Life in a Network for Survivors (Part 2)

Life in a Network for Survivors:

The Thermonuclear Apocalypse and the Protocols of Freedom


A text on the impact of Cold War era apocalyptic fantasy today. A search for the missing ideological history of internet protocols. An essay by P2P foundation’s Nicolás Mendoza, presented this week in four daily parts. The final version of this essay will be published later in 2012 by the EnterText journal, Brunel University – West London UK.

Complete series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

Part 2


Some survivors are more equal than others

The principles guiding the early designs of the Internet supposed a deep perversion of traditional models of hierarchical military power. This perversion occurred the moment the military moved from a communications model of command and control to one based on distributed command and control. To understand how this move was possible it is useful to reread the opening words to Reliable digital communications systems using unreliable network repeater nodes[i], perhaps the most bizarre introduction to a technical paper ever written:

The cloud-of-doom attitude that nuclear war spells the end of the earth is slowly lifting from the minds of the many….A new view emerges: the possibility of a war exists but there is much that can be done to minimize the consequences.

If war does not mean the end of the earth in a black-and-white Manner, then it follows that we should do those things that make the shade of gray as light as Possible: to plan now to minimize potential destruction and to do all those things necessary to permit the survivors of the holocaust to shuck their ashes and reconstruct the economy swiftly.”[ii]

The author is Paul Baran, and the 1960 paper describes the first ever theoretical model for an entirely digital distributed communications network. When Baran started the research that led to his model, a few years earlier, more than a decade of nuclear threat had been enough to dissolve the euphoric sense of American invulnerability that resulted from WWII, so the survivor and his gray world had to be invented.

Cultural artefacts of the time show an imaginary where there is no paradigmatic survivor but rather a reproduction of class structure as societies go through the experience of the apocalypse. Within the space of the ruling ideological framework, Baran’s ‘shades of gray’ started to emerge. Cold War era movies like When the Wind Blows[iii], The War Game[iv], The Day After[v], or the Japanese (and post-Hiroshima) Barefoot Gen[vi] portray almost identical dramas of lay survivors as they negotiate the dawn of hell on earth. These lay survivors were, however, at best secondarily who the web was created for. Placebos in the form of nuclear emergency contingency pamphlets were the only packages being distributed to them. Their worse-than-death agony was expected, integral part of the ever flourishing collection of nuclear war scenarios. Belonging in this sense to a different category of cultural products of the era are Kubrik’s acclaimed Dr. Strangelove[vii] and Herman Kahn’s less acclaimed book On Thermonuclear War[viii], the former a slightly caricaturised version of the terroristic rationality of the latter. These portray a very different perspective of surviving the apocalypse, that of the powerful. Survivability of the elite, even after absolute Doomsday-machine powered annihilation, was initially the one remaining issue.


Fig 2. US Government shelter building pamphlet cover[ix]

In between these two extreme experiences of the apocalypse (one mediated by a wooden ‘inner core or refuge’ and a pamphlet, and the other by reinforced concrete and endless sex), existing societies started representing their pre-apocalyptic relationships of power through a new and flourishing ecology: an ever increasing diversity of individualistic bunkers tailored, ironically, to the individual ‘nuclear family’ and its corresponding social status. For instance, a booklet called The Family Fallout Shelter[x] distributed by the US government.”The least expensive shelter described is the Basement Concrete Block Shelter. The most expensive is the Underground Concrete Shelter”[xi]


Command & Conquer

The sanctity of the affordance abyss between the layman and the president was first transgressed by the figure of the secondary commander. Once his needs entered the realm of what is taken seriously after the bomb, the logic of post apocalyptic life (i.e. of the network) had been perverted. It seems now like an insignificant concession, but it was all it took to redraw the diagram of power. In a 1990 interview Paul Baran recalls how the seemingly subtle shift of accommodating for the needs of secondary commanders came to conceptually redefine his model:

