Two weeks ago, I attended the 20th anniversary celebration for the U.S. Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program. The celebration began with a dinner and continued with a daylong program at the Newseum in Washington, DC. It is hard to believe is has been over twenty years since the High-Performance Computing and Communications Act of 1991 inaugurated the High Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) program.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that elevating the profile of computing and networking and coordinating activities across the research arms of the Federal government was a great idea. It was far less obvious at the time, as former Vice-President Al Gore reminded us during an anecdote-filled lunchtime reminiscence. There were several hearings over multiple years, with many doubters.
Yet only two years later, the Mosaic web browser was born at NCSA at the University of Illinois, helping birth the Internet revolution and the original dot.com boom. Some of you may not know that Mosaic was intended as a collaboration tool, itself the successor to another NCSA collaboration tool called Collage. Anyone see a naming pattern there? It was all about bringing people together who were otherwise separated by time and space.
At the time of Mosaic's release, NCSA was an anchor site of the NSFNet, the nascent backbone of the Internet we know today. Given the popularity of Mosaic and the fact that NCSA's web site was Mosaic's default home page, the NCSA site, hosted by NCSA HTTPd, was the world's busiest. (Bob McGrath, Thomas Kwan and I wrote an early paper on web traffic analysis, and Will Scullin, Steve Lamm and I developed some real-time traffic visualization tools for the CAVE.)
It was also a time when Illinois undergraduates were asking me if a $250K signing bonus was too small, and the startup mantra was "get big fast," focusing on number of page clicks and customers. Eventually the old economics – the one based on profits – demanded its due, and the crazier startup ideas died. For the record, selling dog food (a low cost, high weight item for shipment) on the Internet may not have been the best business plan, though a few succeeded. More rational business models emerged, today it is hard to imagine the world without e-commerce.
As the NITRD celebration, I was reflecting on all of this, as well as digesting the technical content of the presentations, which spanned topics as diverse as computational science, the economic impact of computing and the rise of big data. It was in this context that I posed a question to the final panel, a question grounded in the ever-rising importance of information technology and innovation to global economic competitiveness: What national research strategy should we pursue in light of the coordination now present in other parts of the world?
The question was really about whether the HPCC initiative, with all of its economic, scientific and cultural benefits, was a singular event or something replicable in today's political environment. It was a bit of a rhetorical question, but one that seemed appropriate to frame the celebration's context. The unflappable and always thoughtful Chuck Vest gamely responded with some thoughtful observations on the importance of educational investment for the future.
Burnham and Sandburg
Former Vice-President Gore didn't invent the Internet, but fully deserves all the fulsome praise he has received for raising the issues and helping creating the conditions that let it grow and flourish. Musing on this and the NITRD discussion, I found myself thinking about another Illinois story, one that captures the tumultuous change of another century and the singular contributions of another individual.
It's the story of Daniel Burnham and the birth of modern Chicago. Daniel Burnham didn't invent Chicago, but he might as well have, for it bears his indelible stamp. He one of the driving forces behind the 1892 Columbian Exposition, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas. The Columbian Exposition and the "White City" was Chicago's coming of age party, elevating Chicago in stature as one of the world's great cities. Mind you, this was a mere twenty years after the Great Chicago Fire, which had destroyed much of the city.
One element of the story has Burnham standing on the shore of Lake Michigan on a cold, winter day, pointing into the distance and describing the buildings and the city that would rise from the windy desolation. A visiting architect turns to Burnham and asks, "How can this be?" To which Burnham is reputed to have replied, "It is already decided." And so it was.
The anecdote is probably apocryphal, but the vision and the outcome were decidedly not. As Burnham himself wrote,
Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.
It's the emotion Carl Sandburg also captured in his Chicago poem about Chicago as the tool maker, stacker of wheat and player with railroads, the city of big shoulders. It was the spirit of a city and a young nation, confident and excited about the future. It's the same spirit we all felt in 1991 at the beginning of the HPCC program and then in the web revolution.
No Little Plans
As we look to the future, I believe Burnham was right. It's time to make big plans, defining a truly compelling research and education strategy for the 21st century knowledge economy, one that inspires and compels us all to action. We need not be riven by doubts and troubled by today's financial research malaise. There is another way, one that rebuilds our research institutions, empowers our citizens and creates new opportunities for all. Amazing and transformational things are within reach.
How can this be? The lessons of NITRD and Burnham's Chicago point the way, working together.