The Network is the Computer

In my mind, there's no more revolutionary concept in computing, networking and information technology than the motto which Sun coined in many of its corporate PR campaigns: The Network is the Computer. The origin of the motto, within Sun, remains unknown to me, but I would sure like to discover it by some piece of corporate archaeology. (I'm sure we have our un-official, as well as official, archaeologists here who know the answer.)

I can even imagine a new PR campaign based on the motto--a TV advertisement perhaps: A large number of sleepy and tired workers in cubicles are running routine errands of the most stifling kind; the beautiful jumble of the New York skyline can be seen in close view and is visible through the wall-length windows but no one is paying any attention to it; a rumor begins to spread from a remote corner of this vast room; "The Network is the Computer," whispers someone as if awakened with new life; as the "rumor" spreads throughout the room (the building and the town, in the later frames), the mood swings to jubilation and true excitement--the revolution is here. The last frames focus on a person who, the audience can guess, may have something to do with the rumor--a young engineer with a Sun T-shirt on. [That would be a cool ad ! Perhaps, I should receive some sort of compensation for designing it! (Please excuse my indulgence. My only sin is that my father was an advertising executive in Iran in the mid 1970s, and he did take me to work a few times.)]

Many others, including Tim O'Reilly, have opined on the motto.

To me, it has an almost esoteric meaning, and I'm fond of such esoterism:

  • The only computer that matters is the network.
  • The network is equivalent to one giant computer with multiple entry points. Ultimately, it is equivalent to a single Turing machine. (Or is it? What about external, interacting "machines". Surely, their purpose could not be modeled as merely random.)
  • The only computing that matters is the one that make the network more effective and efficient.
  • Those that claim the desktop to be the (or a?) computer have gotten it totally wrong.

To you, I'm sure the motto could mean something quite different, but if it could mean different things to different people within Sun, how could it be a component of its corporate identity or its organizational purpose? The answer is probably that, in fact, there's a great deal of commonality in how people at Sun understand the motto: The Network is the Computer.

 

Comments:

Masood: I agree absolutely. As a 19 year veteran, I have found that "the network is the computer" has always been at the core of what Sun means to me. Occasionally we get distracted: we focus on the components and lose sight of the vision; but we always come back to it. You've reminded me to do something that I've wanted to do for a while, now: grab the domain name <code>thecomputeristhenetwork.com</code>. I want to use it to talk about some of my thoughts on the future of computing. Much of what I do revolves around the question that Rob Gingell asked a few years ago: "If the network is the computer, what is the computer that is the network?" It sounds Zen-like, but there's a profound issue here. Hint: it's NOT a Von Neumann machine. And no, it's not isomorphic to a Turing machine. Turing machines are fundamentally synchronous. The network is fundamentally asynchronous

Posted by Geoff Arnold on September 16, 2004 at 01:17 AM PDT #

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