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Nerds Triumph Again & the Internet is Born
This article was published in U.S. 1
Newspaper on April 28, 1999. All rights reserved.
The World Wide Web is changing the world so rapidly that one week in
"Internet time" is comparable to one year. The world is experiencing a
paradigm shift so remarkable that some compare the advent of the
Internet to the invention of the printing press.
Yet the Internet was born and raised in the brief time span it took
NASA to put together the Apollo flight. In "Nerds: a Brief History of
the Internet," Stephen Segaller writes: "By one of those
curious coincidences of history, the ARPA-sponsored geeks designed the
blueprint, wrote the software, and built the computers of the world’s
first digital network at exactly the same time as NASA’s Apollo
program reached its lunar zenith. The irony is that from the
perspective of the late 1990s, the unheralded, low-budget, obscure
venture of wires and bits seems more significant and universal in its
impact upon our daily lives than the heroic, but perhaps
inconsequential, adventures in space."
Segaller’s book is one of the first complete, detailed accounts — if
not the very first — of this amazing period of history. Segaller (his
name rhymes with "gala") wrote, directed, and produced the three-hour
television series on that subject for the Public Broadcasting System
and is now director of news and public affairs programming at
Thirteen/WNET in New York. He moved to Princeton several months ago
and will sign his book at Encore Books & Music on Friday, April 30, at
Published last year by TV Books (http://www.tvbooks.com), the 400-page book has more than
three-dozen photographs and sells for $27.50. PBS premiered the series
in one three-hour stretch on Thanksgiving Eve and sells the tapes for
$39.98 for the set of three or $62.48 with the book at
Because Segaller was doing his interviews for television, virtually
all the computer moguls — Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple),
Larry Ellison (Oracle), Marc Andreessen (Netscape), Drew Major
(Novell), Steve Case (America Online), and Scott McNealy (Sun
Microsystems) — queued up to tell their stories for Segaller’s first
series, "Triumph of the Nerds." It aired in 1996 and covered the
personal computer’s invention in the ’70s, its popularization in the
’80s, and the battle between Microsoft and Apple for the graphical
user interface in the ’90s. Segaller used these interviews as a
starting point for his second series on the Internet.
"Once word got out we had unsolicited offers from CEOs of major
corporations, PR people calling to say `our chairman would like to
make himself available to you.’ Our rule: We either interviewed
genuine pioneers who invented something truly and dramatically
important, or the No. 1 pioneer." The only person he didn’t get was
Lou Gerstner, CEO of IBM.
In the face of such research riches Segaller made the tough choices
necessary to keep viewer and reader interest. "In television, given
that the average one-hour script runs fewer than 5,000 words, you have
to make a lot of selection decisions, and you have to decide what are
the key trends or defining characteristics," he says. "Yet one of the
things I try to do early and often is to disclaim the idea that this
book or the series was entirely comprehensive. We told the story that
seemed to make a serious amount of narrative sense. I don’t honestly
think we missed out on major technologies."
Nevertheless Segaller felt it necessary to provide four glossaries: a
timeline, technical terms, acronyms, and thumbnail biographies. "When
I saw that we had interviewed 135 people I knew that no reader could
keep it straight," he says.
The creation of the Internet, Segaller writes, was "one of the 20th
century’s most productive accidents. For a modern medium of
communications and commerce to have been planned, executed, expanded,
and ultimately liberated by an agency of the government seems most
unlikely. Yet this is indeed the story of the almost seamless
evolution of a government-funded efficiency experiment named ARPAnet
into the ubiquitous, commercial, hip media space known as the Web."
Segaller unfolds the drama by pointing out the irony in the undramatic
way that engineers work, step by slow step. They were ready, he
writes, "in their undemonstrative engineers fashion, to change the
"Computer networking began 30 years ago because a Pentagon bureaucrat
wanted to save money. If there was a Eureka! moment that propelled the
network from theory into concrete planning, it occurred in Bob
Taylor’s office at the Pentagon. While he acknowledges that the
ARPAnet was his idea, he makes no more of a claim than to say `I was
in a job that called for it.’"
