Assessing the Internet at 40


by Tony Kontzer

Numerous stories last week about the Internet turning 40 have proclaimed that the first message crashed the fledgling network, but let's try not to be negative. I mean, who wants to have their flaws pointed out to them at their 40th birthday?

Instead, let's take a look at what Twitterers are saying to mark the moment when researchers at UCLA and Stanford University sent the first message to traverse two networked computers. (This is the latest edition of Twit Digest, in which I filter a current story making the rounds in the IT press through the prism of perspectives on Twitter.)

The first post I come across, from HorrorFestWest, sets the mood with a proper festive tone: "Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Internet. Happy birthday to you!" I couldn't have sung it better myself.

No Internet birthday party would be complete without a tip of the hat to its apocryphally self-professed inventor, Al Gore. Plenty of Twitterers have chimed in with posts like "I didn't know Al Gore was that old," or "Al Gore was the guest of honor." But my favorite is a bit of dry humor from user internetlaw4u: " 'Inventor' Al Gore could not be reached for comment."

Of course, those of us for whom technology is bread-and-butter know that the real inventor of the Internet (well, ONE of the real inventors) was University of California, Los Angeles Professor Leonard Kleinrock, who led the festivities at a 40th-birthday celebration in Los Angeles. I covered the 30th anniversary party at Angel Investor Ron Conway's Silicon Valley home for Investor's Business Daily back in 1999, and I interviewed Kleinrock that evening. I guess this means I get to look forward to revisiting this topic every time one of these big round birthdays comes along. In that respect, it's sort of like the Internet is an aging uncle.

Cynics will point out that the birthday is kind of meaningless to the typical Internet user. As Twitterer soopertrev points out, "Normal ppl (sic) didn't use it until 1995." As a matter of fact, I remember exactly where I was when I discovered the Internet that very year. I was a young reporter at the San Jose Business Journal, and I received a press release from an advertising agency proclaiming that it had a home page on the World Wide Web. I stood in the newsroom with several other reporters, marveling at this confounding announcement, and wondering aloud, "What the hell is the World Wide Web?" Oh, if only we'd known. Or even suspected. We'd all be rich now. But I digress.

One Twitterer, Idir66, chose to note that, in some key ways, the Internet is still struggling after all these years to become a truly international phenomenon, pointing out that it's finally "opening up its address protocol to non-Latin scripts." That's right, the Internet Corporate for Assigned Names and Numbers agreed this week to let countries apply for Internet addresses that are entirely in their native languages. It's about time that the Internet truly belongs to the whole world, not just the Indo-European-speaking portion of it.

Amid all the hoopla and Al Gore quips and astute observations, however, what really gets me thinking is a simple, reflective post from an aptly dubbed user taketimeforlife, who asks followers to "Share your thoughts on how the Internet has impacted your life."

In my case, I can't imagine it having a bigger impact. I've been a home-based worker since 1996, and that wouldn't have been possible without the Internet. It has allowed me to take an entrepreneurial approach to my career, and be present for the early years of my son's life. It's kept me from having to spend my mornings and evenings fighting through rush-hour traffic.

Really, what the Internet has given me is a previously unimaginable measure of control--over my schedule, my life, my career--that never would have been possible otherwise. For that, I owe the Internet everything. So happy birthday, Internet. And thank you.


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