Share Button

Twenty years after he helped created the Internet, Dave Farber is working to keep it open to all manner of unconventional ideas — inlcuding his own — and pondering the next big thing in cyberspace.

By Harry Goldstein

For weeks, my only contact with David J. Farber, Penn’s Alfred Fitler Moore Professor of Telecommunications, was via e-mail, but now we had arranged to meet — in the lobby of a midtown Manhattan office building during a late-December New York visit by Farber. The only pictures I had seen of him were dark faxes on which his image was blackened, indistinguishable, but I recognized him immediately, sitting in the lobby coffee bar, hunched over his super-compact Toshiba laptop — sold only in Japan, he would later tell me; his is one of the very few in existence with an English language keyboard. Such are the perks of being the grandfather of the digital empyrean, a designer of the Internet. A Geek God. As I approached, Farber rose to greet me, offering a meaty hand to grasp. He suggested — no, directed — that I get myself a cup of coffee before the coffee bar shut down for the evening, as if he knew I would need a heavy dose of caffeine to keep up with him. (He was right.)

Gregory Farrington, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, says that Farber, besides being “wonderful, a delight, endlessly creative, and fascinating,” is also his own best promoter. His home page at includes everything from recent media coverage of Farber (articles in The Philadelphia Inquirer and People magazine), to academic papers (“Communications Technology and its Impact Between Now and 2010”), to downloadable audio clips of speeches, to pictures of his family and examples of “Farberisms,” which he explains as figures of speech he has been famous for over the years (“A buck in the hand is worth two on the books,” “A stop-gap measure is better than no gap at all,” etc.)

Farber’s work in establishing distributed computing networks in the 1970sthe foundation of today’s Internet — recently earned him the John Scott Award, established in the early 1800s to recognize important inventions and groundbreaking research in science, industry, medicine, and agriculture. (The press release is on his home page.) His vociferous advocacy of freedom of speech on the Internet, combined with his status as one of its primary architects, prompted Wired magazine to hail him as “the Paul Revere of the Digital Revolution.” When Tom Kalil of the National Economic Council came up with a list of the top ten things the Clinton administration likes about the Internet, Farber ranked number seven. (See the People article). When President Clinton gave a speech at Penn last fall pounding home the theme of a digital bridge to the 21st century, he singled out Farber for special praise as “a pioneer of the Internet,” which he could truthfully have said even if Farber were not also one of the co-chairs of Scientists and Engineers for Clinton-Gore. (Clinton’s remarks are available — well, you know where).

David Farber’s rise from prodigy to counselor to governments and corporations has been powered by an uncanny ability to recognize opportunities and an unflappable confidence in the substance of his own vision. How Farber came to be so highly regarded in the high-tech community is also the story of how Western society now finds itself on the verge of a new and to some, Farber included, frightening world.

Feeling Around

Farber’s first exposure to computers came in 1954, when as an undergraduate at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, he participated in a thesis that involved building an automatic chemical analyzer. He and his colleagues built a relay computer, using a huge punch card to program it. “It was about two feet long by a foot wide, and, you know, you put holes in it, BUT IT RAN!” exclaims Farber. “And that’s what got me interested in computing, though I didn’t know there were computers at that point.”

The following summer Farber, then twenty, landed a job with the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C., working for Wally Deitrich, the person who built the first transistor analog computer. Farber spent the summer programming it, though he says he never planned to go into computing. He was set on attending graduate school at MIT to become an electrical engineer. But before he had a chance to pursue that goal, a special opportunity popped up that he couldn’t resist: an interview at Bell Labs.

“I talked to this strange guy in New York City who was building something that I thought was a computer-programmed electronic telephone system. And I got in a big fight with them, because I thought they were doing it all wrong. I had nothing to lose, I was going to MIT. I left the interview and called the personnel people. They said, ‘What the hell did you do? They want you desperately!'”

At Bell Labs, Farber found himself knee deep in helping design the world’s first computer-operated telephone switching system. Early on in his ten-year stint with Bell, from 1956 to 1966, he became obsessed with solving a complex series of equations that dealt with the behavior of the telephone switch. The two-year process of solving the problem — in his spare time — got Farber “hooked” on programming languages, he says. During that period he also helped develop the String Oriented Symbolic Programming Language. Its better — known acronym, SNOBOL, came, as Farber tells it, “From a comment that we did not stand a snowball’s chance in Hell of finding an acceptable name.” Since the 1960s, SNOBOL has been a widely used programming language designed to manipulate symbols and is the forerunner of some of today’s programming languages.

After a few years at Bell, Farber was tempted to return to school to earn his doctorate, thinking that academe was the best place to gain the kind of knowledge and experience he was looking for. He’d been accepted at MIT for the second time when Richard Hamming, a famous numerical analyst and a friend of Farber’s, asked him why he was going back to school. When Farber replied that he wanted to learn more about computing, Hamming told him, “‘You’re at the center of it!'” Farber recalls. “Which [Bell Labs] was at that point. I got a masters from Stevens later on.”

