Distraction Free Reading

Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Entropy: Internet and Synthetic Biology Pioneer Randy Rettberg’s Story on How Information Was Forged

Our first encounter with Randy Rettberg was somewhat surreal. Not that the others weren’t—the sui generis atmosphere is always present—but that first meeting was set in a scenario so far from our everyday reality that it felt like we’d been thrown into a science fiction novel. It happened in 2022 and we were a bit disoriented after ten hours of transatlantic travel and two hours riding Bentleys to the British countryside. It was July, and we had left the cold and dry wind of our almost never rigorous Brazilian winter to find a pleasant summer sun that gently bathed the English lands. The people there were in a good mood and smiling. Someone told us that it was an atypical moment, that life was not so bright most of the time. We got lucky. At least the weather made us feel a little bit at home, but only that.

We were invited to participate in a workshop named “Safe, Secure, & Responsible Synthetic Biology Beyond Containment,” being part of a group of around 30 people, including biotechnology students, government regulators from around the world, union people, and scholars. We stayed in a 2400-hectares property called Wilton Park, in a building that reminded us of a castle—of course, in reality a Victorian mansion, named Wiston House. This event was jointly organized by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation, the independent, non-profit organization of which Randy—who was also attending the workshop—is president and founder. We got to know iGEM while we were studying for graduation at the University of São Paulo and participated in the student-organized Synthetic Biology Club. Clarissa was carrying out field work as an anthropologist with the club’s participants, and Érico was one of them. Participation in international competitions was one of the club’s main activities, and iGEM was one of those competitions. Created in 2003 as a spin-off of the MIT department Registry of Standard Biological Parts, the international competition iGEM aims to promote the international development of synthetic biology, engaging students, young scientists, and established scientists around the world.

At that first meeting, in the impressive Victorian mansion full of old paintings of men dressed in strange clothes and with menacing looks, we had the opportunity to talk with Randy about his participation in the development of the internet and about the connections of this previous experience with his interest in synthetic biology. A few months later, on an October afternoon, we had the opportunity to record a conversation lasting more than two hours in Randy’s office at iGEM’s Paris office. Both meetings were made possible because Clarissa was hired as a Human Practices Summer Fellow at the iGEM Foundation, working with a team assigned to develop projects and research on responsible practices and synthetic biology, while Erico actively participates as a volunteer in iGEM activities involving biosafety and biosecurity.

Randy is an enigmatic and extraordinary figure. He worked on a range of exciting and society-changing projects, including an important participation in the ARPANET[1] project while working at Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN). There he worked on the first internet routers and packet switching protocols, as well as in parallel and distributed computing. Machines he helped create would be used to coordinate US military satellites and address what would become internet routing. He would then move to Apple Computer and to Sun Microsystems—two other leading companies in the personal computer and internet revolution—before joining MIT. Falling in love with synthetic biology through his long-time friend Tom Knight, now owner of NASDAQ-listed synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks, Randy was invited to direct the MIT Registry of Standard Parts, a department that would spin off to create the iGEM Foundation.

Randy’s transition from the development of the internet to becoming a prominent figure in synthetic biology is something that has always caught our attention, as the internet carries with it important constituent elements of synthetic biology itself. We grew up along with the development of the internet. We lived our childhood in a world that no longer exists, nor will it ever exist again. We were formed in a cyberpunk broth, and perhaps due to the savagery of our condition as inhabitants of a forest city,[2] we were never able to ignore the intrusion of nature. Our curiosity to understand more about the roots of our roots—cybernetic and biological—led us to dig into the history of the internet with countercultural tools. We read books like “Neuromancer” and watched movies like “The Net: The Unabomber, LSD and the Internet” and “Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees.” It was from this cyber-bio-punk reference that we approached Randy and formulated our questions for him.

