundamentals for a communications network that would survive in the event of nuclear strike and be operative in order to strike back: “The basic network configuration was simple. Avoid central node. Build a distributed network of nodes, each connected to its neighbor. How much redundancy of connections are needed for survivability?” (17)

While a typical analysis would suggest that disconnection is contingent upon a network, taking place accidently when some nodes of the network cease to communicate with each other due natural disasters, hardware failures, or human actions such as cyber attacks, Baran’s texts suggest that there is also another way of conceiving accidents – through disconnection. Instead of thinking accidents to be surprising failures that unexpectedly befall the machine, it is possible to see that machines are produced and molded against their typical accidents, as argued by Paul Virilio (211-212). For example, cars are designed to avoid and survive road accidents, ships are designed to avoid from sinking, and a network is designed to avoid disconnection.

Notably, it is not disconnection as something already actualised that becomes a cause for the internet to emerge. Rather it is the threat of disconnection as a potentiality, or quasi-cause that sets the conditions of emergence (Massumi 35). It is the threat of disconnection coming from the outside that forces Baran to develop a new method of communication and control. “Something in the world forces us to think,” as Deleuze puts it (176). We see this active in Baran’s case. It forces him to move away from familiar concepts towards new configurations of material reality.

Disconnection

The threat of disconnection, in Baran’s thought, leads to a model of a distributed network that has been called as one of the most important technological diagrams of our century. (Galloway 11-12) Simultaneously it is a push towards digital technology, new at the time. Baran’s system chops information into digital packets and reconstructs it in the target location. This was highly sufficient for what was described as “minimal essential communications,” an euphemism for the President to be able to send a command: “You are authorized to fire your weapons” or “Hold your fire” (“An Interview with Paul Baran” 14).

Moreover, the threat of disconnection explains why the distributed network is made to grow and adapt machines and technologies within its system; since threat does not have its own operable logic, it adopts the idea of the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. While MAD presupposes a total destruction that will deterritorialise the whole planet, distributed network reterritorialises this threat in advance to a global low-cost network that will survive the destruction.

In conclusion, the threat of disconnection can be seen a force behind the developments of our current network culture. At any rate, it helps us to understand the myth of the Internet being a product of nuclear war, and illustrates its consequences that are not merely political but also technological and material.

Works Cited

Baran, Paul. “An Interview with Paul Baran”. Interview by Judy O’Neill. Oral History. Charles Babbage Institute, Center for the History of Information Processing, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, March 5, 1990. Web. Dec. 22. 2011. <http://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/107101>

—. “On Distributed Communications Networks.” IEEE Transactions on Communications Systems (1964): 1-9. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. London, New York: Continuum, 2004. Print.

Galloway, Alexander R. Protocol, How Control Exists after Decentrailzation. Cambridge, London: The MIT Press, 2004. Print.

Massumi, Brian. “Fear (The Spectrum Said).” positions 13.1 (2005): 31-48. Print.

Rosenzweig, Roy. “Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet.” The Amaerican Historical Review 103.5 (1998): 1530-1552. Print.

Virilio, Paul. “The Primal Accident.” The Politics of Everyday Fear. Ed. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. 211-219. Print.


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