A history of the Internet and the Digital Future Johnny Ryan 2010


The key insight of this work is its clarity in understanding that the development of the internet and its associated structures (like the world wide web, the tweets and programming languages) was largely carried out by thousands of talented and imaginative individuals. There was no master plan, government strategy or corporate design. The internet evolved quickly and magically through a new kind of co-operation which did not depend on money or central control. Ryan believes these new patterns of behaviour will be a dominant force in shaping the future. As he says “the defining pattern of the emerging digital age is the absence of the central dot.” Ryan notes that three characteristics have been central to the development of the internet throughout its history and are likely to continue to be so. They are:

  1. it is centrifugal without a central control or master plan,

  2. it is user driven to its development follows the interests and imagination of those who use it

  3. it is “open” so that anyone can make a contribution to boost emerging new ideas.


The original impetus for a decentralised computer network came from the military need to have communications which could withstand nuclear attack. By the mid-1970 the US defence agencies had built several networks using telephone, radio and satellites – the task now was to connect these networks. In May 1974 a new Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) was published and this concept remains key to the working of the internet today.

The originators made great efforts to get the telephone giant AT&T to adopt digital packet switching but this huge corporation failed to see why this was better than sending analogue signals.


The promotion of personal computers really began with the Apple 11 in 1977. All of the operating system etc. was open source and public. Apple were amazed that users went on to develop many new applications themselves. IBM tried to join the race in 1980 by producing a small computer in a rush and using an operating system produced by the small outfit called Microsoft. Microsoft cleverly insisted that their operating system could also be sold to other manufacturers – an idea IBM supported believing it would make their product more popular. IBM were ruined by this decision – within 12 years Microsoft had overtaken IBM in terms of market value.

The first personal computer with a graphical user interface was marketed by Apple in 1984. Microsoft followed a year later. This development hugely accelerated the adoption of computers by the general public.


At the same time as the technology for pc was developing efforts were made to use telephone companies for the development of networking between computers. The large monopolies were very resistant to this but from the late 1970s private operators enabled networking to develop. The first commercial networking service to become popular was compuserve in 1978. By the 90s the web was operational.


Generally business was very slow to catch up with the opportunities and changes offered by the personal computer. By 1981 about 200 computers were connected by the internet – within 4 years this number had risen to 1800. Humans are creatures that like to be networked – and they are good at it. The popularity of email was a complete surprise to all the inventors of the networking protocols. By 1989 160,000 computers were on line and traffic was doubling every 7 months. By 1993 more than 2 million computers were connnected.


Around 1990 Tim Berners Lee invented html language and laid the foundations for the world wide web. At the time nobody was remotely interested. In 1992 Perry Pei Wei invented a browser that would work using the unix software which was widely used in the computer science community. This allowed people to point and click on www pages using a mouse. In 1995 investors marvelled at the huge price IPO for Netscape which had created browser software only 2 years before. Once again the crazy situation where Tim Berners Lee had been unable to find any commercial outfit willing to develop his idea even when he gave them his software free. Like the jet engine and many other world shattering inventions – nobody saw what was coming.

The new way of working of the internet was demonstrated most powerfully by the development of linux code. A young student Torvalds had a bright idea. He disregarded the advice of his professor and pressed on with it – offering the idea openly on the internet. Very soon other “hackers” saw the value of his work and added suggestions and improvements of their own. The code he released in1991 has 10,000 lines. This had increased to 100,000 lines by 1993 and was used by 20,000 people. By 1998 when it was adopted by IBM it had 1.5 million lines of code and Torvald had a 5 person team keeping the development under review. No money was involved in any of this – the time cost alone is estimated at over $1 billion. Team leaders were chosen by the “crowd” without problems – the best just came to the top.

So “open source” software has become a stable feature of the internet – it is never finished as improvements are always incorporated.

From 1993 onwards the number of computers linked to the internet increased 10 fold every year. Webcams became common after this time, further changing the way the web was used. There was a new generation of search engines emerging – web crawlers and bots which catalogued the material. Yahoo and Alta Vista were established. Yahoo was started by graduate students to look at baseball results. Finally in 1999 Serge Brin commenced a PhD these on search engines and Google appeared. The name was based on the mathematical number to googol which is 1 with 100 zeros. Google ranked the importance of sites according to their backlinks – the extent to which they was cited by other users.

On 30 April 1995 the ownership of the internet by the US ended and commercialisation was allowed. Within a year eBay was trading over $7 million. The dotcom boom and bust followed. New working practices also appeared to mirror the open source type approach where employees were given much more freedom and the “suit” became outdated.

From 2004 the importance of user generated websites increased rapidly – many of the most popular site had content entirely generated by users – wikipedia and youtube for example. Peer review became an important feature of successful websites – eBay and Amazon for example – and Youtube only became popular when it included review of items by users. Trust is the key – and users are quick to spot attempts to be purely commercial. The first rule of Wikipedia was “ignore all the rules”!

In 2003 the idea of “tagging” content began – users could 'tag” content so that it could easily be found under subject headings. Social networks were emerging as the biggest growth area of the www. Friendster went on line in 2003 and soon had 2 million users – it self-destructed and was replaced quickly by MySpace which soon had 100's of millions of users. It was bought by Rupert Murdoch for $580 million in 2005.

In 1999 MP3 was declared legal and, at the same time, the P2P software was developed by an undergraduate Napster. This allowed users to download music from other users files. It was shut down by legal action in 2001 but by then bittorrent had appeared as an even more sophisticated P2P sharing software.

The digital revolution was extended further by the development of mobile phone. By 2001 phones could do email and show pictures. The stage is now set for the next big revolution which will be characterised by the two strands of – user controlled content and social networking possibilities. World of Warcraft has been one of these phenomena. Players form guilds and slowly build their reputations (of their avatars). 2.8 million games were sold on the first day of release in 2008 with 11.5 million subscribers across the globe.

All these changes created a new opportunity for a different sort of politics -particularly followed by Obama. His campaign raised huge amounts of money in donations of less than $100 from hundreds of thousands of individuals. His web site made it easy for groups of his supporters to get together in house parties. Even the process of voting could be changed as several of the major game manufacturers have put voting buttons on their consoles.