The Tower of Babble

The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel recounts the building of a tower that would reach to the heavens. Begun as the product of a lingually unified world, the project devolves, via divine intervention, into a chaotic throng of people speaking 70 different languages. They are unable to understand one another and are unable to work together to finish the tower.

The Internet has many parallels to the Tower of Babel. When the Internet was begun in the 1960s as the "ARPANET", a U.S. military research network, its purpose was for scientists to continue to collaborate and exchange information in the event of a nuclear strike. The network's primary technological objective was that it be decentralized. Communications networks of the day were chained together point-to-point in series, much like a series of electrical extension cords chained from their origin. This meant that each link was dependent on the link before it, and destroying one link would fell the entire system. The innovation of the ARPANET was to decentralize the network in such a way that even if sections were destroyed, information could still find its own path to its destination.

The technologies used to accomplish this task were relatively uniform, and secondary to their ultimate goal as a decentralized, "underground" communications medium. However, as the Internet expanded, so too did the number of technologies that scientists and academicians found ways to exploit online. With each new technological innovation came a whole new set of languages, standards, protocols — and compatibility hurdles.

The physical backbone of the Internet — the transmission lines through which data travels — is one such hurdle. The Internet's backbone is made up of a vast infrastructure of wires and independent computers all hooked together through high-speed transmission lines, much like a fishnet. It consists of computers, telephone lines, underground cables, fiber-optics, satellites, and myriad other peripheral hardware components, communicating via a bewildering array of protocols and standards.

Similarly, the types of devices that people now use to access the Internet and communicate with one another, as well as send information from computer to computer, have expanded from the basic "dumb" terminals of the 1970s and '80s to laptops, wireless portable devices, handheld personal computers, and "smart" appliances with embedded processors.

Another hurdle is in the realm of software. The advent of the Web browser has not only revolutionized the way online content is displayed and distributed on a PC; it has also spawned numerous browsing alternatives for many of the aforementioned portable devices. The upshot to all this, of course, is that there are a million ways to check your email, download your favorite music or instant-message your best friend on vacation in the Amazonian jungle. The downside is that each method of communication requires some sort of software standard, and oftentimes one standard is incompatible with another.

Interestingly, although standards are in abundance on the Internet and throughout the computing world, they are often "de facto" — the result of marketing clout and the muscle of a certain corporation based in Redmond, Washington, rather than through the influence of standards organizations. As a result, these de facto standards tend to be about as fluid as the ebb and flow of the dot-coms that spawn many of them. Furthermore, technological obsolescence, whether planned or not, can force a standard out of the market where even capitalism may not tread.

The "standard" is often defined by the "installed base" — that is, the number of computer users that have installed the software on their computers. For example, the splashy animations and oft-annoying presentations that now adorn many companies' homepages are created using Macromedia's Flash technology. In order to view Flash movies in a browser, a person must have the free Flash player installed on their computer. On a well-designed site, users without the player will usually see alternate, static content. Otherwise, they may actually see a blank screen. The catch to this, however, is that over 96% of all Internet users now have the Flash player installed on their computer. Hence, Flash has become a de facto standard to developers of dynamic web content in much the same way as Microsoft Office has become synonymous with office productivity.

In short, as the Net has diversified, the challenges of keeping a semblance of order amidst the jumble of new devices, operating systems and constantly evolving standards have only increased. From mangled metaphors and broken syntax to incompatible protocols and shifting standards, the Internet is an uneasily forged balance between legions of unrelated technologies — and the people who use them. Unlike the Tower of Babel, however, the Internet has also served as a conduit to democratize and unify peoples and cultures from far-flung regions of the planet. By facilitating the cheap, global and immediate communication of knowledge and information across physical and political boundaries, we have hopefully begun to evolve a better understanding of one another, if not through a common language, then through our common humanity.

What began as a military experiment at the height of the Cold War has transitioned into the most far-reaching social experience in human history.


Michael Tanenbaum