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Paul Baran, RAND Internet Pioneer, Dies at 84  

By Ann K. Williams
Lookout Staff

April 5, 2011 -- Paul Baran, engineer and visionary, whose work at the RAND Corporation in the 1960's laid the basis for the Internet, died March 26 in Palo Alto, California at the age of 84.

Baran was one of a generation of scientists who saw themselves as more than mere technicians, and his predictions of the character of the “high-information era” were as groundbreaking as his innovative engineering.

“Our world is a better place for the technologies Paul Baran invented and developed, and also because of his consistent concern with appropriate public policies for their use,” said James A. Thomson, president and CEO of RAND, in the corporation's press release upon Baran's death.

“Paul believed that much of the future is shaped by the development of technology and that it was quite appropriate that a lot of engineers and scientists be a part of an institution that's concerned with the future of public policy.”

Natalie Crawford, a colleague of Baran's at RAND, called him “a true visionary” and said of a RAND report he wrote in 1968 that it contained “startlingly prescient predictions.”

“He was a kind and very humble man,” Crawford said. “He didn't care about who got credit.”

He closed a 2009 presentation on his work that made the internet possible with the quote “'If you see a frog sitting on top of a flag pole, you know it didn't get up there by itself,'” said Crawford. “That typified Paul.”

When Baran hired on at RAND in 1959, the country was immersed in the Cold War. The specter of nuclear war haunted the work at RAND, and Baran and his colleagues were tasked with how to protect the nation's telephone system and the military's command-and-control system from nuclear attack.

Baran is credited with conceiving of a decentralized system in which unmanned nodes could act as switches, sending information from one node to another, in a scheme he called “hot-potato routing.”

He also came up with the idea of parceling information into “message blocks” which would be sent separately and then reassembled when they reached their final destination. British computer scientist Donald Davies, conceived of the same notion independently and called them “packets,” which has become the accepted terminology.

The technogy was first tested with nodes at the University of California at Los Angeles and RAND, as well as five other locations, and soon developed into a “high-speed, electronic post office for exchanging everything from technical to personal information,” according to the RAND release.

By 1983, the network, called ARPANET, broke off from its military application, and in 1989 took on the name the “Internet.”

Today, intellectuals and pundits write and speak volumes about the effect of the Internet on American culture, but in 1968 Baran foresaw much of what passes for novel insight today.

In his RAND report “On the Future Computer Era: Modification of the American Character and the Role of the Engineer, or A Little Caution in the Haste to Number,” Baran challenged his fellow engineers to consider the consequences of their inventions.

“This major force is affecting value structure and changing the basic quality of life,” Baran wrote of computer technologies. “Tomorrow, by definition, cannot be like today.”

While recordkeeping and disseminating technologies had steadily grown since the birth of the postal service through the invention of the xerox machine, Baran saw the rapid spread of computers as making a qualitative difference in the ways people see themselves and society.

Baran cited examples like the insurance industry's growing ability to rapidly categorize risk and deny insurance or track records of employee health questionnaires.

He also foresaw the inability of people without college degrees, or people who'd had any skirmishes with the law in their youth to get hired, thanks to more complete and accessible recordkeeping.

“Great pressure will be placed on American citizens to transform them from free spirits who do not fear living their lives as men (with the assurance that if one fails one can always try again) into a new nation of tightrope walkers,” Baran wrote.

“Those who have fallen from the rope, either accidentally or deliberately, will find society not to their liking and won't have much to lose in open hostility.”

Young people will be taught to “remember: nothing you do will ever be forgotten and anything can be held against you,” Baran wrote.

He also foretold the substitution of information for understanding.

He saw a “clerk mentality” taking over his field, in which an “infinite-page-handbook mentality” would replace common sense and insight.

And in the new society, Baran feared, information technology would undermine equity.

“The better information processing techniques opened by the new computer art increase the temptation to profit the few and damage the many,” he wrote.

Baran left RAND the same year that he wrote this paper, to co-found the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research group specializing in long-range forecasting, and, in the years that followed, he started seven companies.

His papers will be donated to Stanford University.

Baran is survived by this son and daughter-in-law, David and Jane Baran of Atherton California, by three grandchildren, and by his companion, Ruth Rothman.

Baran's 1968 paper “On the Future Computer Era: Modification of the American Character and the Role of the Engineer, or A Little Caution in the Haste to Number” can be accessed at the RAND Corporation's website.


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