Lo and Behold: The Origins of the Internet
You might know the internet today as a highly sophisticated and complex system of hardware, cables and antennae. But at the very basic level, its function is simple--decoding and unscrambling packets of information that it receives over networks so that this information is readable to humans. The bits of information that computers received on networks are known as ‘packets.’ Packet-switching is the universal mode of data transmission on networks that allows data in any form (text, image, voice, video etc.) to be broken into smaller parts at the origin and accurately reassembled at the destination, without any loss of data or parts. Packet-switching forms the very basis for communication on computer networks today.
By 1983, the TCP/IP protocols were made mandatory for ARPANET. This was an important step towards standardization that would allow more efficient functioning of networks.
In the following years, in an effort to increase computing power, the National Science Foundation established super-computing centers, allowing networks in various research institutions to connect to these centers and use them for research. These supercomputing centers of the NSF formed the ‘backbone’ of the internet with a speed of 56.1 Kbps, which came to be known as the 'NSFNET.' Interestingly, at the time, the use of the NSFNET was limited to research and education purposes. The NSF was prescient in thinking that commercial activity on the internet— which was expected to increase at a rapid rate— would be best sustained by commercial and private investment.
From 1988, the National Research Foundation and NSF began laying the groundwork for the privatization of the internet. In the years that followed, multiple competing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) sprung up, and the use of the internet was no longer meant to be limited to research institutes for academic purposes. These ISPs began to emerge as the backbone of the internet, gradually phasing out the mainstream use of the government-funded NSFNET of the National Science Foundation.
While, computers across networks could exchange information, there was still another important step needed to complete the process of making the internet a truly universal information repository. There seemed to be no streamlined way to share and publish information on the internet that would allow all computers with an internet connection to access this information. The idea was to create a virtual library accessible to all computers on the internet that could keep growing as each computer added information to it.
It was a British scientist named Tim Berners-Lee who recognized this limitation while he was working at CERN in the late 1980s. He observed that the global network of scientists at CERN, who used the particle accelerators at the facility, were facing many difficulties while trying to share information with one another while using due to the lack of compatibility between their computers. He proposed a system that would allow all computers to publish and access linked documents and multimedia using the internet. Does this sound familiar? Well, it probably does, as you're indeed using this virtual library as you read this. That's right, it's the World Wide Web, or simply the web, as we know it today. It was a continuously updating platform that constituted a series of interconnected pages centered on three fundamental technologies—Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), URL (Universal Resource Locator) and HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol). The first web address was a page titled 'World Wide Web', and it only consisted of text and a few links, if you look at the page, you'll find that it looks rather bland and skeletal, in contrast with most of the webpages that you see today.
Perhaps the most momentous development related to the World Wide Web was the decision to make it open and free to everyone, forever. So, in the early 1990s, Tim Berners-Lee decided that the mine of information would be released from the airtight spaces of research and government institutions to become a publicly available service. In 1993, CERN released the source code of the World Wide Web to the public, completing the intended transition of the web from a mere research application to a publicly available service (Giampietro, 2013).
In the first years of the internet, it was a pretty small place that catered to a narrow set of interests. The launch of web browsers like Mosaic and Netscape in the early 1990s provided an early glimpse of the web's potential. Mosaic and Netscape allowed people to freely access vast amounts of information for a variety of purposes, and this quickly drove up the demand for internet connections, leading to a subsequent a spike in the interest in developing web browsers. These browsers demonstrated the applications that the web and internet could have as new mediums of commerce, publication and even recreation.
It was around this time that major companies such as Amazon, Yahoo and eBay were founded, and the first versions of the Internet Explorer browser and the Windows OS were launched by Microsoft.
