Tuesday 29 October 2019 4:07 am

Happy birthday, internet – let’s make the next 50 years just as innovative

Jim Boulton is a digital archaeologist.

How do we define the birth of the internet?

As an ambiguous, shifting entity, it is often hard to define what the internet even is, let alone its beginning.

In my eyes, the date the first message was sent across the telephone network, from one computer to another – late on the evening of 29 October 1969 – seems the most significant. That makes today the fiftieth birthday of the internet’s most enduring legacy: an unprecedented level of connectivity and communication.

The internet is so ingrained in our daily lives that it is easy to forget the macro picture of its significance. The power of this digital space has transformed political landscapes, created new economic models, and fuelled social uprisings around the world. 

Most momentous political and social moments from the last two decades – from the Arab Spring to the #MeToo movement – all hinged on the power of the internet. 

Digital disruption has undeniably changed the course of world history and radically influenced how we participate in society. This, however, did not happen overnight. Over the past half-century, we have seen the slow accumulation of smaller innovations, each contributing in their vital way to the world as we know it. 

And British pioneers have been instrumental in that journey. 

Donald Davies invented packet switching, the fundamental technology of data transmission that underpins the internet. 

Peter Kirstein put the first computer on the internet outside of the US – and assigned Queen Elizabeth II her first email address. 

Sir Tim Berners-Lee gave us the World Wide Web – a concept which has now become a casual, throw-away reference in everyday life.

Truly, the internet as we know it is a vital part of Britain’s legacy on the global stage. 

So now that the internet is 50 years old, what do we have to look forward to in the next 50?

Looking ahead, no bets are off the table. Bold innovations like quantum computing will continue to transform the internet over and over. Cutting-edge technology keeps pushing the parameters of its capabilities at a rapid pace.

The internet will be everywhere – on our phones, in our homes, underpinning out societies. 5G will bring us total connectivity, and with it huge challenges and opportunities. 

But as we look to the future, I would offer a word of caution. The original vision for the internet was an open, collaborative, decentralised network, based on knowledge-sharing and trust. 

The sad fact today is that many disenchanted users would describe it as the opposite. It is imperative that we bear this in mind as we race ever forward, with eyes set on the next “prize of progress”, whatever it may be.

Tomorrow evening at Here East, London’s technology and innovation campus, we will be hearing testimonies first-hand from those pioneers involved in shaping the course of the internet in its brief but vibrant history. 

Perhaps, by visiting the forgotten narratives of the past, we can harness the positive energy that led to today’s connected world, and offer a more optimistic future.

Main image credit: Getty

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