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. After all, print, radio, and television aren’t two-way media; it is hard to foster communications when only one side is able to speak.

But the Internet, like the telephone, is a two-way medium. Early telephone entrepreneurs thought that the telephone might be used to broadcast dramas and lectures into households. They were wrong. Most news organizations tend to treat the Web in a similar manner: broadcasting their articles into the receiver, unconcerned that the other party might also have something to say.

Those news organizations that would build a successful site or forge a valid online business model would do well to remember—or realize in the first place—that the Internet is a medium in the word’s truest sense. It is something that exists in the between. It is connective tissue. “Neither utopia nor dystopia,” writes Manuel Castells in The Internet Galaxy, “the Internet is the expression of ourselves—through a specific code of communication, which we must understand if we want to change our reality.”


”The Library of the Future”

Perhaps the most enduring metaphor used to explain the Internet is that of the infinite library—a limitless store of human knowledge and experience that can be accessed, modified, and disseminated by anyone with a network connection; a collaborative, communitarian information utopia that exists in order to set things free. That was J.C.R. “Lick” Licklider’s idea, at least.

There were many, many people involved in the creation and construction of what would come to be called the Internet, but most historians agree that Licklider was the conceptual mastermind behind the initial project. Licklider was an academic psychologist and MIT professor who, by the mid-1950s, was spending much of his time imagining new and edifying uses for computer technology. “The idea on which Lick’s worldview pivoted,” write Hafner and Lyon, “was that technological progress would save humanity.”

Networks were the key. By easing human access to and interaction with information, Licklider believed that networks could facilitate a sort of “man-machine symbiosis” that would make the world a smarter, happier, and more productive place. Humans would use the networked computers’ superior speed and memory to help refine and advance their own thought processes. In a 1965 book entitled Libraries of the Future, he presented his outline for what he called a “procognitive system”— a library/computer amalgam that would “make it easy to transmit information without transporting material, and that will not only present information to people but also process it for them, following procedures they specify, apply, monitor, and, if necessary, revise and reapply.”

Hired in 1962 by the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), Licklider soon proposed building a network that would allow ARPA researchers across the country to share information and avoid redundancies in research. The project didn’t actually get started until 1966, when one of Licklider’s successors at ARPA, Robert Taylor, got funding for what came to be called the ARPANET. (Licklider left ARPA in 1964.)

Give people the opportunity to do something great, though, and they’ll inevitably do something human. As it turns out, people took to the ARPANET for simple purposes—like e-mail.

While people disagree about the extent to which military priorities influenced the ARPANET’s design philosophy, the network was nevertheless a system that emphasized survivability in the face of failure. A distributed network, there was no central machine that was “in charge” of the system. (You couldn’t destroy the ARPANET by destroying its mainframe, because there was no mainframe.) Decentralization improved the network’s speed and reliablility, made it easier to add new access points, and allowed computers—and computer users—to communicate without outside mediation.

In a 1998 interview with the online magazine PreText, ARPANET contractor Frank Heart further characterized the network as a supremely open system:

The project was entirely unclassified. The project had no access controls on people. Anybody who could get near it could log on. The project provided access as a free good; nobody had to make a tough cost-benefit analysis as to whether they wanted to try the network.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.