A History of the Internet and the Digital Future: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: November 25th, 2012 by bobmorris

A History of the Internet and the Digital Future
Johnny Ryan
Reaktion Books Ltd (2010)

How and why the Internet is “a centrifugal force, user-driven, and open”

I read this book when it was first published in 2010 and then re-read Tim Berners-Lee’s Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor (first published in 1999) and strongly recommend that both be read in combination. The three defining characteristics in the title of this review are what Johnny Ryan has in mind when noting that Berners-Lee “came to realize the potential of a system that would allow a loose arrangement of ideas and data unconstrained by hierarchies or categories.”

Berners-Lee had developed a piece of software called “Enquire” in the 1980s to map relationships between and among the various people, programs, and systems he encountered at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland and the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. “Enquire marked the first step in his invention of the World Wide Web.”

Ryan explains that there were three phases of the development of the Internet: its emergence (discussed in Chapters 1-4); the maturing of its technologies and culture of networking between and among communities (Chapters 5-9); and finally, he examines “how the defining characteristics of the Internet are now transforming, culture, commerce and politics (Chapters 10-13). Ryan also explains the three characteristics “that have asserted themselves throughout the Internet’s history, and will define the digital age in which we must all adjust: the Internet is a centrifugal force, user-driven, and open.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me and they also give some indication of the range of subjects that Ryan discusses:

o Paul Baran and Project RAND (Pages 20-22)
o The Homebrew Club, Apple, IBM, and personal computers (56-61)
o The telephone network opens, the grassroots networks form…(66-69)
o Metcalfe’s Law (85-86)
o Death of a Gopher (109-111)
o dot Tulip (122-126)
0 The peer-driven Internet (143-145)
o “Open-source” campaigns (166-177)
o Control in the Centrifugal World (182-187)
o iWar and the new pioneers(194-197)

Ryan has much of value to say about the quite different roles of dozens of “pioneers” who made significant contributions to the development of the Internet and then of the World Wide Web. They include the aforementioned Paul Baran (RAND) and Tim Berners-Lee (CERN) as well as Marc Andreesen (Netscape), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Vannevar Bush (chief science advisor to FDR), Vint Cerf, Friedrich Hayek, Leonard Kleinlock, J.C.R. Licklider (ARPA), Linus Torvalds (Linux), and Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia).

When concluding the final chapter, “Promise and Peril,” Ryan observes, “Humanity faces the risk of ruining the Internet even before it becomes a mature technology, before its benefit as a global commons can be fully realized. It must weigh the prospect of failure.” I am curious to know what Ryan thinks now, about three years after composing that passage.

No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of material that Johnny Ryan provides in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of him and his work. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read the book and, in that event, will have at least some idea of how the information, insights, and wisdom could perhaps be of substantial benefit to them and to their own organization.

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