The great communications need of the time was a survivable communications capacity that could broadcast a single teletypewriter channel.  The term used to describe this need was “minimal essential communications,” a euphemism for the President to be able to say “You are authorized to fire your weapons”. Or “hold your fire”. These are very short messages. The initial strategic concept at that time was if you can build a communications system that could survive and transmit such short messages, that is all that is needed… . The major initial objection to the scheme was its limited bandwidth.  The generals would say, “Yes, that would be okay for the President. But I gotta do this, and so and so gotta do this, and that command gotta do that.  We need more communication than a single teletypewriter channel.” After receiving this message back consistently, I said, “Okay, back to the drawing board. But this time I’m going to give them so damn much communication capacity they won’t know what in hell to do with it all.” So that became my next objective. Then I went from there to try to design a survivable network with so much more capacity and capability that this common objection to bandwidth limitation would be overcome.[xii]

This is the moment when the perversion happened, when the movement toward distributed command and control took place. The limited bandwidth distribution model still reproduced the polarity of power in the sense that it only considered the limited requirements of the President. Boosting bandwidth made it useful for secondary actors. Suddenly, the architecture of the desirable network stopped mimicking the hierarchies of the chain of command. In the aftermath, even in the absence of the top commanders, a network of secondary commanders would have means of communication and perhaps retaliatory power. The shift was reflected not only in the model of distributed communications but at all levels, especially in the characteristics of the data routing protocol. The concept for this protocol received the name of ‘hot potato’ packet switching.

“Thus, in the system described, each node will attempt to get rid of its messages by choosing alternate routes if its preferred route is busy or destroyed. Each message is regarded as a “hot potato,” and rather than hold the “hot potato,” the node tosses the message to its neighbour, who will now try to get rid of the message.”[xiii]

In terms of control the ‘hot potato’ model is a shift from node-centric control to immanent control distributed through the network. Because the node has no control over the full life of a packet, there is no feedback relationship between node and packet. Hence, there is really no nodal control as per Norbert Wiener’s seminal definition of control as feedback[xiv]. Packet control does ultimately happen, but as a result of the whole network informing the packet of the best available route in real time, which is to say that ultimately it is the multitude of packets who are, collectively, in control of themselves. In practical terms this means that end users in Baran’s design find themselves in a situation of equipotentiality.

Paul Baran’s network was never built but the model he proposed was a major influence in the creation of ARPANET, the primordial web built by the US Department of Defence. In 1973 the need arose to reconcile incompatibilities inherent to diverse data transmission technologies and to communication with other networks like the French network CYCLADES, and so the TCP/IP protocol suite was designed. Because TCP/IP enabled networks of diverse characteristic to communicate, the resulting network-of-networks was called the Inter-net.

Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf, creators of TCP/IP, describe it as “a simple but very powerful and flexible protocol which provides for variation in individual network packet sizes, transmission failures, sequencing, flow control, and the creation and destruction of process-to-process associations.”[xv] In the TCP/IP protocol flexibility, simplicity and scalability join survivability as the defining features of the design. However, in a 1988 report called The Design Philosophy of the DARPA Internet Protocols David D. Clark recounts the original objectives of the Internet architecture and discusses “the relation between these goals and the important features of the protocols” [xvi]. Clark enumerates the priority list of the characteristics of the Internet:

1. Internet communication must continue despite loss of networks or gateways

2. The Internet must supply multiple types of communications service

3. The Internet architecture must accommodate a variety of networks

4. The Internet architecture must permit distributed management of resources

5. The Internet architecture must be cost effective

6. The Internet architecture must permit host attachment with a low level effort

7. The resources used in the internet architecture must be accountable[xvii]

While this list seems like a self-evident enumeration of any computer network‘s minimum features, Clark points that the significance of this list actually lies in its order: “It is important to understand that these goals are in order of importance, and an entirely different network would result if the order were changed[xviii]. He elaborates on how the principles of agency and survivability contradict the logic of power and control, as it is detached from the ethos of the original Internet:

“…since this network was designed to operate in a military context, which implied the possibility of a hostile environment, survivability was put as a first goal, and accountability as a last goal. During wartime, one is less concerned with detailed accounting of resources used than with mustering whatever resources are available and rapidly deploying them in an operational manner. While the architects of the Internet were mindful of accountability, the problem received very little attention during the early stages of the design, and is only now being considered. An architecture primarily for commercial deployment would clearly place these goals at the opposite end of the list” [xix] (emphasis mine)

This order of priorities of TCP/IP is at the heart of the (originally unintended) disruptiveness of the Internet. It shows how in the Zeitgeist of the cold war, catering to the figure of the survivor, governmentality was momentarily suspended. The protocols that structure the network were built to provide the user with maximum agency (i.e. command and control) as opposed to exercise control over him.

