Sunday, May 25, 2008

Twenty Years on The Internet

I had the good fortune of starting my life as a wage slave in a small government experiment called a supercomputer center. The original idea behind those federally funded facilities (there were five) was to make expensive computing resources available to a large community of researchers (or, as we called it, a "cycle shop"). Of course, to make a centralized computer available to a decentralized community, you had to string some wires. One of our sets of wires was another, even older, government experiment called the ARPAnet. Or as you might know it, the Internet.

Infrastructurally speaking the Internet then doesn't much resemble the Internet now. You could literally enumerate all of the sites on the network and only a handful were outside of government or educational facilities. We thought T3 was a bad-ass fat pipe, and our client interfaces were telnet and ftp. There wasn't that much interest in the Internet from private companies yet, and the idea of e-commerce was a mere twinkle in the eye of a few forward-thinking lunatics.

But we had TCP/IP so in that sense it was the same Internet that we have now. E-mail really hasn't changed much, except that there was not much spam. Pornography was already firmly established (no pun intended), but it usually amounted to cumbersome reassembling of pictures from Usenet groups so it was no threat to more traditional channels. My first year on the Net saw both the infamous Morris worm, and the first notable prediction of the net's imminent death.

That pre-WWW internet was so nerdy and obscure that years later when people started talking about getting on the Internet it was as if everybody had suddenly decided to learn Morse code and take up ham radio. Still, there was the sense that something unusual was happening, and many of my colleagues from that era ended up in some sort of Internet business. I can't really identify the inflection point, but even though the ARPAnet had already been around for quite some time before i experienced it i think that it was in the period during the late 80s and early 90s that the critical mass was achieved. The true possibilities of the Internet wouldn't really become obvious until the advent of the World Wide Web and the web browser (meaning Mosaic for most of us), but there was already the feeling that this was a new, and inevitable, sort of communication.

It would have been impossible to imagine the scope and influence of the Internet back when i was reading alt.kibology and trying to write code to do socket communication. At the time, futurologists were more fascinated by the prospects of virtual reality and extropianism. The net was envisioned in far more fantastic ways in the cyberpunk novels. Although i'm sure i'd find it if i looked hard enough, i don't recall any predictions at the time that foresaw the huge, but relatively quotidian, impact of the network on our lives. Nobody said "Twenty years from now travel agents will be obsolete and you'll replace television watching with updating encyclopedia articles". Nobody imagined that we'd devote substantial amounts of time to carefully crafted on-line personas or sending random thoughts via cell phone to casual acquaintances.

I hold to the belief that technologies are morally neutral, so i don't have an opinion on whether the Internet is a good thing or not. It has been used in some good ways, and in some very bad ways. But to this point in my life it has been far and away the most interesting technology to arise. Not because i can use Google to find Demetri Martin videos on YouTube in 15 seconds, but because it has been so unpredictable. Just take my former employer Yahoo! as an example. It was amazing that a company with a 40 billion dollar market cap grew out of a couple of guys with a directory of web sites. It was astonishing that a company so successful could be so rapidly supplanted by Google especially in the area of search. It's incredible that the Internet has evolved so rapidly that a company with ten thousand employees, many of whom are brilliant, is struggling to prove its relevance less than 15 years after it was founded. Its almost possible to imagine now that nothing is permanent. Google itself might be following the same arc. Once mighty companies that dominated our time with their television programming, or got us to pay $20 a pop to mediate the process between playing music and listening to music are now dinosaurs.

The most fascinating thing about the Internet is that i have almost no idea what it will look like 20 years from now. I think it might be remade four or five times in that stretch of time. Many more fortunes will be made and bubbles will pop. The next generation of applications built on cloud computing and network storage will probably transform the way we think about using our computers. Or more probably, we will stop thinking about computers as separate appliances at all. In 20 years, access to the Internet will be as casual and ubiquitous as picking up a magazine in a waiting room.

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