The PDP-10 who was God
"The center has instructed me to instruct you to bug the ARPAnet."
"The ARPAnet? The scientist [abducted in a previous episode] mentioned that. What is it?"
"It's an advanced processing system that has to do with computers."
And so begins Season 2, Episode 7 of The Americans, a Cold War spy series set in early 1980s Washington, DC, where the Russians were Russians, the Americans were scary, and big hair and shoulder pads lurked on the near horizon.
The series follows deep undercover Russian spies Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell), who live and work as an unremarkable middle-class American couple. You know: KGB-ordered marriage, two kids, suburban house, jobs at their own travel agency. The kids suspect nothing, probably the least believable thing in the show: on-the-edge-of-adolescence Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) have apparently never poked around the garage or looked out the window after a nightmare to see a parent sneaking out in a terrible wig. But then: Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the FBI agent who moved in across the street at the beginning of season one, doesn't suspect them either (yet).
A Russian friend who moved to the US when she was ten loves this show. For one thing, the Russians really speak (subtitled) Russian. For another, as morally impaired as the Russian spies are the Americans are no better. The show's creator, Joseph Weisberg, is a former CIA officer; this show's spying feels much more "real" than the increasingly ridiculous but more highly acclaimed Homeland.
So: to bug the ARPAnet. Phillip's handler doesn't know what the bug will do - "Technology's not my strong suit." But if he plugs this computerish gizmo into "the thing" it will copy information across for about 30 seconds, and then he should detach it and...well, something will tell the Russians what's this technology they've heard the Americans have.
Phillip starts by posing as a journalist and visiting Thane Rosenbloom (Geoffrey Cantor), a computer science professor who tells him, "I work on advanced packet-switching data systems, a single communications link that collects information into datagrams and then transmits them onto an attached network, sort of like a handshake that introduces distant computers to each other in virtual space."
Phillip is lost, as well he might be.
Rosenbloom proceeds with an analogy to a post office service that accepts a postcard in Japanese and translates it into a universal post office language. It can be anywhere. "It's like God." Cut to God's image: a PDP-10.
Soon we're looking at Rosenbloom's proudest acquisition, an Interface Message Processor. "It is, in a manner of speaking, the interstate highway system through which all of information flows." The IMP "is like a universal translator, keeping information moving with no snafus, no tie-ups, on an endless ribbon of virtual highway."
"To the future."
Phillip thinks this all sounds like science fiction, but that night he miraculously knows to plug the "bug" into something like a parallel port and the mission is completed. It's fine as long as you don't think too hard. How did the Russians know what kind of plug to expect? If they don't know anything about the ARPAnet, how do they know what software to write to bug it? How are they going to retrieve whatever the bug captures? Phillip and Elizabeth are masters of social engineering: wouldn't it have been easier to get a few teenaged hackers to steal some passwords?
Writing this must have been tricky: it's hard to un-know the present in order to imagine how people thought about the future in the past. The writers valiantly tried to convey how weird and incomprehensible the idea of a worldwide computer network seemed to the uninitiate. And yet: there was already the telephone network. Explaining the translation stuff only makes sense if your listener already knows about different computers running incompatible software. (Though, granted, it's a good way to disorient a mainstream 2014 audience who assume that all computers can share information.)
It's apparently even harder to remember how much already was known, even then. The thinking behind the ARPAnet originates to 1945 and Vannevar Bush in 1945. J.C.R. Licklider began working on the beginnings of the ARPAnet as early as 1963; by 1981 a new IMP was being added to the network every 20 days. Meanwhile, home computers, commercial dial-up information services, and amateur bulletin board systems were proliferating: CompuServe's information service, the first dial-up bulletin board systems, and the invention of Usenet all were going by 1978-1979. The Russians certainly should have known at least some of this without having to abduct a scientist: beginning in the 1950s they had computers, too, and certainly by 1982 they were doing their own networking experiments. The talk of God and the unification of all human knowledge - especially the "virtual highway" - is much more early 1990s West Coast hyperbole than early 1980s East Coast computer science.
So: the show gets a B for technology. But if they can get us to that future with no snafus and no tie-ups in delivering information, we'll take it.
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an links to earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.