Nineteen sixty-two. In the same year as the Cuban missile crisis, the United States Air Force launched a research collaboration with the Rand Corporation designed to provide a reliable system of communication in the case of an enemy attack on North America. Drawing on research at MIT and elsewhere, Rand engineer Paul Baran proposed a packet-switching network that would enable the rapid rerouting of data throughout a decentralized communications system. Baran’s instructions were to ensure “minimum essential communications” and thus guarantee “second strike” capability; he proposed an even more robust system allowing contact among as many as a hundred networked computers. Baran’s proposal was an important landmark in the Internet’s prehistory.September 11, 2001. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon launched the first American “war” of the digital age, the first military crisis during which a significant portion of the American public had Net access. One might well ask, then, how well the Internet functioned as an emergency communications network. In the years since Baran’s proposal, the Net has become something larger than what the Rand researchers might have imagined-a vast network linking the civilian population rather than a modest system that ensures data flow between bunkers. “War,” for the moment, anyway, means something significantly different as well-a shift from nightmares of nuclear attack to the reality of terrorist actions. And the communications that have turned out to be the most essential in the wake of those actions are not those aimed at coordinating a swift military strike, but rather those that express the loss and fear of the civilian population.
From a purely technical perspective, the system worked better than anyone might have anticipated. While the World Trade Center housed an important relay system for cell phones, and its destruction thus left many New Yorkers without telecommunications, there was no significant national disruption of the computer networks. In the hour following the attacks, many national news Web sites were swamped by a sudden surge in traffic. But within a few hours, they had stripped down their front pages and expanded the number of mirror sites. And the Net itself never faltered. Countless e-mails-in many cases, final messages-were sent from the World Trade Center when the victims of the attack were unable to reach their loved ones by telephone, and many more were sent by people around the country seeking any kind of information about friends or family who were unaccounted for following the buildings’ collapse.