The Internet is 30. Not much, as human history goes. Certainly not much in cosmic terms, but here we are, looking at a world transformed in just three decades. It is the Internet and its use that has dramatically changed our everyday activities. What seemed so first-world then is commonplace now, and for this we have to thank the pioneers who ushered in this dawn of a new age.
It’s time to look back at what has happened, to see the achievements and also what went wrong. The Internet, as we all know, came about as an experiment designed to provide a foolproof method of communication with computers. The premise, according to a legend, is that even if nuclear bombs struck at various command and control centres, they would not be able to affect the humankind’s (read US’s) ability to defend itself. Naturally, the result would be a nuclear winter that would annihilate the species that had tampered too much with technology and brought about the weapons of mass destruction. Thus came about the mandate for a universal transmission protocol, TCP/IP.
However, like many things conceived in sin, especially those that involved DARPA (the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), good came about in time. The Internet expanded from limited scientific application to eventual general civilian use. There started a revolution. It started slowly — people tried to make sense of things by communicating through their computers with others who were far away. They would exchange information on message boards, on electronic bulletin boards and be very happy about the fact that they could connect with like-minded people. These were the original ‘nerds’. All of them were scientists or something related to that.
By 1992, websites were registered for .com, .net, .edu, .org and .gov domains. Soon, CERN, the Geneva-based European Organisation for Nuclear Research where British scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web (www), announced that www was now free for all. By 1994, came the Netscape browser that would allow you to surf through much of the useful stuff. After all, you were in an ocean of information, albeit not too far from the shore, looking for the wave that would allow you to crest it by giving you the required lift.
The Netscape, and then Yahoo in 1995, sparked off the .com boom. They allowed ordinary people — naturally, only those who had access to a computer— to connect to the www meaningfully. They were able to access the Internet through their telephone cables connected with a modem that produced an unmistakable warbling noise. The fast modems of that time would operate at speeds like 28 kbps (1994), or blazingly fast at 56 kbps (1994). Compare that to today’s cable modems that offer speeds up to 150gbps.
By this time the personal computer (PC) had also taken hold. Douglas Engelhard’s 1968 “mother of all demos” had given a preview about the capabilities of the PC, by showcasing e-mail, word processing, video conferencing, and the use of ‘mouse’. Many attempts were made in different parts of the world to follow up on this, but eventually it was the 1999-era IBM PC, and its Apple counterparts, that dominated the show. After Bill Gates and his Microsoft came into the picture with the Windows operating system, IBM-compatible became the default PC, eclipsing Apple in numbers, even as the latter scored higher on usability and finesse. These were the building blocks of the revolution. With faster telecommunication speeds, improved websites became more and more meaningful. News and opinion were on one side of the table, with an underbelly of pornographic material and other nefarious activities on the other.
The world was changing and often a bit too fast for the regulators to do anything about it other than throwing up their hands in horror occasionally when things got too out of control. Silicon Valley, previously a sleepy area in California, became the hub of this new revolution. It spawned many imitations, but none even half as successful.
From wired connections to wireless, from PC to mobile, the Internet was transforming the world. The possibilities were endless. The only thing that held them back was the imagintion
and the ability to execute what they could think up. The Internet could be the answer to everything, it seemed.
The .com boom started. It led to a massive increase in the valuations of companies that seemed to have the ability to realise the dream. Even as more and more people jumped onto the Internet bandwagon, inevitably, there were some who did not even know what it was all about but wanted a piece of the action. The burgeoning valuations kept on increasing, feeding the bubble that popped by 1999. A .com bust followed. It was time to reorganise, to rethink, primarily about the financials rather than anything else, because as far as the Internet was concerned, growth was phenomenal still, numbers were stacking up. Today, it is estimated that there are 2.4 billion people who use the Internet.
The Internet, its services and the devices that link to it have had a profound impact on practically every human endeavour — finances, health, social communication, everything is different with the Internet. Social media is a creation of the Internet. It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when social media did not exist. Similarly, mobile banking is now the norm. Many countries are dispensing with physical banking altogether, or minimising it to a remarkable degree. Thanks to the Internet, government services are being provided to people in a much better way than ever possible, because of the connectivity provided by the Internet.
Health services and consultancies are gaining tremendously from it; there is talk, and even execution of a remote surgery by doctors on patients who are not even physically present where the surgeon is. The Internet has also been disruptive; it has severely impacted some industries, such as the traditional print newspaper in some countries, and the music industry where it upturned all traditional models and modes of delivery of music. It has spawned new businesses like social media, search engine optimisation, and also generated new work patterns.
As often happens with tools, it is the people behind them and their intent that shapes what they eventually become. The dark side of the Net is a fact. The Dark Net is where we find criminal enterprises that have no place in a civilised society. All traded online for a price. Ransomware, identity theft, phishing et al are the new reality we live with. Being hacked is no longer esoteric; it’s something that could happen to anyone. The Net has also been used to erode confidence in many institutions, without providing adequate replacements. From Uber that cost thousands of taxi drivers their living, introducing cryptocurrency bubbles, and helping spread dubious financial proposals, to the sudden rise of fake news, all are manifestations of the malfeasance bred by the Net.
The Net today is so much a part of our lives that even if there is a momentary disruption in our connection, it disturbs us. Moreover, there is little doubt that we as a society now are addicted to what the Net gives us.
India has one of the lowest Internet connectivity tariffs. The world is getting more connected, and the ‘Internet of things’ will allow various devices to exchange information. While this may help us in many ways, it is also a significant security risk. Faster connectivity in the form of 5G is coming, and this will empower such devices. The slugfest over Chinese company Huawei’s 5G ambitions and the US seeking to ostracise it, shows how it is being treated as a national asset, or a threat, depending on your perspective. An alarmingly large number of computers and other devices have woefully inadequate security, as hackers delight in showing to the world. Cybersecurity will be the biggest challenge as the Net takes us faster and further into a connected cyber future.
We have come a long way, baby, but we ain’t seen nothing yet.
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