The solution Paul Baran crafted for the problem of network survivability, to essentially distribute power evenly throughout the network, irreparably breaks the social structure that over centuries had revolved around processes of accumulation and consolidation of power. Because it was initially confined to the few who already were supposed to hold power to begin with, distributed power was a tolerable concept. The egalitarian idea of distributed power, paradoxically made possible only as a means of military ‘command and control’ to survive absolute violence, was accepted under the retroactively delusional assumption that the distribution of power wouldn’t affect its concentration.

The struggles in the network emerge from the tension between the contradictory concepts of ‘command’ and ‘control’, buried deep in the protocol that governs it. The expression ‘command and control’ describes the abilities to initiate and stop action, respectively. “At its crudest level ‘command and control’ in nuclear war can be boiled down to this: command means being able to issue the instruction to ‘fire’ missiles, and control means being able to say ‘cease firing’”[xx] It can be conflated into a more simple term: ‘power’; as this bipolar attribute is distributed, pre-existing powers experience loss, disorientation and traumatic distress. If we follow Foucault’s propositions according to which power is always relational and that it exists to be exercised, a network for distributed command and control, (i.e. distributed power), creates a situation where centerless power is exercised in all directions. And so, the paranoid genesis of the Net, combined with the absolute impossibility of the military, and even the academic field, to foresee the impact their toy would have in the planet, provided the enormous historical faux-pas in the logic of power that is the Internet.


[i] “Reliable Digital Communications Systems Using Unreliable Network Repeater Nodes,” Product Page, 1960,

[ii] Ibid., 1.

[iii] Jimmy T. Murakami, When the Wind Blows, Animation, Comedy, Drama, War, 1988.

[iv] Peter Watkins, The War Game, Drama, Sci-Fi, War, 1967.

[v] Nicholas Meyer, The Day After, Drama, Sci-Fi, 1983.

[vi] Mori Masaki, Barefoot Gen, Animation, Drama, War, 1992.

[vii] Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Comedy, Drama, 1964.

[viii] Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War.

[ix] Ibid.,

[x] Government U.S, The Family Fallout Shelter (1959) *Illustrated*, 2011.

[xi] Ibid., 2.

[xii] Judy O’Neill, An Interview With Paul Baran., (Charles Babbage Institute, Center for the History of Information Processing, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1990), 14-15.

[xiii] Paul Baran, “On Distributed Communications,” Product Page, 1964, 1,

[xiv] Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, Second Edition: or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, second edition. (The MIT Press, 1965).

[xv] V Cerf and R Kahn, “A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication,” IEEE Transactions on Communications 22, no. 5 (May 6, 1974): 637-648.

[xvi] D Clark, “The design philosophy of the DARPA internet protocols,” in SIGCOMM  ’88: Symposium proceedings on Communications architectures and protocols (Stanford, California, United States: ACM, 1988), 106-114,, 106.

[xvii] Ibid., 107.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] John Naughton, A Brief History of the Future: Origins of the Internet ({Phoenix mass market p/bk}, 2000), 96,


Nicolás Mendoza is a scholar, artist and researcher in global media from The University of Melbourne and a member of the P2P Foundation. His recent work can be found here.

Follow him on Twitter: @nicolasmendo

1 Comment Life in a Network for Survivors (Part 2)

  1. Jais Gossman

    Commented on the previous, but forgot to say this is GREAT! The hot potato analogy really sets it in motion for me, and the difference in Baran’s conceived but unrealized network, with that TCP/IP that does exist seems to be a place that many can go back to productively (unless I’m understanding his influence on it incorrectly)

    I eagerly await the final segments!

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