"I still consider the ARPAnet to have been a relatively easy thing to
start off with," another engineer is quoted as saying. "Genius? No,
this is engineering work. This is an evolutionary process.
Occasionally someone has an insight and you move more of a step. But
genius is a rather strong word."
Whether by genius or good fortune, these engineers accomplished their
feat using a relatively small amount of money but a relatively large
dedication of time. One of the more poignant stories — how Len Bosack
and Sandy Lerner founded Cisco Systems and found themselves booted out
of their jobs by their venture capitalist investors — starts with
110-hour work weeks: "The early days of Cisco resembled psychological
crowding experiments designed to test subjects’ patience to the point
At Excite, employees compared the workplace to being inside a washing
machine on the spin cycle. But they had the dream of getting rich. As
Segaller, writes, "This is the Silicon Valley fairytale. There are
thousands more little gangs of dreamers eating burritos, working all
night, and seeking venture capital, to make their fortunes in the
Segaller, born in Surrey, England, says that his father’s occupation
— documentary filmmaking — had less to do with his career than his
father’s emphasis on excellence in the use of language. "The thing I
have from him, that I recognize very clearly, is a love and concern
for language and a facility for speaking different languages." When he
was five, his father coached him in the pronunciation of the very
difficult French word for squirrel, "l’ecureuil," promising that this
one word contains all the hard-to-say vowels of that language.
He went to boarding school in Wimbledon and then to Cambridge, where
he studied English literature at Corpus Christi College and graduated
in 1975. Inspired by a friendship with a reporter, his first job was
as a reporter in an industrial town. "I hated it with a passion," says
Segaller. "After the absolutely idyllic three years of Cambridge, one
of the most beautiful places in the world, I was living in
Newcastle-on-Tyne, doing grunt work, and I quit."
The training served him well, however, because it was a prerequisite
for his next job, a researcher position in a broadcasting company in
London. His boss there eventually became director general of the
British Broadcasting Corporation, Sir John Birt. "John did me a double
favor — he gave me a job and 12 months later, he let me go," says
Segaller. Hired as a researcher for Grenada Television’s "World in
Action," the British equivalent of "60 Minutes," he progressed to be a
producer and director for 30-minute documentaries.
Six years later, wanting to make "real" hour-long documentaries and to
freelance, he quit that job to freelance in London for what is now
called, in Great Britain, Channel 4. He had married an American
psychologist, Merrill Berger, and they had a new baby. At one point
they co-wrote and co-produced a series on Carl Jung. By 1989 they had
two children, and they moved to Boston, where Segaller produced two
segments of "Columbus and the Age of Discovery" for the BBC and WGBH,
while Berger had a fellowship at Harvard Medical School. Then it was
his turn to go academic, courtesy of the Benton Fellowship in
Broadcast Journalism at the University of Chicago. He earned a
master’s degree in international relations and economic history; his
thesis was on the opium war of the 1830s, a topic which he says has
real relevance today.
Though he stayed in Boston, he took a job with Oregon Public
Broadcasting, where as executive producer he learned what he terms the
"pleasures of making the deal and putting the package together and
helping other producers do their best work by providing sympathetic
supervision and advice." He won an Emmy for his CNN documentary on
ex-hostage Terry Anderson’s return to the Middle East, "Return to the
Lion’s Den." He also produced "Rain or Ruin: the Bombing of Nagasaki"
and the two "Nerds" series. The first, "Triumph of the Nerds," so
exceeded everyone’s expectations that within a week PBS asked him to
tackle the second.
Last December Segaller and Berger and their two teenagers moved to
Princeton. Berger has made a career change and has opened a garden and
landscape design practice named "Down to Earth" (609-688-1625).
Segaller now commutes to Channel 13 on the train. Princeton, he says,
reminds him very strongly of Cambridge.
Even though he admits that fiction serves to help to explain events in
terms of emotional and political contact, Segaller has no intention of
ever making a fiction film. The facetious reason: "I have never found
any appeal in mingling with actors and actresses."