The exercise of listening to the trajectory of scientists is very interesting for an anthropology of science and technology based on a notion of localized knowledge, as proposed by Donna Haraway. By turning to the memories of scientists from an anthropological perspective, we are able to situate techno-scientific work in a given space and time and in relation to broader historical and social processes. At the same time, working with biographies and memories of scientists also makes us capable of bringing to the surface dimensions that account for the specificities of each trajectory. When questioned by us about the origins of the concept of information, Randy alternates between great historical facts, such as the second world war, memories of his work in laboratories, and intimate family memories. This complexity of the web of scientists’ memories is very interesting as raw material. For us, peripheral researchers from the global south who practice science and technology studies as a way of imagining different possible worlds, opening listening spaces in hegemonic places of knowledge production—especially linked to what is understood as the “frontier” of science such as synthetic biology—allows us a certain smuggling between different realities, a true exercise of anthropological alterity.

Randy’s Early Internet Days

“Randomness must be in there, right? And you kind of think this is like earth, air, fire, and water. Those are the elements for a long time. Those were the elements.”

Randy Rettberg was born in 1948. He began the interview telling us that while he was growing up in rural Illinois in the 50s, several things drew his attention towards science and technology. His father, who was very religious (Randy’s grandfather was a lutheran minister) and had been a prisoner of war in Japan during World War II, came back to the US and, thanks to the GI Bill,[3] obtained a degree in Architecture, working in many urban buildings—schools, hospitals, prisons—after graduation.  He says that his childhood and teenage years were lived in a “small world” where complicated machines would be farm machines, though his world kept expanding in several directions while he came in contact with several initiatives fostering curiosity and engagement in science and technology—from Bell Labs[4] films and pictures promoting their own technologies and marvelous inventions, to do-it-yourself science kits that you could buy from magazines. Randy remembers several scientific-fueled teenage adventures like building a radio from one of these kits, playing with chemical reagents with a friend whose father had a pharmacy, building a tin-can telephone network in the backyard, and playing with a huge recorder that came encased in a suitcase and that he bought selling newspapers door-to-door in the 7th grade. The television, a very “fancy” machine at the time, would bring technologic tales as well. A friend’s father was a professor of Physics at the University of Illinois, so Randy together with his friend would spend a huge amount of time playing in an electronic prototype board with switches and lights that could be reassembled to create different combinations of button and light activations. Two other important childhood memories were how computers were beginning to feature in public imagination at the time—as huge and expensive machines with buttons and flashlights—and the launch of the soviet satellite Sputnik[5] in 1957.

In Rettberg’s account, his world definitely expanded widely when he joined MIT in 1965. While during his basic education the teachers would often repress his curiosity, at MIT it was the opposite. Curiosity was rewarded and it would be the norm. Suddenly teachers would consider “taking things a level down” while searching for answers in a specific topic. Another thing that Randy remembers from this time was his first intense contact with a real computer. This computer was the size of a room and could be used by the university staff with individual accounts who could reserve computing time slots. He describes the operating interface as “a big big tube and a light pen.”

When Randy graduated, the Vietnam War was raging on and he didn’t want to fight in it, so he went back to Illinois to get a Master’s degree in Physics, describing it as a “really really hard” experience because of the complexity of the math involved. After obtaining his MSc, he contacted Nicholas Negroponte[6] from MIT’s Architecture Machine Group[7] and was hired as a “computer guy.” He operated an Interdata Model 3, a business computer already “small,” the size of a desk table. Randy remembers how “slow” it was: only 30 thousand instructions a second.[8] From Negroponte he heard of Bolt, Beranek and Neuman (BBN), a government contractor[9] that managed at the time several groups of highly motivated scientists and engineers working at very exciting projects at the edge of science and technology. Randy says BBN was created by three MIT professors who were renowned specialists in acoustics and began working for the Department of Defense in this field, but soon started providing services related to other fields of science and technology, receiving several government contracts including from the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).[10] In 1972, Rettberg managed to get interviews in different teams within BBN and was invited to join one of the teams that was building the ARPANET project together with people from MIT Lincoln Labs.[11]

