Was it him or Tim? Growing up on a quarter century of internetness.. .

TIM_Invented_itAs we all know ‘Hypertext Servers’ were one of the new things Tim Berners Lee proposed twenty five years ago while at CERN; it was a modest proposal that relative to the rate of previous communications advances swiftly changed the global communications landscape. (You can read Tim’s full text here).

Trying to find a way to access the increasing volume of research information at CERN Tim proposed the use of a complex system based on distributed hypertext, and on Christmas Day a year later Tim produced the first web browser called nexus. (Originally called the Worldwideweb but the name changed later for obvious reasons.) Tim’s achievements were soon followed with the initial writing up of the HTTP protocol, the drafting of RFC 1340 and the arrival of other web browsers, VIOLAWWW and then MOSAIC and the history of the rise of the internet continues unabated… and you can pretty much read it with very little research effort by simply accessing this website.

There has been plenty of topical articles and pieces written about the mythical creator of the Internet Tim Berners Lee and his recent call for a charter for the net. Some academics, for seemingly obscure reasons, seem to think that Vannavar Bush and his Memex machine from 1945 had a major influence not just on the conceptual development of hypertext and the internet but on the development of computer science in general and by extension (of that associative indexing idea) the modern web. Yeah but what about ARAPNET or even Moore’s law in 1965? someone might have suggested while launching Google chrome on their mobile.

Then what of Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing? and surely we cannot possibly forget about the contributions of Ted Nelson and all his Xanadu docuverse stuff. Hands up who votes for Douglas Carl Engelbart? Come on now, as that most famous of scientists, Issac Newtown, was reportedly to have said: “We are all standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Well not practically, just metaphorically, and really only when it comes to any kind of significant discovery, invention or innovation worth arguing about, like this internet lark, which as we were constantly told last week is now twenty 25 years old. Despite the facts that Vint Cerf (Stanford) and Robert Kahn (DARPA) began developing a new protocol to allow diverse computer networks to interconnect and communicate with each other back in 1973. Nope, forget about those folks too, it was Tim. Tim invented it, without standing on anyone’s shoulders, Tim did it all on his tod. Just ask anyone at the BBC.

And at that point, the point where Newton’s ‘Shoulders of Giants’ observation was purportedly actually a witty remark referring to one of his out of favour friends known for his diminutive statue. The point where every history buff and technology fan begins to scream when I write that it doesn’t matter most who invented the internet, or whether it is conceptually, actually or technically twenty-five, thirty or fifty years old, what matters is that in the last twenty-five years we have undergone the fourth of our greatest cultural shifts in human society. No, really!

The first great shift was the move from orality to literacy. Just because we began writing things down, didn’t mean we stopped talking, it did however mean the externalisation of culture, it meant a new form of cultural memory, a new way for victors to write history, a new mode or form of information and expression. Those new modes feed back into our cultural development. The second great shift was from literate to scribal culture, we in Ireland are familiar with scribal culture, mostly from learning at playschool that the Book of Kells is one of our great cultural treasures. We simply love books, and monks and writing in Ireland and now we love the internet too all the important internet companies have offices in Ireland and not just to be close to the Book of Kells.

That later monastic network of scriptoriums, copiers, colourists and scribes brought about more powerful controls on information, individual precious works of art and knowledge, data and design as an artisan culture (industry) flourished. Then the printing press changed the whole thing again, a partial democratisation of sorts, any number of copies could be made of any printable form of information, a wine rack-like machine could spread hand to hand (or sleeve to sleeve) all sorts of info across a continent and beyond, another great cultural shift as technology impacted the diversity of creativity and information, making more and more modes and forms of expression, the pamphlet, the newspaper, the novel, while also creating a big hullaballoo among those seeking to control them.

The fourth great shift, the shift from printed culture to network culture has occurred mostly as result of the aforementioned rise of the internet. You reading this today is somehow an expression of that. Yet our modes of expression are only beginning to emerge, we have trolls, memes and transmedia, we have internet dating, gaming culture and porn, we have social media, mobile internet and steam, we have file-sharing, free stuff and citizen journalism… and don’t forget all that has been written about ‘The Long Tail’. That idea that no matter how obscure your interests, simply by weight of the numbers connected to this network, you’ll find someone or some place on the net that you can connect with or belong. That’s a pretty positive thought.

We don’t forget the shadow web, the tor browser, a whole kit and caboodle that isn’t seen nor acknowledged by the vast majority of Joe public, a perhaps darker side. The simple truth is that while there has been huge disruption as a result of the rise of the internet, some like Nicholas Carr would argue that its effects are detrimental, the internet is, at twenty-five , still in its infancy when compared to those other cultural shifts, and has a long, long way to go before it reaches anything like maturity.

internet 25years