In the space of a few short years, we have all lived through an amazing global transformation – the sudden growth of this thing we all now know as the Internet. It is essentially an extension of the telegraph system, which began to be developed over 150 years ago, but once the power of computers was harnessed to help in the transmission of information, the whole concept of communication leaped into another dimension.
It was a leap that started as a few hazy but fanciful notions dreamed up by research scientists, gained momentum as the potential for networked computers became clearer to everyone involved, and turned into the massive tidal wave of change we are all witnessing and experiencing today. The networks worked, the computers got faster and smarter, and as more and more people discovered the ‘on-line’ experience, the Internet absorbed and continues to absorb more and more participants, taking us on a joyride of possibilities.
For a long time, the general public knew little about the evolution that was quietly taking place inside the laboratories and collective minds of the elite scientists who had ‘plugged in’ to the idea of a switched on and connected world. There was nothing too cool about sitting in front of a computer crunching code, but those involved were secretly getting blown away by just how totally cool the concept of sharing ideas, thoughts and friendships across vast distances was. Free from physical restrictions, and largely free from any legal or political control, the pioneers of the net created their own society, driven by anarchy, coupled with agreed technical protocols, where ideas and information flowed freely and new ways of relating to others began to develop.
They couldn’t keep this world secret for too long, because the word was spreading. The ‘information superhighway’ was beginning to be seen as a potential boon for government and business, and some sectors of society began to get concerned about the morality and potential negative influence of such a medium. At the same time, more and more ordinary people were buying personal computers, modems and ‘logging on’ to find the wealth of information available, and the sense of connection the ‘nerds’ had been experiencing all this time.
By 1994 the “world wide web” had developed - along with the computers used to access it – to provide a total multi-media experience, complete with graphics, video and music, as well as complex searching tools and filing systems that began to make sense of the explosion of available information. It was now a force to be reckoned with, and had the potential to revolutionize the way we carried out our daily lives. At this point the commercial potential became clear and the mad rush to dominate ‘cyberspace’ began. Billions of dollars of capital has since been poured into developing the Internet and there have been winners and losers, and thanks to the collective efforts of individuals, corporations and governments the world over, we all have the potential to benefit from this wired-up world. Using our computers, we can put our brains to work to share ideas, information and enterprise with the rest of the world, using the global brain we call “The Web”.
So how did it all happen? Where did the web come from?
I Have a Dream
Back in 1960, Joseph Licklider (1915-1990) published a paper called “Man and Computer Symbiosis”. He discussed the possibilities and the challenges faced in achieving a smooth working relationship between two totally different entities. At that time, computers were seen as huge central devices, and he looked at ways of allowing multiple access to the same information (time sharing), as well as how to deal with language issues and processing speed restrictions of both man and computer. He later headed the computer research program at ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) and set up research programs that eventually led to widespread use of computer time sharing in the late 60’s and networking by the mid 70’s.
Switching to Packets
MIT Professor Leonard Kleinrock wrote a paper in 1961, entitled “Information Flow in Large Communication Nets” where he virtually laid out the fundamental concepts upon which the Internet is now built – the idea of dividing data up into small packets then sending them down the line to be reassembled at the other end. This enabled computers to speak to each other on an equal two-way basis, rather than ‘dumb’ terminals plugged into a mainframe. This set up the decentralized, anarchic model of computer based communication networks. He continues to be at the forefront of Internet development, at UCLA.
The Stage is Set
During the early 60’s the experiments of the early pioneers began to be emulated around the world and the language and protocols were slowly refined to allow more and more connectivity between computers as the needs arose, the possibilities envisioned, and the funding was forthcoming. The fundamentals of computing were established very early on, but took a long time to become mainstream. Doug Engelbart in 1963 invented the “X-Y position Indicator for a Display System”, which we now know as a ‘mouse’. Gordon Moore, back in ’64, claimed that computing power would double every 18 months, creating “Moore’s Law” which has pretty much held true ever since. Moore went on to start Intel in 1968.
Uncle Sam Wants a Slice
Of course all these exciting new concepts stirred the imagination of the US military, and Paul Baran from Rand Corporation was commissioned by the US Air Force to write up a report on the possibilities. His paper, “On Distributed Communications” examined the potential for a decentralized network to withstand a nuclear attack. In those chilly cold war days, this was a revelation, causing a huge increase in resources directed towards developing this network. In conjunction with a number of Universities, the ARPANET evolved.
Sharing the Vision
By the end of the 1960’s man landed on the moon, and the giant steps forward were being made in the computer world as well. Companies, governments and educational institutions pooled their resources as the networked world came to life as if by some kind of grand design that the participants were merely mapping out as best they could. The collective consciousness took control, as Steve Crocker created the first RFC (Request for Comment), opening the door to global collaboration. The ARPANET had established its first IMP (Information Message Processor) at UCLA, followed by Stanford (SRI), Santa Barbara (UCSB), and the University of Utah. In October 1972, the first international conference was held to establish agreed protocols, giving birth to the InterNetwork Working Group, chaired by Vinton Cerf.