ARPANET was an ARPA project aimed at creating a network that would interconnect all US military bases and Department of Defense facilities in a way that information could be securely and effectively shared between them. The ARPANET project created most of the currently used internet protocols, for example, the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP). ARPANET was the prototype of what would become the internet. In Randy’s words, ARPANET at the time was “a four node network. It was the first packet switching network[12] and it was four different nodes connected together by 50 KB links. So we started very slow, with teletypes[13] terminals, 10 characters per second.” Randy recalls that the group had very interesting ideas about transforming and transporting information reliably. For example, there was the idea that systems fail often, so there must be ways for interconnected information processing systems to check the integrity of sent and received information. From this idea the Transport Control Protocol, one of the backbones of modern internet, would be born. This needed in turn to be coupled to a decentralized network—so it could withstand and route around problems in individual nodes of the network such as a power outage or a military attack—and this decentralized network should be able to be composed of machines of different manufacturers that would follow in hardware and in software certain common procedures and standards that would ensure compatibility and communicability between any type of device able to follow these procedures.

According to Randy—building from the idea of bit encoding from Shannon and early information pioneers[14]—some of the really innovative ideas regarding information transfer were related to packet switching. The use of a network of interconnected nodes (composed of digital computers for a collaborative and decentralized discovery of possible routes for the information to travel on) and the establishment of protocols designed for the computers to speak on a common language (which could be understood by computers of different manufacturers) was how the ARPANET team chose to solve the problem of the ability of information to travel from one place to another. Prior to travel however, the information needed to be encoded and packaged in what would become the “network packet.” The network packet would contain the proper information users wanted to transfer and an additional “header” of information, a complementary message that contained “control information”—needed for the nodes of the network to find the best routes for the information and for the effective forwarding of the messages from one node to another after the best possible way was found. The combination of all protocols and ideas above would form a “packet-switching network.”

Rettberg emphasizes that prior to ARPANET, data could be sent from one place to another, but this task would require specific and expensive equipment. At his account, even in the academy and in the telecom industry most people believed that things had their own essences and while transferring information, these “essences” should be transmitted. For example, music was composed of sound waves, so then the only way to transfer music was to physically reproduce the sound waves from the transmitter to the receiver—and that would require special equipment for each type of “essential” information. From the ARPANET on, everyone with a digital computer, peripheral equipment, and a common phone line could be connected to every other person with a similar setup and transfer any type of information such as audio, video or text in digital format—a format that would subsume the idea of the specific “essences” of each type of information, replacing it with the concept of “digital encoded” information where everything that can be represented can also be digitally represented.

Randy told us two or three times that he and most of his colleagues at the project were against the war in Vietnam and were heavily influenced by the rock and roll movement, so this forms a contradictory background against which these ideas were designed. In ARPANET the engineers embedded a diffuse but real feeling against central control and authority funded by the military itself. With this new technology, the United States military sector would transform itself towards a decentralized informational entity capable of operating anywhere on earth. In a prior conversation, Randy told us that at times the technoscientific problem presented for the team to solve was straightforward military, such as the coordination of military satellites and the livestream of video and audio between them. In fact, the network transfer of audio and video for the military was one the first purposes of the computer Rettberg helped create in the ARPANET project, the Butterfly BBN. BBN itself was brought to the ARPANET project because of the renown associated with the acoustical know-how of the company.

The Butterfly BBN is considered a wonder of the early digital computers. It was one of the first of the modern “supercomputers.” It used commercially available digital processors from Motorola and each machine had up to 512 of these 12-33MHz processing units. It was first programmed to act as a “router” machine in the late 70’s DARPA’s Wideband Packet Satellite Network, making possible a continuous 3 Mbits/s broadcast of digital data— mainly audio and video—around multiple US military bases. The machine would then be used both in the Terrestrial Wide Band Network, a network that physically connected several Department of Defense facilities through high speed capable data cables from the late 1980’s to 1991. From 1991 forward Butterfly BBN was the computer used as the first internet routers, implementing in hardware and in software the first version of the Internet Protocol (IP).

