It’s tempting to begin this essay, “It all started with…” But when talking about the origins, history, and future of the Internet, all starting points are more or less arbitrary. Progress – the notion that things can be improved over time – in any endeavor owes much to a phenomenon that scholar Harold Bloom identified as the “anxiety of influence.”
Each generation, eager to separate itself from the one that came before, wants to make its own mark. Yet each knows it’s only a pigmy standing on the shoulders of a giant, though it may see farther than the giant can – each strives to break away from its forebears, but is painfully aware that it can really only build upon the knowledge passed down to it since the beginning of time. Although Bloom ascribed the phenomenon to the Romantic poets, the same anxiety doubtless dogs the minds of technologists, pushing them to ever-greater efforts.
But technologists don’t operate in a cultural vacuum. They, like all of us, live in a world perceived through a mist of ideas drawn from faith, philosophy, science, and the arts. The Net, then, owes its creation less to a linear succession of clever inventions – such as the plastic, microchips, and coaxial cable that make up its bones and sinews (marvelous though they are) – than to the multitude of ideas, thoughts, and dreams that stretch back 10,000 years to the time when our protohuman ancestors first learned to communicate concepts.
Who’s to say Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” was more important to that creation than Jack Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”? Or that the future-positive ambiance of Star Trek has had less influence on today’s software engineers than the universe of logic described in Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica?
You probably never read Bush, and you may not care for Kerouac; you may have hated Star Trek and thought Russell a bilious pedant. It doesn’t matter. Like it or not, every one of these cultural productions has wormed its way into the collective consciousness like a virus, influencing each of us. There is no escape. The Net was created out of a spider’s web of thought, spun layer upon layer, node within node, like a tapestry of a thousand colors. Would that we could include every node here.
But it takes more than strands of ideas to build as mighty a thing as the Internet. It also takes an attitude. It’s hardly incidental that Arpanet, that fetal version of the Internet that first went online 30 years ago, was developed concurrently with the race to the moon. Both Arpanet and the Apollo space program were funded in order to get a leg up on the Soviets, who had zoomed ahead with the launch of Sputnik.
Moreover, both Arpanet’s founders and NASA’s rocket men were moved by a belief in the value of progress, a positivism born of a forward-looking culture that, when asked the fundamental question, “Can we do it?” answered in one voice with a resounding, “Yes! ” That positivism also permeates the Web today. Sure, many are in it solely for the money – and that ain’t a bad thing – but just as many are in it for the sheer joy of proving that the impossible can be done. It’s true: On the Web, whatever can be done, will be done. And since “can’t” is not an entry in the pioneer’s lexicon, we are in for one wild ride.
In the following pages a myriad of inventors, thinkers, businesspeople, and visionaries share their thoughts on where the Net has been and where it’s going. While some give insight today on ways that can help you grasp tomorrow, others take us way out, to the future’s superhuman fringes. The great thing about the Net is that it belongs to no one, and so belongs to everyone. And while there’s a piece of the pie for everybody, not all pieces hold a plum. Go out and grab yours.