On August 9, 1995, Netscape had its Initial Public Offering (IPO), which was an iconic, landmark event in what came to be known as the first internet boom. From an opening price of $28 a share, it went on to peak at nearly $75 by midday, before closing at a little under $60 per share at the end of the day (Truong, 2015). The historical IPO valued the year-old company at $2.9 billion (Campbell. Netscape’s IPO played a role in contributing to the inflated excitement around the internet and its possibilities. By the late 1990s, the internet was the most sought-after area of investment as numerous internet companies emerged. Venture capitalists pumped funding into tech startups, regardless of whether or not they were profitable. The euphoria lasted until March 2000, when NASDAQ reached a peak of 5132 points, before suddenly starting to fall. In the following weeks, it fell rapidly, and in just over a month, the total market capitalization of companies on the NASDAQ exchange fell by nearly a trillion dollars, leading what is known to be one of the biggest market crashes in history even to this day.
This popularly came to be known as the ‘dot-com crash’, named after the internet companies that were at the center of it. At the dawn of the 21st century, the dot-com crash may have well created the notion that investing in internet enterprises was anything but fruitful. With nearly a trillion dollars in market value lost overnight, less than half the companies trading in the markets had survived the crash (Goldfarb, Kirsch and Miller, as cited in Naughton, 2016, 14), and the speculative excitement around internet companies ebbed. However, there was an upside to the dot-com bubble. The copious investment that poured into the technology sector fueled the creation of capital goods that played an important role in building critical, internet infrastructure. Hence, soon after the burst, even though investors lost large sums of money in the form of investment, the loss of value could be compensated by exploiting the technology and infrastructure that were created during the bubble. In the following years, this idle equipment was ripe for utilization to develop more large-scale and efficient internet infrastructure. One of the key components of this infrastructure were fiber-optic cable networks for broadband—a medium supporting a wide range of frequencies which allowed the transmission of voice, video and data through the same channel. Broadband was a key component in bringing the next generation of media into fruition—Web 2.0, which represents most of the contemporary web or new media as we know it today. The expansion of broadband played a critical role in improving the reach and access of the internet, stimulating a gradual revival of interest in IT enterprises. The companies which survived the dot-com crash, such as Amazon, Ebay, and Oracle, are multi-billion dollar enterprises today, with Amazon being the world’s most valuable company in the world, as of this writing.
Notwithstanding the rough start, the 21st century emerged as an era of burgeoning prosperity for the internet. In the following years, the number of internet companies grew, with an increased focus on software and applications, which grew rapidly as hardware and networking technologies improved. Possibilities increased with advancements in hardware and broadband technology.
The arrival of new operating systems such as Apple’s iOS in 2007 and Google’s Android in 2008 marked the beginning of a new era of high-speed mobile internet connectivity, and by the end of 2007, over half the adults in the United States had access to high-speed broadband internet services (Pew Research Center, 2019). In the years that followed, internet access and connection speeds grew steadily, with nearly 2 billion internet users globally by the end of 2010 (Roser, Ritchie, and Ortiz-Ospina, 2019). Ease of access to the internet and the growth of broadband created a fertile ground for the growth and development of digital platforms, which play an important role in our experience of the internet today.
Perhaps the platforms with the most significant impact on day-to-day life over the last 2 decades are Google and Facebook. Much like the World Wide Web, Google and Facebook offered services that have been free-to-use from the beginning, and steadily gained popularity, with each having nearly 2 billion active users as of today. The two giants, along with other digital platforms such as Apple, Microsoft and Amazon are critical hubs of innovation in IT and internet services today. With digital platforms, the internet has not only transformed communication, but also played a key role in influencing the social, economic and political spheres.
Recent estimates suggest that over 4 billion users have access to the internet, which is over half the people on the planet (Kemp, 2019). Though internet access continues to grow and remove multiple barriers to communication, business and information, new challenges around privacy, security, intellectual property rights, and content moderation have emerged. These contemporary challenges have led to the need for improved regulation as well as increased awareness about the use of these technologies. The last decade can be seen as an important illustration of how technological change can outpace technical literacy. Besides these concerns, is the issue of unequal access to the internet. Over 40% of the people in the world continue to lack access to an internet connection, due to various reasons including poverty, deficient infrastructure, or prohibitive internet censorship laws in some states.
As these challenges emerge, what remains constant is the continuous innovation around the internet, with many new technologies on the horizon. With the current pace of technological change and growing connectivity around the globe, in a mere decade, the internet may be vastly different from how we know it today.
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