Soon after deciding not to pursue a doctorate, Farber became involved in creating one of the first high speed networks for Bell Labs, which ran at speeds equivalent to today’s T-1 connections. To gauge how far ahead of his time Farber is, the average home computer that dials into the Internet today uses a 28,800 baud modem — several magnitudes slower than the T-1 he helped design thirty-five years ago.

This was also the project that got the grandfather of the Internet interested in networking and digital communications, which, combined with his telephone experience, landed him at the Rand Corporation, headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif., where from 1966 to 1968 he worked on several communications projects for the military. From Rand, Farber went to Scientific Data Systems and then — finally — on to academe. “I’m not sure what attracts me to academe, in hindsight, because I had a very good job, with a very good stock option. I had taught in the evenings, and I liked teaching. I had gotten into the commercial side of the house, and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t feel right, so I decided to take a couple of years off and try teaching. During that time, I came upon this notion of a distributed computing system with one of the very early local networks and applied to the [National Science Foundation] and got what was at that time an enormous amount of money to go build it.”

The Future’s Just Down the Street

Farber knows that there are things that he’s seen in his mind’s eye that haven’t yet come to life. One is the promise of an online community where people can interact in real time. Though a lot of software and hardware companies are out there trying to make online interaction more intuitive for the average user, we’re certainly not where Farber thinks we could be.

“When we started networking, the idea was that somehow we could run distributed universities. We could have a superb teacher in Helsinki give a talk that involved students worldwide. That hasn’t happened. Yet. It’s a question of when, not whether, it happens — virtual communities, where we meet.”

Snow Crash, a 1991 science fiction novel, is required reading for all his students, Farber says. The novel is author Neal Stephenson’s vision of cyberspace — to borrow a term from another sci-fi visionary, William Gibson — where characters experience an immersive
three-dimensional online environment and represent themselves via avatars (digitized versions of themselves). The Street, as Stephenson calls it, is a place to meet and greet, to party and to do business.

“We want to build it. That’s the motivation. Everything in Snow Crash, that’s the type of environment we’ve dreamed about for a long time, but now the technology is there essentially to pull it off.” Farber isn’t alone in holding this fictional vision up as the holy grail of communications technology. A recent article in Wired magazine featured a group of researchers toiling away on Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Wash. to build the systems necessary to bring Stephenson’s vision to life within ten years.

“I think you could do it in two or three years,” Farber says confidently. “Communications technology is there. Starting very soon I’ll be able to get satellite feeds down through direct broadcast satellites at very high data rates. A combination of that and radio and some clever tricks, you could pull a Snow Crash now. The technology is all coming. I think by the early 21st century we can have it, if we want it.”

But do we want it? In the dystopian “real” world of Stephenson’s novel, a kind of consumerism run rampant has all but eliminated the very concept of a public sphere, replacing governments with competing “franchulates,” and even his virtual Street is plagued by problems of overcrowding, class divisions, and crime. Farber, who knows that technology doesn’t march on some immutable, inevitable path, has thought long and hard on this question. Though he seems to believe that profit motive is the deciding factor in what version of the future will play out, he also thinks that we as a society have to grapple with the ways we use the technology that drives that future.

“The gaps that are opening between people who know how to use computers, know how to use networks — who live in that world — and those who don’t are going to be really severe,” he says. “This creates more of a separation in an already marginally stable society. Television failed completely to help bridge this gap. [Computer] networks might or they might not. If they go down the path of being successful commercially, aimed at people who have money, then you’ll have more and more separation.”

As for President Clinton’s campaign promise to give every twelve year old access to the Internet, Farber sees two glaring obstacles — undertrained teachers and a lack of political will. “You need major changes in the way we treat education, and I don’t see that happening. Every kid is not going have network access unless it’s used as part of the educational environment. Also, I suspect the Congress is not going to fund it.” Farber taps his fingers hard on the table, a soothing metronome for his troubled thoughts. “As endless people have said, this country has to get its priorities straight. We’re not paying any attention to educating the next round of the workforce that can actually get good jobs. Clearly, we have the resources. The question is, do we have the will as a country to do it?”

Interesting People

Whether or not the U.S. has the political will to bridge the gap between info haves and have nots, Farber certainly has the will — the sheer joyous chutzpah — to broadcast his candid and sometimes controversial opinions on the Net he helped establish. He reaches an estimated 25,000 subscribers every day via his IP — Interesting People — e-mail list serve. The items are indeed diverse, dealing with everything from the infamous “clipper chip” to high definition television, Japan’s future to Bill Gates’ thoughts on artificial intelligence. (Farber’s home page explains how to join.)

