At 40, the Internet still reshaping history

The Net has crushed geographic barriers and withstood extraordinary growing pains. But the human race has work to do adapting to its creation.

At the time, it would have been hard to predict which of these events 40 years ago would prove to be most momentous:

• Humans step out of a spaceship and walk on the moon.
• The Woodstock concert becomes a seminal cultural moment for the baby-boomer generation.
• A New York City police raid leads to the Stonewall riots and modern gay-rights movement.
• A handful of engineers at UCLA send some data from one computer to another.

You may disagree, but in my opinion, it's the last of the list: four decades ago today, the Internet was born.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say some important seeds of the Internet sprouted with that data transfer on September 2, 1969. There's plenty of debate about when the Internet was actually born, but one thing is certain: it's been a constant work in progress.

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It began as a Defense Department-funded project called Arpanet that drew on plenty of research elsewhere. It grew to offer a useful electronic mechanism to send mail, then the virtual real estate of World Wide Web, then a backbone for commerce, and now a core part of globe-spanning social activity. And it's well on its way to becoming the foundation for how the world's population uses computers.

Woodstock embodied the rising power of a new generation. Stonewall opened the door to a radical reshaping of morality. Men on the moon showed us how small the Earth is. But the Internet changes everything--and it will be instrumental in the next chapters of humanity's future.

The global community
I've been moved since childhood at how Apollo 11 photographs of Earthrise as viewed from the moon make my planet seem a single entity rather than a bunch of squabbling factions of humanity. But because of its practical effects, the Internet has done more to unify the world.

That's because the Internet has enabled communities based on interests, not geography. Latin speakers, macro photographers, Philip K. Dick fans, and college roommates can stay in touch with their respective peers. Jets, phones, and letters made this possible before, but the Internet builds it into daily life so it's as ordinary as going shopping.

Likewise, the Internet has given a megaphone to many who had none before--protesters in Iran and Myanmar are recent examples in which the people were able to comprehend what was going on in hard-to-see parts of the world and decide for themselves whether they liked it or not.

The Net has enabled more than just talk, of course. The Net powers a huge amount of commerce, whether it's buying songs over Apple's iTunes, hiring cheap labor through Amazon's Mechanical Turk, or managing the supply chain of inventory used to build cars.

In its early years, there were objections to the arrival of the profit motive on the Net, but that transformation out of academia has been one of its greatest assets. Economic ties are powerful and often durable, and corporations are willing to pay real money to make sure the infrastructure they're using stays up and running.

There now are 226 million Web sites registered for use.
There now are 226 million Web sites registered for use. Netcraft

Technology tour de force
The Internet itself is a mind-boggling complex overlay of technologies that spans every level from steering photos down a glass fiber to showing where your friends are on a dynamically generated map. But the first half of its 40 years were spent largely in obscurity.

Its early years involved just a relative handful of computers sending data to one another over increasingly large distances. The 1970s brought a key innovation, the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) that governs how data is broken down into packets, routed across numerous networking devices, and reassembled into their original form at the other end of the pipe.

In the 1980s, e-mail started blossoming in earnest as a killer application for the Internet, and the World Wide Web arrived in the 1990s. These innovations vaulted the Internet from academia into the mainstream. Exploding popularity led to companies that sold Internet access, equipment, and services--and the first dot-com bubble.

The bursting of that bubble was cataclysmic in the industry, but it was a mere blip in the Internet's history. According to Netcraft, there were 226 million Web sites in August, nearly 10 times the number around when the bubble burst. Google filled the void left by the collapsed start-ups with a powerfully profitable business making sense of the Internet's information chaos.

What's perhaps notable about the Internet is how organic it is. In the short term, there are plenty of disruptions as one company or another suffers problems or technology can't match new demands. But in the long run, the system continues to function as researchers, computing companies, standards groups, and start-ups constantly upgrade the infrastructure and offer new reasons to use it.

The next phase of growth is through cloud computing, in which people use software that's housed on the Net rather than on their own machines. Giant farms of servers house the applications people use, making them available to personal computers and mobile phones today and in-car computers and other devices tomorrow.

Today's cloud computing applications are primitive compared to PC-based equivalents, but the browser is evolving to meet the new demands with accelerated graphics, much of the native power of a PC's processor, and maturing programming tools. That increased power fuels the arrival of more sophisticated applications.

The dark side
The Net is by no means perfect or universally beneficial.

The ease with which it's enabled communications has led to a series of new conduits--e-mails, instant messages, blog posts distributed over RSS, tweets, and Facebook updates. That's handy for keeping in touch, but it also means people must grapple with a constantly shifting collection of oversaturated communication conduits.

Sifting the signal from the noise can be nearly impossible--and that's before dealing with the spam.

The Net also has brought with it plenty of new crime, facilitating identity theft and financial scams. Stalking has never been easier, and distributed denial-of-service attacks by armies of compromised computers can cripple a business' operations.

I acutely feel the financial pains of journalism that arrived when the Internet brought an oversupply of news. Arguably, the ever-shrinking number of reporters is offset by the arrival of new voices and the ease of tracking what's going on, but I share the concerns about the waning power of the press to uncover corruption or other problems.

The Net also has fueled the globalization that led to job losses and resentment as expensive labor in wealthier countries was replaced by cheaper workers elsewhere.

The most worrisome issues I see stem from problems people themselves have adapting to social interaction on the Net.

It seems our brains are hard-wired for a social circle about the size of a tribe, but now parts of our lives are on display to the whole world. Just closing your curtains now won't get you privacy, and good luck teaching Facebook's information sharing mechanisms to somebody not steeped in the subtleties of the social graph.

The Internet can abet governmental censorship and propaganda efforts, too. My gut instinct tells me that the Net's power to disseminate information--especially when augmented by technology such as Google Translate--ultimately will prevail, but it's not a sure thing.

So the Internet poses plenty of problems. But it's only gaining in importance, power, and reach, so my advice is to embrace it and try to shape it for the better for the next 40 years.

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