On PBS, Night of The Living Nerds
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 1998; Page D01
Talk about targeting an audience: a PBS documentary about nerds.
Having said that, normal human beings might be surprised and even
enlightened by watching "Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet,"
three-hour program that airs tonight at 8 on Channel 26. "Nerds" has all
the feel of the Internet -- at times a wacky, insane meteor shower of
random information; at other times content-rich and totally connected.
A sequel to the 1996 PBS documentary "Triumph of the Nerds," tonight's
show is at its best when it sticks to the story. After all, the history
Internet is a great tale -- brief and brash and brave.
The show, we are told by narrator Robert X. Cringely, "is all about the
Internet and the wired world and about the geeks and nerds who largely
by accident invented it." In the first segment, "Networking the Nerds,"
Cringely introduces us to a host of hall-of-famers who envisioned and
invented a worldwide electronic network long before there were personal
computers. Among them:
J.C.R. Licklider, who in 1962 co-authored the first report on the
possibility of an Internet. The paper was called "On-Line Man-Computer
Bob Taylor, director of information processing at the Pentagon's
Advanced Research Projects Agency from 1965 to 1969, who suggested
that computers could interact. Eventually, ARPANET, a computer
network tying together defense research projects, was constructed. This
was the origin of the Internet.
Vint Cerf, a UCLA graduate student in the 1960s who was fascinated by
the notion of long-range computing. Cerf helped fashion a way for
computers to communicate with each other.
Ray Tomlinson, an engineer who was the first to send e-mail over the
ARPANET. He was also the first to use the "@" symbol in an e-mail
The show is chock-full of living legends.
But "none of the geeks made money," Cringely reminds us, "until the
personal computer came along."
There is plenty of talk about money. In fact, the show opens with the
affable Cringely at 3Com Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. He
us that the stadium (formerly Candlestick Park) is named for a company
"that made its millions by plumbing the Internet."
But that's the last we hear about 3Com in this segment. Or baseball, for
that matter. For the next half-hour or so, we are subjected to an
of images and factoids, such as:
Four years ago, 3 million people used the Internet. Today it's 100
We send 100 million e-mail messages a day.
Seventy percent of American schools now have access to the Internet.
Facts fly by; so do faces. We briefly meet Amazon.com founder Jeff
Bezos, Steve Jobs of Apple and Steve Ballmer of Microsoft. We see Bill
Gates explain how we're moving toward a "Web lifestyle." We learn of the
computer-power-to-the-people movement fostered by folks like Stewart
Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog, his colleague Howard Rheingold and
their online community known as the WELL. Because of sloppy editing,
some of the interviews are chopped. We don't spend nearly enough time
with these folks.
And we are introduced to several bit players, such as Edward Chiu, a
teenager who created the Go-Ped -- a hybrid of a scooter and a moped --
in his garage workshop. Chiu is an intriguing kid, but completely
superfluous to the 180-minute saga.
In another California garage, says Cringely, Architext Software was
Cringely first interviewed its six Stanford-grad founders in 1994 when
were living frugally off a 50-pound bag of rice. They had only invested
several thousand dollars in their venture. Cringely revisited the sextet
1997. They had changed the name of their company to Excite, they'd
moved into fancy offices, and their venture had become one of the most
successful search engine companies on the Internet. Each founder was
worth more than $100 million.
It all happened in three years.
The rapid pulse rate of online life is a concept that the show really
Several people talk about the compression of time, about Web years
equaling two or three calendar years. Rohit Khare, who works for the
World Wide Web Consortium, says, "Web years are a wonderful curiosity
to the general public and an actual health threat to those who work in
"I'm physically 35, and my last year was a full Net year, which is about
seven regular years. It's about a dog year, right?" says Christine
founder of the Internet marketing firm Planet U, "so I'm virtually 42."
Cringely tells Comaford that such math makes him a senior citizen.
Cringely does more than narrate here. He walks a dog, drives an
amphibious vehicle, rides a large tricycle, holds a pig, sings church
and steps into a portable toilet. Occasionally there is so much Cringely
the show it makes you . . . wince. But he does exhibit a good deal of
enthusiasm for the subject and he does a pretty good job explaining
complicated concepts, such as packet switching and TCP/IP, in his
"Glossary of Geek" sections. The script was written by Cringely (duh),
John Gau and Stephen Segaller, who wrote the companion book.
The second part, "Serving the Suits," zeroes in on the invention of the
personal computer and the spinoff industries it created. Here Cringely
more technical. We meet a bunch of venture capitalists and he tells the
stories of high-tech successes like Microsoft, 3Com, Sun, Novell and
In the last hour, called "Wiring the World," Cringely tells how
proposed by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) in 1992 paved the way for
global commerce on the Internet, and goes on to explain e-commerce and
the World Wide Web and the fierce competition among Internet-oriented
companies today -- including Microsoft and Netscape, Microsoft and
America Online, Microsoft and just about everybody else.
If you watch the entire show -- and don't get too weary of the
ever-present Cringely -- you may begin to understand why the Department
of Justice has filed an antitrust suit against Microsoft, why AOL is
up Netscape and why billions of dollars are at stake. You will
have a better grasp of what Bill Gates has called the "Coming Internet
The surf, as they say, is up