During the Cold War, with the threat of thermonuclear war looming, Paul Baran, a 29-year-old engineer working at RAND, became obsessed with figuring out how to ensure that if the Russians did bomb America they wouldn’t be able to kill the entire communications network. At that time, the major American communications telephone network was monopolised by AT&T and was a ‘hub and spokes’ design. This relied on a central hub to relay messages between the various spokes on the network as well as needing high-quality connections between all points. Paul realised that this was a fatal design flaw – the Russians simply needed to bring down the main AT&T hub and all communications would be silenced.
Realising this major flaw, Paul birthed the concept of a packet-switched network, based on research that was being done at that time on neural networks. The design of the network was one of n nodes that could all talk to each other, effectively a mesh. If a node was compromised or destroyed, information could be rerouted to another node and would still reach its destination. More that 50% of the network could be completely destroyed and messages would still be able to be transmitted successfully. There was no control node, so no single point of failure to exploit. Because of its digital packetized nature, multiple transmissions could simultaneously use all the bandwidth available, making the network extremely cost-effective, a magnitude cheaper than the current telecommunication network of the day.
When Paul Baran approached AT&T to show them his invention and explain the benefits to them, they simply didn’t believe him. A senior executive interrupted him:
“Wait a minute, son. Are you trying to tell me that you open the switch before the signal is transmitted all the way across the country?”
Even after the technology started to prove itself in the mid-60s, AT&T still rejected this new digital technology, as its distributed paradigm was the antithesis of the command-and-control network model that they had established and that secured their monopoly. One executive apparently even said to Baran: “Damn it, we’re not going to set up a competitor to ourselves!”
AT&T didn’t understand that the world was about to change. They were given the opportunity to be part of something big, something that would change the world in a way and at a scale that nothing in human history had ever done before.
AT&T turned down the internet.
We live in a world that is constantly changing around us. The new is constantly tearing down the old, eating away at the established ways of doing and thinking. The world your parents knew is long gone. The world you knew a decade ago is already fading into obscurity. Holding on to the old ways of thinking and interacting only assures us a place on the bus to HasBeenLand.
Organisations that don’t understand this and don’t reorganise themselves to join this interconnected world and play by the new rules will find themselves irrelevant or worse, extinct.
To survive, embrace the change.