Happy Birthday, Internet! Jayati Ghosh

Forty years ago, on 29 October 1969, a network link was established between two mainframe computers, one in the University of California, Los Angeles and the other at the Stanford Research Institute, both in the US, through a system known as “data packet switching”. This network was known as the ARPANET, because the idea originated within an informal research group at the United States Government’s Department of Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This group was led by the head of the agency, J.C.R. Licklider, a visionary scientist who as early as 1960 had called for a network of computers, connected to one another by wide-band communication lines, which he anticipated could provide the functions of libraries as well as information storage and retrieval and other symbiotic functions.

ARPANET became the technical core of what would eventually become the Internet. The problem was one of connecting separate physical networks to form one logical network. By 1973, a system was worked out, whereby the differences between network protocols were hidden by using a common “internetworking protocol”, which meant that the concept of the network could be separated from its physical implementation. This spread of internetworking began to form into a global network that eventually came to be called “the Internet”, based on standardised protocols that were officially implemented in 1982.

Originally the development and use of the internet was confined to the military, the government and some privileged universities in the US. Over the 1980s the technology and the networking possibilities began to be spread across the world. ARPANET was overtaken by the rapidity of technological change elsewhere, and the project ended in 1990 to be replaced by newer networking technologies. Commercial activities were allowed by the US Congress in 1992, leading to the emergence of private internet service providers and new commercial applications. By the end of the 1980s, the internet had entered Asia, with institutions in Japan, Singapore, China and even Thailand becoming early users.

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist working in the European government-funded CERN in Geneva, invented a network-based implementation of hypertext that could find and organise files and information, effectively becoming a way of organising the internet. He made this technology publicly available, and it resulted in the World Wide Web. The computer he used at CERN became the first Web server. Web browsers like Mosaic and Netscape were developed in the early 1990s.

The rest is not yet history, because technological change in this area continues apace, and is even now dispersed to many parts of the world. Although the original development was largely concentrated in official defence and scientific circles, subsequently invention and innovation has become extraordinarily decentralised, so much so that the legions of books on the history of the internet find it difficult to record the developments accurately and comprehensively.

New technologies and applications are constantly being developed, and the remarkable possibilities that already have been opened up by instantaneous human communication almost defy imagination. It has been said that the internet is as much a collection of communities as it is a collection of technologies, and the technology is being constantly pushed in particular directions by meeting needs of these internet communities as well as using members to further develop the technology.

The euphoria generated by this and related technologies was at least partly responsible for the dotcom bubble, which led to significant overinvestment in some commercial applications that could not generate profits. However, while the bursting of that bubble did lead to an economic recession in 2000 and 2001, the proliferation of technological development has continued.

And meanwhile it has changed the contours of human life with amazing rapidity. While the digital divide does indeed remain a major issue, those who have access to the internet have found their lives transformed. For many people who keep discovering or benefiting from particular applications, it can seem to be too good to be true.

The development of mobile phone technology has changed the nature of access, as more and more people in the developing world turn to mobile phones to access the internet. In developing Asia, it is estimated that the majority of internet users now access by phone rather than computer.

Email is often considered to be the most successful internet application, though it actually predates the internet. Other applications have multiplied and changed life so quickly that it must have significant social implications. The internet has changed the way people keep in touch with each other, find out about each other or about anything else, learn, work, purchase goods and services, handle many aspects of daily life, listen to music, find other entertainment, even make friends.

Obviously the technology is going to keep on changing. But while we can all celebrate this wonderful technology that has already shown so much potential for transformation, the hard questions about the internet may emerge now. The very success of the internet has meant that there are many more people (and companies) with diverse interests who have a stake in it. Although non-commercial use remains high, the internet is increasingly becoming a support structure for commercial services provided for profit, and this is intensified by the fact that its own services are increasingly becoming commodities.

Already there are debates about how the internet should be controlled and how to maintain the decentralisation that has been so productive and implicitly democratic. There are conflicts over domain name space, the form of the next generation IP addresses, the control of content that appears on the internet, and much else. If the internet is really to remain too good to be true, these are questions that must concern all of us.