Farber started the IP 10 years ago and says that, contrary to what you might think, it doesn’t take much of his time. “It’s stuff that I read that I find interesting, and I send it on. The redistribution is bing bing and it’s gone. And it is my eclectic views of what is interesting, and I think you’ll see a lot more like that. That’s the nice thing about freedom, you can do what you want.”

Farber’s concern with the free dissemination of ideas, including his own, makes it only natural that he should sit on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, established in 1990 “to help civilize the electronic frontier; to make it truly useful and beneficial not just to a technical elite, but to everyone; and to do this in a way which is in keeping with our society’s highest traditions of the free and open flow of information and communication.” The organization is funded by major foundations and corporation including Adobe Systems, Apple Computers, AT&T, Bauman Foundation, Benton Foundation, Dun & Bradstreet, Electronic Messaging, IBM, MCI, and Microsoft, and the board of directors is a Who’s Who of digital gurus and civil libertarians, including chair Esther Dyson, former Grateful Dead member John Perry Barlow, Denise Caruso of The New York Times, and Jane Metcalfe of Wired magazine.

Farber joined the EFF at the request of Mitch Kapor, the former Microsoft gutu. When Farber hitched a ride to an NSF meeting in California on Kapor’s private jet back in 1990, the two “got talking about the EFF and the issues and I was more and more sensitive to the fact that there was beginning to be, even back then, attempts to stifle the Net,” says Farber. “The two of us hit it off and Mitch invited me to join the board.” The work of the EFF is critical, Farber insists, “This whole thing could turn into a TV set. Dull, monotonous. We could end up with libel laws that make it impossible to say anything, community standards which would make it pablum. If you have to live with community standards on the Internet, find the most conservative, obscure place you can in the country and that will be the standard. Who’s going to use that?”

Cool Toys
For all his serious contemplation of how communications technology can facilitate a democratic society, you can still see the wonder in Farber’s eyes when you start talking gadgets with him. He is, after all, a living technological test bed. When asked what his ultimate gadget fantasy is, he flips back his coat like a gunslinger getting ready to draw down, and unholsters his sidearms — a two way pager on which he can receive and send e-mails and an ultra thin cellular phone. “What I want is a bunch of separate devices — this small cellular phone and this two way pager — but hooked together. I could have a very short range radio, so these two separate devices could talk to each other as I’m sitting here, so my telephone has complete access to the database in my computer without having to open the computer. Much better than one integrated device that includes a lot of different functions, but doesn’t do any one of them right.”
Once he starts talking about his computer, it’s not hard to imagine that Farber could be to Toshiba what Michael Jordan is to Nike, but he’s also sensitive to the fact that companies often hype technology far beyond its actual capabilities. “Two things hit you in this field. One, it’s very difficult to predict the future. Rosy forecasts usually don’t happen in the computer field that fast, and they usually happen when there’s a real paradigm shift and technology shift. We tend to overhype, over-suggest, what we think we know how to do — then advertise it as real,” he says, citing examples such as “the talking TV set in the watch, or voice recognition, or AI [artificial intelligence].”

Indicating the paperback-sized DX4, 75 mhz machine with a 250 meg harddrive and 60 (!!!) megs of RAM that I’m drooling over, he continues, “Sometimes technology changes, like the thought of a computer like that. Fifteen years ago, you would have said, ‘You’ve got to be out of your mind,’ but still, this is not doing notably more than computers in the mid-seventies were doing. I note with some interest, that despite all my computing and everything, when it comes down to writing an appointment, guess what I use?” I hold up my pen, and he nods his head. To use the computer more intensely, Farber says, two things must happen. “First, I can read it on the New York subway system. The other thing is when I can sit on a toilet and read the display.”

Farber is convinced that we will be reading text on the can, not watching 3-D movies. “We’ve communicated with text for how many years? One of the payoffs to the Net is that you have a generation of people who know how to write. They have opportunities to write — if nowhere else, then on the bulletin boards and e-mail. They’re used to expressing their ideas in words. E-mail is the driver. And I expect that it will stay there for a long time.”

Then again, Farber knows that the future can change in the flash of a synapse or in the course of retrieving an almost forgotten dream from a memory bank. “In hindsight, God knows how I got into networking,” Farber says, as he waves to a friend venturing out the revolving doors into the raw December night. “I wish I could say that it was all part of a plan, but it never is. It’s realizing opportunities. You sit there and see something. I think the thing that [separates] a good researcher from a not-good researcher is you sort of smell something good. You also learn to constantly think of things, to look out and say, ‘I don’t know how to start on that.’ So you put it in deep storage, and you come back to it and say, ‘Is now the time?’ and if it’s not, you put it back into deep storage. About every five years you re-expose things in your head and at the right time something becomes feasible.”

Harry Goldstein writes about technology, politics and work culture for various publications. He lives in New York City.

Share Button

    Related Posts

    Reproducing Racism
    Time Stretcher
    Mann in the Middle