Are You Talking to Me?
The 70’s saw huge leaps forward in standardising network communications. Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn established Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and later Vint, Steve Crocker and Danny Cohen developed Internet Protocol (IP). TCP/IP is still with us today and computers hooked up using this protocol became what we know call the Internet, establishing a standard for networking. Other network standards were still in use. Significantly, on January 1 1983, the APRANET switched to the new standard.
The Geeks Come Out
Meanwhile more and more students, hobbyists and technicians were plugging in and the popularity of exchanging information through computers began to build. Email, Message Groups, Bulletin Boards and MUD’s (Multi-user Domains). Ted Nelson conceived “Xanadu” – a pay-per-document database as a global library. Many networks developed, emulating the ARPANET model, giving access to a huge diversity of citizens. Usenet, Fidonet and BITNET (Because It’s Time NETwork) which sprang out of New York, providing the Internet culture its underground, independent, collaborative nature, and the culture exploded. The “Smiley Face” was born :-) and the number of Internet hosts began doubling every few months or so - from 200 in 1982 to nearly 200,000 by the end of the 1980’s. Madness and mayhem erupted among the excitement as viruses and hackers began playing in their new found playground.
Peace Rules, Man.
Because of the open protocol of the Internet, security was low, so big business, although widely adopting the computer as a business tool, was afraid to jump on-line for fear of attack by the wily and subversive hackers. This allowed the anarchic community to flourish for quite some time. It was the domain of the Cyberpunk, the electronic guerrilla, and the switched on new age peace loving hippies, who saw the net as one big global group hug. Stuart Brand, of the Whole Earth Catalogue created WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) with Larry Brilliant, providing Internet access to anyone with a personal computer. Meanwhile the professors and scientists continued their never-ending refinement of the code.
All Hyped Up
Up to the 1990’s most of what was being shared over the Internet was in the form of text messages, Q & A conversations, postings to threaded discussion forums, with some people sharing software and files via FTP and Gopher and other systems. After Apple released Hypercard, in the late ‘80s, a personal authoring system where files could be linked and correlated in complex ways, it wasn’t long before Tim Burners-Lee proposed a ‘hypertext’ system for the Internet, allowing a mere click of a mouse to take users to the next file, or related document. This was the genesis of the “World Wide Web” and Burners-Lee followed up with some dedicated WWW software. Although security was still a big issue, this triggered the explosive exponential growth of the net. Personal computers were widespread, modems were cheap and easily available, so the stage was set for the average person, not just the technically minded, to ‘surf the net’. 1993 saw 2 million Internet hosts, the White House and the UN went ‘on-line’ and the proliferation of HTTP servers began.
With all the necessary protocols in place, and web browsing software like Mosaic being released, the web was poised to take over the planet. Phenomenal growth rates of all indicators pointed to nothing short of a global revolution. In 1994 the web grew at 341,000%. Traffic exceeded 10 trillion bytes per month. There were 3 million web hosts and the race to register domain names began. Hypertext and increased speed had enabled the Internet to become what the pioneers had dreamed – a multi-media global information exchange such as humanity had never known. Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML) pointed the way to fully immersive web experiences and the creative minds ran wild. Web sites were still fairly crude as HTML was in its infancy, but through the well-established chat networks (IRC), newsgroups, mailing lists and now web sites, the global brain began to dream.
The New Gold Rush
Finally after all the formative years, the realisation that the Net could be profitable took hold. The first ‘cyberbank’, First Virtual opened its doors (or windows) and the big players moved in. As people signed up for Internet connections by the million, ISPs, software developers, hardware manufacturers, content providers and search facilitators all stood to gain big time in the race for supremacy. Netscape led the browser race for quite some time, providing an easy to use solution to the general public, whilst companies like AOL, Compuserve and MSN began trawling the world for subscribers to their services. Unfortunately many companies underestimated the anarchic nature of the net and the free will of the users, and failed to provide what people wanted. Surfers didn’t want to be told what to do and where to go, they were happy to click away and discover things they’d never seen before, meet people they would never have met otherwise, and generally feel completely uninhibited in their quest for the cyber-experience. Consortiums like Tim Burners-Lee’s W3C, the Federal Networking Council (FNC) and the Internet Society (ISOC) were formed by the founders of the technology, to try to steer and manage the rapid growth and hang onto standards, whilst allowing for future developments.
By 1996, chat channels were heavily populated and new concepts arose, like IRC addiction, cyber-sex, flaming and spamming. Trans-national love affairs blossomed. “Newbies” started showing up in places where once only hardened tech-heads hung out and everyone had to get used to getting along together. People took sides as to which browser, which operating system, which political system, which rock group, which gender was better. Others became concerned about the free flow of ideas and it’s impact on society, triggering attempts to control the Internet on grounds of decency and censorship, while the Blue Ribbon Campaign gained much support, advocating free speech on-line. Of course one of the big controversial issues was that of pornography. Anyone with a modem and a computer could download pretty much anything, and that concerned a lot of people, especially since it seemed that’s all anyone was doing on the Internet, if you believed the press at the time.
