A utopia no longer

Two decades of the web

Evgeny Morozov traces the development of the web from the laboratories of the Cold War to the world of venture capital and big money

Evgeny Morozov

The “virtual community”: an idea that was the antithesis of Cold War paranoia

The internet is a child with many fathers. It is an extremely complex multi-module technology and each module—from communication protocols to browsers—has a convoluted history. The internet’s earliest roots lie in the rise of cybernetics during the 1950s. Later breakthroughs included the invention of packet switching in the 1960s, a novel way for transmitting data by breaking it into chunks. Various university and government networks began to appear in the early 1970s, and were interlinked in the 1980s. The first browsers came on line in the early 1990s—20 years ago this August.

Many seemingly unrelated developments in the computer industry played an important role. The idea of personalised, decentralised and playful computing was being advanced by the likes of Apple and Microsoft in the 1970s. In contrast, IBM’s idea of computing was of an expensive, centralised and institutional activity. If this latter view had prevailed, the internet might have never developed beyond email, which would probably have been limited to academics and investment bankers. That your mobile phone moonlights as a computer is not the result of inevitable technological trends, but the outcome of deeply ideological and now almost forgotten struggle between two different visions of computing.

Much of the credit for the technical advances of the internet goes to individuals such as Vint Cerf, creator of the first inter-network protocol, which helped to unify the numerous pre-internet networks; David D Clark, who helped to theorise the “end-to-end” principle, the precursor to the modern concept of “net neutrality”; and Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the world wide web.

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