Visualizations of the Internet

Title:  Fig. 1 – Centralized, Decentralized and Distributed Networks (1964)

Internet Location:  Rand Corporation Research Memorandum 3420

Description:  Figure 1 on page 2 of Rand Research Memorandum 3420 shows three line-and-node drawings.  Each drawing illustrated one of three types of communications network according to the author, Paul Baran.  The first drawing, a “centralized” network, shows all lines emanating from a central point and each line terminating at a unique node.

The second drawing, a “decentralized” network, shows 6 lines emanating from a central point and each terminating at a unique node, but each of 6 additional lines emanating from the central point terminates at the beginning node of a cluster.  From each cluster node more lines emanate and terminate in unique nodes that do not have a direct path back to the central point.

In the third drawing, a “distributed” network that became the conceptual model for packet-switching on the Internet, all nodes are connected to at least two lines.  This gives the appearance of a seamless grid and makes it impossible to designate any node as a central point or a beginning node or a terminal node.  From any given node, more than one path exists to any other node.

Source:  Paul Baran.  On Distributed Communications:  I.  Introduction to Distributed Communications Networks.  Santa Monica, California:  Rand Corporation, 1964.  Rand Research Memorandum 3420.  Research sponsored by United States Air Force.

Comment:  The Internet began during the Cold War as a project to defend communications networks against widespread attack from intercontinental ballistic missiles.  In the 21st century it became, among other things, a means of asymmetric warfare.

Many visualizations of the Internet now exist and can be found by using an Internet search engine with a search string like “internet maps.”  The one discussed here by the electrical engineer, Paul Baran, is probably the oldest but gives evidence of a kind of spatial thinking that is even older.

The space envisioned in this kind of thinking had geometric continuity and no center.

These characteristics gave the Internet and visualizations of the Internet important similarities to other maps discussed on this website.

Additionally, the large hopes expressed from the 1990’s to the present day that the Internet is creating global community have a parallel in English work on the Mercator projection that culminated in Robert Dudley’s Dell’arcano del mare (1646-7).  The religious wars of 16th-century Europe moved many “cosmographers” like John Dee (1527-1608) to turn away from the Reformation emphasis on determining and enforcing right doctrine and to seek peace in a God-given structure of nature.

“For religious man,” Mircea Eliade wrote in The Sacred and the Profane (1959), page 20, “space is not homogeneous; he experiences interruptions, breaks in it; some parts of space are qualitatively different from others.”

But for John Dee at the opening of modern and so-called “secular” history, all space was sacred, continuous, and without a center.  In his preface to Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, London, 1570, sig. a.ij. verso,  Dee looked for a science that, “…lifting the heart above the heavens, by invisible lines, and immortal beams meeteth with the reflections of the light incomprehensible, and so procureth joy, and perfection unspeakable.”