Thursday, October 29, 2009

Happy Birthday Internet

Forty years ago tonight, on a fall evening in California, the Internet was born. Well, not exactly born, but it worked for the first time. So I suppose that one could say that it took its first breath. And it was a tenuous one. A researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) typed "L" into his computer and it appeared over 400 miles away at Stanford University. Then an "O" came from UCLA and it too appeared in Palo Alto. After that the scientist at UCLA sent the letter "G" and the whole system immediately crashed.
Not a great start for the Internet, but they fixed the problem and their little system out in California, called Arpanet, and got some help from British scientists working on how to more efficiently move information, and the Internet was up and running. Hey, it's okay, most of us fell down when we went to take our first steps. But as I said, Arpanet was up and going on step two, and it was growing, until by the mid-70s it was a full fledged network of computers that not only allowed computer and research scientists to vastly increase their computing power by simple hooking up, it actually saved money by eliminating duplicate research. It was groovy as the Brady Bunch would have said. It was from those humble beginnings, with only a couple of computers on the California coast that the Internet was born. And to think, Al Gore was only 21 when he invented the thing.
Al Gore didn't invent the Internet, and whatever his part in advancing it along was, it has truly become an amazing thing. It is what allows you to read what I sat and typed at my keyboard in the Worldwide Headquarters. It allows you to surf one of the eleventy billion porn sites that are out there floating around, including that one where the girl does that amazing thing with her tongue. It allows you to book your cruise from your home, to read the collection of the Moscow library, to check the weather in Greenland, and to make phone calls to Sardinia without paying long distance charges. It is also is what is making our industrialized citizens fatter, lazier, and more energy-dependent, so keep that in mind.
It has been a long time since anything has come around that has changed our civilization and society as quickly and as greatly as the Internet. It is up there on par with the wheel, fire, tweezers, and sliced bread. It has linked together the people of the world, and shrunk the ideas of time in distance in ways that we are only beginning to understand. It has opened sources of knowledge to people at a level that has never even been imagined before: if you don't have website then you might as well not even open your doors in some places these days. And let's not even get into how it allows the average person, with just a little bit of training and know-how, to present themselves and their ideas to the widest of audiences possible. That, I think, will be the greatest mark of the technological revolution. You can see the power of this phenomenon when certain countries censor certain websites from their citizens. The Internet allows for the ultimate in free speech.
So let us all raise our glasses to the Internet, it has become an integral part of our lives, a part that a staggering number of young people have said they cannot live without. It is ingrained within out being more with every day, so we had better give it its proper due. So happy fortieth birthday Internet. Al Gore must be so proud. And to think, it all started with the letter "L."

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