from the there-is-much-to-be-done dept
Today has been declared the 50th anniversary of the internet, as on October 29th, 1969, a team at UCLA, lead by Leonard Kleinrock, sent a message to a team at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), representing the very first transmission over the then ARPANET, which later became the internet. This seems like a good moment to think about all that the internet has enabled — but also just how far we may have strayed from its early promise and how far we might still be able to go. On the historical side, Kleinrock himself has posts at both ICANN and the Internet Society, and both are worth reading. The ICANN post is all about that first message transmission:
The ARPANET’s first host-to-host message was sent at 10:30 p.m. on October 29, 1969 when one of my programmers, Charley Kline, proceeded to “login” to the SRI host from the UCLA host.
The procedure was to type in “log,” and the system at SRI was clever enough to fill out the rest of the command, adding “in,” thus creating the word “login.”
Charley at our end and Bill Duvall at the SRI end each had a telephone headset so they could communicate by voice as the message was being transmitted. Note the irony that here we were using the telephone network to launch the new technology of packet switching which would destroy the telephone network!
At the UCLA end, Charley typed in the “l” and asked SRI “did you get the l?” “Got the l” came the voice reply. He typed in the “o,” “Did you get the o?” and received “Got the o.” UCLA then typed in the “g,” asked “Did you get the g?” at which point the system crashed! This was quite a beginning.
So, the very first message on the Internet was the prescient word “lo” (as in, “lo and behold!”). We hadn’t prepared a special message (as did, for example, Samuel Morse with “What Hath God Wrought”) but our “lo” could not have been a more succinct, a more powerful or a more prophetic message. Heck, we didn’t have a camera or even a voice recorder. The only record of this event is an entry in our IMP log recording.
The ARPANET and its successor, the Internet, had now been launched.
There’s a lot more in that post about what happened prior to that to bring the ARPANET about in the first place and I recommend reading the whole thing. Kleinrock’s piece for the Internet Society, on the other hand tries to look forward about what the internet might still become — in particular, how the internet should become “invisible.” It, too, is well worth reading. Here’s a snippet.
Such an invisible Internet will provide intelligent spaces. When I enter such a space, it should know I entered and it should present to me an experience that matches my privileges, profile, and preferences. These spaces can be any location on earth, i.e., my room, my desk, my automobile, my fingernails, my body, my favorite shopping mall, London, or even the Dead Sea. Moreover, I should be able to interact with that space using human friendly interfaces such as speech, gestures, haptics and, eventually, brain-to-Internet interfaces. Indeed, what I am talking about is characterized by a pervasive global nervous system across this planet. The Internet will be everywhere and it will be invisible.
Vint Cerf, one of the architects of the original internet has a nice post detailing some of the key milestones of the internet. For a variety of reasons, I appreciate the second milestone:
1971: Networked electronic mail was created using file transfers as a mechanism to distribute messages to users on the Arpanet.
You don’t say? Cerf, like Kleinrock, is also interested in what comes next. His final point gets to that as well:
2019-2069 (the next 50 years): In the next five decades I believe that computer communications will become completely natural. Like using electricity, you won’t think about it anymore. Access will be totally improved—think thousands of low Earth orbit satellites—and speeds will be higher, with 5G and optical fiber, and billions of networked devices with increased interactive capabilities in voice, gesture, and artificially intelligent systems. I also imagine an expansion of the Interplanetary Internet. But who knows, after everything that has been accomplished in the past 50 years, the only thing we can be certain about is that the possibilities are endless.
Note the similarity to Kleinrock’s concept of an “invisible” internet to Cerf’s idea that “you won’t think about it anymore.”
Meanwhile, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who did not help architect the original internet infrastructure, but did make it usable by the average human being with his 1991 invention of the World Wide Web, is also thinking about the future, but not just how it will be invisible, but how we can bring it back to some of its original underpinnings as “a force for good.”
“It’s astonishing to think the internet is already half a century old. But its birthday is not altogether a happy one. The internet — and the World Wide Web it enabled — have changed our lives for the better and have the power to transform millions more in the future. But increasingly we’re seeing that power for good being subverted, whether by scammers, people spreading hatred or vested interests threatening democracy.
“A year ago, I called for a new Contract for the Web, bringing together governments, companies and citizen groups to come up with a clear plan of action to protect the web as a force for good. In a month’s time that plan will be ready. This birthday must mark the moment we take on the fight for the web we want.”
I think these perspectives are important. With so much attention being paid these days to the problems brought about by the internet, we shouldn’t lose sight of two key things: (1) the internet has brought about many, many wonderful things as well and (2) it’s still the early days. Many of the discussions about today’s internet seem to act as if it’s a static thing that exists in stone, and the problems of today’s internet need to be dealt with via heavy handed regulations, rather than allowing technology, social pressure, and the market to work. Perhaps, in the long run, they will be proven correct, but the fact that even those who were around in the earliest days are thinking about how to continue to improve the technology, I have much more faith in letting these things play out.
The internet we have today is a different one than what was initially envisioned. In some ways it’s better than the early expectations, and in some ways it’s much, much worse. But the promise and opportunity remains, and many of us are focused on using that promise as a guiding star towards where the internet needs to be pushed. Over the last 50 years, amazing things have been accomplished, but the promise of the internet is only partially visible today. We need to work to bring back that promise and, as Tim Berners-Lee notes, make sure the internet remains a force for good.