The real reason: "I think reality is more important and interesting,"
he says. "Teasing out reality and getting to the bottom of fact is
just more important and exciting."
— Barbara Fox
Center, 609-252-0608. WNET-13’s director of news and public affairs
programing talks about public television and his book, "NERDS 2.0.1: A
Brief History of the Internet." Free. Friday, April 30, 7 p.m.
If you’ve ever had the spooky feeling that the Microsoft
Corporation is trying to take over the world, you’ll want to hear
what Mike Elgan, editor of Windows Magazine, has to say. He
will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Trenton Computer Festival
on Saturday and Sunday, May 1 and 2, at the New Jersey Convention
Center in Edison. (Yes, Edison. The Trenton Computer Festival is moving
this year from Mercer County College, where parking was a major problem,
but it is retaining its Trenton name and keeping its options open
— the new Mercer County Arena might be a logical venue in the
Elgan speaks on Saturday, May 1, at 2:35 p.m. Kendall Park-based KGP
Productions LLC is managing the show this year — with plenty of
volunteer help, nevertheless, from various central New Jersey computer
clubs. For information call 800-631-0062.
Elgan, a graduate of UCLA, Class of 1988, says it was a trip to Brazil
that sparked his interest in writing about the world of PCs. "I
saw some Brazilian newspapers that were using computers, but many
were building plates by hand — 1850s technology," he says.
"I realized then that, while I like journalism, I liked the tools
I used more than the job itself."
Microsoft’s vision of the future is uncannily similar to Brazil —
not the country, but the movie by Terry Gilliam, depicting a
tyrannically uniform future world. "Microsoft wants every computer
in the world running Microsoft software," Elgan says.
While there’s nothing surprising about that, Elgan says we should
keep our eye on the types of computers — not the software —
that Microsoft is behind, products like a palm pilot-cell phone-in-one,
refrigerators and interactive children’s toys. "It’s not technology
visionary, it’s business visionary," he explains. "Microsoft
is a machine that turns consumer demands into products."
Or, more likely, a machine that turns its products into consumer demands.
Microsoft-manufactured Teletubby and Barney dolls, each implanted
with a microchip, represent a bit of forward-thinking on the part
of the company; Microsoft is carefully grooming the next generation
of consumers for advancements in artificial intelligence. Microsoft,
Elgan says, is doing extensive research into 3D virtual reality interfaces
that look and act human. Again, it’s what we want. "People want
to be able to relate to their computers," Elgan says, "much
like they relate to humans." Down the road, adults will get talking
As for the future of the PC: businesses will always need them, Elgan
says, even if households use another platform. Either way, it will
be Microsoft that makes the dollar.
— Melinda Sherwood
Elgan will be just one of the speakers at two days worth of festival
workshops. Festival founders Sol Libes and Allen Katz
have been adding workshops with more universal appeal to the many
tech-oriented workshops that have drawn hundreds of people to festivals
past. With E-commerce drawing amateur websurfers into the ring, and
Y2K just around the corner, the time couldn’t be more perfect. Programmers,
network administrators, consultants, graphic artists and hobbyists
won’t be disappointed either.
Here is a short-list of workshops.
For the full list visit http://www.tcf-nj.com.
a.m.); Introduction to C++ (10:15 a.m.); C++: Advanced Topics (Saturday
11:20 a.m.); Overcoming Word and Excel annoyances (11:20 a.m.); Computer
Graphics Film Show (12:25); Finding your dream job on the Internet
(1:30 p.m.); Y2K Chaos: Don’t wait until your computer stops working
(1:30 p.m.); Dedicated Game Machines (3:40 p.m.); The Open Source
Revolution (3:40 p.m.).
Technology (10:30 a.m.); Introduction to the Internet (12:25 p.m.);
Online Security and Privacy (2:00); Atari 8-bit Users Forum (2 p.m.);
Lotus Notes R5 (2 p.m.); Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
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