“The irony is that in all its various guises—commerce, research, and surfing—the Web is already so much a part of our lives that familiarity has clouded our perception of the Web itself. To understand the Web in the broadest and deepest sense one must understand how the Web came to be.” - Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web
The inventors of the Internet knew what they thought they were doing. In the mid-1960s, the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency initiated a project called the ARPANET: a network that would link computers at affiliated research institutions around the country. In October of 1972, ARPANET made its public debut at the first International Conference on Computer Communications, a meeting of about 1,000 scientists and engineers who shared both an interest in the nascent field of computer networking and an inarticulate hunch that digital networks would, in some way, change the world.
For three days, as if on an excursion to the future, DoD scientists demonstrated the network’s myriad possibilities. Conference attendees ran air traffic control simulations. They accessed the AP news wire. They even played remote games of chess. As Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon tell it in Where Wizards Stay Up Late, their history of the Internet’s early days, “Executives, engineers, and technicians from the telecommunications and computer industries, a good number of them, entered the room skeptical of the ARPANET and packet switching. Many left believing the technology might be real after all.”
The success of the ARPANET demonstration suggested that truly great things were on the network horizon. And yet, as Hafner and Lyon relate: “Bob Kahn [best known as the co-inventor of the TCP/IP data transfer protocols] had just devoted a year of his life to demonstrating that resource-sharing over a network could really work. But at some point in the course of the event, he turned to a colleague and remarked, ‘You know, everyone really uses this thing for electronic mail.’”
News organizations have had trouble adapting to the digital world because they operate under a broadcast sensibility. They produce discrete bits of content—finished products meant for passive consumption.
In many ways, the story of the Internet is a story of mistaken identity. From the 1960s to the present, networking enthusiasts have consistently imagined the Internet in their own images, confusing what it actually is with what they have wanted it to be. The Internet is the shopping mall to end all shopping malls. The Internet is the ultimate home entertainment system. The Internet is the future of education. The Internet is the world’s greatest library. The Internet will democratize the entire planet.
To varying extents, the Internet fits all of these definitions. But, then, they are primarily aspirational. (“Wouldn’t it be great if the Internet could be used as an educational tool?” “If only we could use computers to sell more shoes!”) Strip away the ambition and rhetorical grandiosity, however, and the Internet, at its base, is revealed as something far more humble but no less transformative.
The lasting takeaway of the ARPANET demonstration and the topics discussed at the conference was a strangely old-fashioned one: computer networks would have the greatest impact not in the way that they connected computers to one another, but in the ways that they connected people to one another. Like the telephone and the postal service before it, the ARPANET—and its successor, the Internet, which debuted in the mid-1970s as a “super network” that linked other extant computer networks—was and is a communications tool that eases human efforts to share information and experiences, and to form interest groups through these communications. Arguably, it has found its greatest use as an instrument of sociability, rather than edification.
Whether via direct communications (e-mail, instant message, etc.) or display communications (newsgroups, bulletin boards, Facebook, etc.), the Internet has always been good at connecting its users to one another, and its utility in that function has been the key factor in its widespread adoption. The most popular and powerful network applications—for instance, the ones mentioned immediately above—are the ones that understand and acknowledge this point.