This coming week, the internet turns 40. On 29th October 1969 Leonard Kleinrock and some colleagues crowded round a computer terminal somewhere in California and logged into another one several hundred miles away. It was the particular type of remote connection that proved significant. It was only partially successful. The system crashed two letters into the first word – which was meant to be ‘LOGIN’; and so the first utterance sent across the net was the biblical ‘Lo…’
To choose a moment like this is somewhat arbitrary. There are many other technological shifts of huge significance that could be noted. But this is the one Oliver Burkeman opts for in his fascinating article about the history and implications of the internet. Arpanet, as this first system was called, was funded by US government money that had been released by Eisenhower in the panic after Sputnik. So it was, indirectly, a result of the space race.
Burkeman takes us through the first academic net, early email, the world wide web, search, the generativity of Web 2.0, and then speculates about where it will be in 4 years. He doesn’t dare to go further than that time frame, because change (not just growth) has been exponential, and you would be a fool to imagine you could see much further. It’s fun to reminisce, but it provokes deeper thoughts about how radically the world has changed, together with our ideas about knowledge, community, the self etc…
One nice quotation is from a science fiction story by Murray Leinster, written in 1946. Everyone has a tabletop box called a ‘logic’ that links them to the rest of the world. Look at how prescient it is:
You got a logic in your house. It looks like a vision receiver used to, only it’s got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get . . . you punch ‘Sally Hancock’s Phone’ an’ the screen blinks an’ sputters an’ you’re hooked up with the logic in her house an’ if somebody answers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast [or] who was mistress of the White House durin’ Garfield’s administration . . . that comes on the screen too. The relays in the tank do it. The tank is a big buildin’ full of all the facts in creation . . . hooked in with all the other tanks all over the country . . . The only thing it won’t do is tell you exactly what your wife meant when she said, ‘Oh, you think so, do you?’ in that peculiar kinda voice.
Another article by Tom Meltzer and Sarah Phillips gives a nostalgia trip through various internet firsts: first browser, smiley, search engine, item sold on eBay, youtube video etc. My favourite entry is the well-known first webcam, which was primed on a coffee machine in Cambridge University’s computer lab so that people at the end of the corridor could get live updates on whether it was worth making the journey away from the desk or not.