A photo of an eletronic chip with gray, balck and pink components

A “die image” (a photograph of the internal parts of an electronic chip) of the Motorola 6800, the processor used by the first ARPANET routers, including the Butterfly BBN mentioned by Randy. (Photo by Birdman86 at commons.wikimedia.org)

It is funny to note that while telling us everything above, Randy—who had a lutheran minister grandfather and a “very religious” father—refers multiple times to religion as a way of explaining how prior to everything above, ideas about information were kind of mystical and quintessential. We had the impression that, for Randy, the cybernetic revolution which he took part in was almost like a new step in the human relationship with the universe. He, for example, compares cybernetics to the role of religion in English literature, saying that the former formed the backbone to the latter. For Randy, cybernetics is the backbone of our current mode of existence and of understanding the world we live in: in his distinctive atheist mystical language, he likens the development of cybernetics to the addition of entropy[15] to the four “original” elements, earth, fire, air, and water.

In a future blog post, we will describe the second half of the interview on Randy Rettberg’s transition from early internet pioneer to early synthetic biology pioneer. The next blog post also takes a deeper look on Randy’s view of how cybernetics is connected to synthetic biology and to science and technology in general. Until next time!


[1] ARPANET was an Advanced Projects Research Agency (ARPA) project aimed at creating a network that would interconnect all US military bases and Department of Defense facilities in a  way that information could be securely and effectively shared between them. The ARPANET project created most of the currently used internet protocols, for example, the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP). ARPANET was the prototype of what would become the internet.

[2] São Paulo is the financial capital of Brazil, a city surrounded and restrained by both the Atlantic Forest and the booming agribusiness.

[3] The GI Bill, formally Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, was a US law aimed at rewarding war veterans for their participation in World War II. Through this law, war veterans would have a facilitated process for getting superior and technical education.

[4] Bell Labs was founded by Alexander Graham Bell and was one of the first R&D intensive companies in the world. It became a large and important government contractor, conducting research and development for the US government, especially the US military. Researchers from Bell Labs were responsible for the invention of several technologies that form the backbone of contemporary industrial mode of living. Some of these inventions were the transistor, laser technology, the UNIX operating system, photovoltaic cells, and several others.

[5] Sputnik was the first man-made satellite to be launched and successfully orbit the earth. It was launched by the Soviets on the 4th of October in 1957. It was one of the events that started the space race.

[6] Nicholas Negroponte is known to be the founder of the MIT Media Lab (and prior to that, the MIT’s Architecture Machine Group) and to be an early internet evangelizer, being one of the founders of the WIRED magazine.

[7] In 1985, the lab would be reassembled into the now famous MIT Media Lab.

[8] Today a personal computer can run at 1-10 trillion operations per second. A Geforce GTX 1080 graphic card used in gaming today runs at 8.9 trillion floating point operations per second (unit used to measure computing speed).

[9] A government contractor is a private company that works under contracts to governments.

[10] Advanced Research Projects Agency, now Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is one of the most important US government institutions dedicated to the creation of new technologies that could be used in defense purposes. DARPA funded projects include the modern jet engine, as well as the technologies behind the integrated circuits, super computers and the internet.

[11] Lincoln Labs is another R&D laboratory that works under government contracts. Founded in 1950 as the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, recently it spun-off from MIT, becoming a private laboratory. Lincoln Labs is historically tied to the US Department of Defense, having developed the computer network called SAGE in the 50s (the first military computers to be connected to others and to have graphical user interfaces, used to coordinate radar sites around the US). Most of what Lincoln Labs does is classified, but we know they are also interested in synthetic biology because their staff participates in iGEM’s events.

[12] Packet switching is one of the theoretical basis of the current internet and of modern telecommunications. The idea behind it is to create a procedure that two or more computers must follow to securely and reliably exchange information. It involves a series of steps that the machines will have to know and follow in order to ensure that the information has really been transmitted between them, even if problems arise due to inconsistent connection.

[13] A teletype is an electromechanical device that could be used to send and receive messages from other teletypes and later, to and from computers. Teletypes would then be used as computer interfaces as Randy mentions here.

[14] Shannon – whose research was also funded by the US military – proposes the idea of encoding information as sequences of zeros and ones, what he calls “binary digits” or bits in his paper “A mathematical theory of communication” from 1948.

[15]  In information theory, entropy measures the amount of information that a certain event contains.

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