This week, the Internet turns 43. (Arguably, anyway.) On October 29, 1969, the first communication was transmitted over the ARPAnet between its first two endpoints at UCLA and Stanford. Thus were laid the first seeds of societal revolution that would forever change communication, commerce, education, socialization, and — perhaps most tellingly — the underlying conceits of contemporary science fiction.

For those unfamiliar with the term, the ARPAnet was the earliest version of Internet developed by the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). It was originally envisioned as the mainframe equivalent of a KVM switch, it’s had a bunch of different names, and it conjured forth the first spam email in history less than 10 years after its birth. The ARPAnet also inspired a lot of fiction about hackers doing modern Internet-centric deeds before the Internet as we know it actually existed.

The video game Metal Gear Solid 3 makes ARPAnet development a key point in the character Sigint’s backstory. Hacktivist quasi-heroes The Lone Gunmen regularly surfed the modern remnants of the ARPAnet in several episodes of The X-Files. Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice features a main character that is an ARPAnet user. The list goes on.

Yet for all these moderately obscure appearances of the ARPAnet in fiction, none is perhaps as unlikely as the sitcom that presented the first television depiction of any version of the Internet.


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In 1985, during its sixth season, the Robert Guillaume-anchored political sitcom Benson somehow found itself the first television show to depict someone accessing the Internet. In the surprisingly nihilistic episode “Scenario,” Governor Gatling’s staff (of which the title character is a member) conducts a computer-driven training scenario to learn how to function in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

The “joke” is that there is no way to survive the attack, and the maudlin 1980s message is that, as we all know, the only winning move is not to play. During the scenario, a member of the staff accesses the ARPAnet to receive data on the fictional attack and consider how to respond.

We’ve come a long way in the last quarter century. The Internet has gone from obscure plot device to a central conceit of several mainstream programs. The raunchy Comedy Central show Tosh.0 is based entirely around finding amusing or shocking video clips from the Internet. Person of Interest is about a group of vigilantes that subvert an Internet panopticon AI to fight crime. And Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) from How I Met Your Mother devised an entire seduction scheme around tricking girls that habitually check out men using mobile phone Internet searches: The Lorenzo von Matterhorn.

Not bad for a TV star that got its first break nearly 30 years ago — and as a background extra, to boot. That’s not just some clairvoyant computer-related casting; it’s a historically hysterical hyperlink of Geek Trivia.