Internet at 40: Over the hill or real life begins from now?

Where does wireless come in?
Where does wireless come in?

When Apollo XI astronauts became the first humans to land on the Moon in July 1969, the whole world knew – and about a quarter of humanity actually watched it live on television. The 40th anniversary of that ‘giant leap for mankind’ was marked a few months ago.

Something else with far-reaching implications happened a few weeks later, but was not noted as significant outside the circles of nerds and geeks. On 2 September 1969, computer scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, established a network connection between two computers — creating the very first node of what we now know as the Internet.

At the time, engineer and computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock and his colleagues were charged with developing the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (or ARPANET), a US government-funded research project in global computer communications that eventually grew into the Internet.

Although some celebrated the Internet’s 40th birthday on 2 September 2009, others held that the network didn’t really have ‘life’ until 29 October 1969. On that day, a message was typed by Kleinrock and sent to the second node at Stanford Research Institute. That “was the first breath of life the Internet ever took,” says Kleinrock.

Given the complexity that the Internet has evolved to, it isn’t surprising that the actual birthday is hard to pin down and is the subject of endless discussion among geeks and wonks online. For the rest of us grateful users of the Internet — most of the 1.6 billion people estimated as connected — we can celebrate the Internet’s 40th birthday through the months of September and October 2009.

But as this recent AP story reminds us, goofy videos weren’t on the minds of Len Kleinrock and his team at UCLA when they began tests 40 years ago on what would become the Internet.

Associated Press story, 31 August 2009: Internet Creators Didn’t Foresee Today’s Web

So as the Internet turns 40 – is it downhill from now? Or does life actually begin at 40? (As someone who is three years older than the Internet, I would say yes!).

“The Internet has just reached its teenage years,” Kleinrock said in an interview with Computerworld recently. “It’s just beginning to flex its muscles. The fact that it’s just gotten into its dark side – with spam and viruses and fraud — means that it’s like an [unruly] teenager. That too will pass as it matures.”

British techno-historian and columnist John Naughton (author of ‘A Brief History of the Future: Origins of the Internet‘) describes the Internet as an attempt to answer the following question: How do you design a network that is “future proof”–that can support the applications that today’s inventors have not yet dreamed of? The solution was to devise a network of networks that would not be biased in favor of any particular application. The Internet’s creators didn’t want the network architecture–or any single entity–to pick winners and losers. Because it might pick the wrong ones. Instead, the Internet’s open architecture pushes decision-making and intelligence to the edge of the network–to end users, to the cloud, to businesses of every size and in every sector of the economy, to creators and speakers across the country and around the globe.

In the words of Tim Berners-Lee, the Internet is a “blank canvas”–allowing anyone to contribute and to innovate without permission. It was Berners-Lee, as a young computer scientist, who is credited with inventing the World Wide Web, making the first proposal for it in March 1989. So the web turns 20 this year as the Internet itself passes 40.

Anyone dares to predict what can happen in the next 20 years? Here’s one prophecy I hope will never come to pass…

Back to Year Zero?
Back to Year Zero?

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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