The New World
Internet Telephony, Video Chat, Streaming Audio and Video, Browser Plug-ins, Conferencing, Virtual Reality - the avid surfers wanted more of everything and the developers were quick to respond with a plethora of products. Unfortunately the web was still rather slow and clunky, and while we all imagined a perfect virtual 3D world of electric dreams, the reality was that for the average person, just getting around the basics was hard enough. Configuring your dial-up connection, email settings and browser settings required expert assistance. VRML failed to grow as quickly as basic 2D browsing. Artists and self-styled entrepreneurs wanted their piece of cyberspace so web page creation and domain registration became the big focus. Adobe released Page Mill and Site Mill, and Netscape released Netscape ‘Gold’ which allowed the editing of web sites. Early adopters were quick to establish commercial ventures, register cool names, even registering the names of big companies in an attempt to challenge the established real world business practices. By and large the Web was still the domain of the creative and the technically minded, though the consumers were gathering.
The Geeks Sell Out
The inevitable arrival of e-commerce came quickly and the last three years of the 1900’s saw a fundamental shift towards the commercialisation of the Internet. Department Stores, Banks, Insurance Companies, Real Estate Agents, Book Shops, Car Manufacturers, CD Stores, Magazines, Football Clubs – everyone was getting an Internet ‘presence’. Web Addresses began appearing on TV ads, billboards and press ads. Whole new industries emerged to search for sites, provide how-to information for surfers, list businesses in directories, forecast trends and develop each successive generation of web site to keep up with the state of the art. Those who were once amateur enthusiasts found themselves in extremely high demand by big business to help explain to them what this Net thing is all about, and help guide their on-line enterprise. Coders, designers, writers and experts on Web culture suddenly found themselves in gainful employment.
Dot Com Madness
What was once established as a convenient way to exchange ideas among university researchers had by the end of the 1900s become the single most notable phenomenon of modern times. The big money moved in. Venture capitalists got behind any idea that seemed like it had half a chance of taking off, and the financiers and stockbrokers began playing their games with the vulnerable and naïve developers and general public. Internet expos sprang up across the globe, inviting industry leaders to ride the Web train even before anyone knew where it was heading. It was all changing so fast. Surfer behaviour was not completely understood, hardware was evolving too fast to track, so countless web sites appeared and disappeared, along with the money that funded them.
Levelling the Playing Field
The Internet presented unforseen problems. Traditional business practice didn’t necessarily work. With the click of a mouse a potential customer would vanish from a site in seconds. Banner ads, modelled on newspaper ads, actually encouraged visitors to leave the site that displayed them. Surfers were basically in control of their on-line destinies and weren’t as easy to manipulate as TV viewers or radio listeners. Not only that, but when all it takes is a domain name to identify your place in cyberspace, tiny one-man operations could stand alongside giant multinationals, with their homepages on equal footing. A ‘cool’ site was worth far more than a big site. Big companies tried to make themselves ‘cool’ but often failed.
A Whole New Ball Game
Once again creativity and ingenuity rule supreme in the world of ideas and information. As the conglomerates and start-ups merge, split, fold, expand, breed, seed and float, the on-line community of real people expanded and continues to expand. Competition between companies and individuals has given way to cooperation. Strategic alliances, networking, affiliation, multi-level marketing. An example of this is the celebrity fan site phenomenon, where fans of big recording artists build their own shrines to their favourite star, but are rewarded with commissions on record sales, if they direct their visitors to buy CDs. Individuals and corporations are banding together, sharing resources and customers. The giants still have a lot of power, as they have the resources to not only do the market research, but also to provide the rich content, but everyone now has the ability to create their own space and turn it into something of value.
As the novelty wears off, Internet users begin realizing that you can only surf the web so much before you start to realize that your life is slipping away fast, and no matter how hard you try, you will never see all there is to see out there. A trend is emerging for usefulness. Sites that help you find stuff. Sites that help you make a good purchasing decision. Sites that help you manage your ever-increasingly complex life. Sites that provide information you really want and filter out the junk. Mailing lists that keep you up to date with your subjects of interest. Meeting places. Events. News. Interaction. Personal empowerment. Industry specific sites managed by experts in the field. Search engines that don’t bring up every site that contains the word you typed in, rather a carefully chosen selection of relevant sites. Sites that know who you are and don’t patronise you, but respect you and your position in life.
From the earliest visions of computer/human interactivity, the idea of people sharing their lives with the help of technology has persisted. While the Net is a great way to make companies and governments more efficient, its true value is becoming more and more clear to be the ability for computers to manage complex information to make our lives more enjoyable. Joseph Licklider’s ‘Symbiosis’ concept is becoming ever more realised. We are moving to wireless systems, web-enabled wrist watches and wearable devices of all description. All the while, the fundamental principals established by the pioneers hold fast. Email, chat, discussion groups and file sharing are our staple information diet. We can carry on our day-to-day business, work, play, social interaction, while the Internet and all its contributors and developers continue to make life easier, faster, smarter and more customised to our needs and wants. We are all ‘Webmasters’.