Saturday, December 25, 2010

Internet Log

The Internet is certainly the greatest invention in the last century. It is certainly no hyperbole to state that in this century, the 21st, it has already changed people's lives, and the way businesses are conducted. Many accounts of the invention and development of this marvelous platform starts from the early 1990s, when the World Wide Web really became popular. Many mention, rightly, that ARPANET is the precursor and that the US military was one of the main sponsors in its development. But who were the people behind its development? What were their dreams and intentions? How did they envision technology in the future? These are answered in Johnny Ryan's book, "A History of the Internet and the Digital Future". More than this, Mr Ryan goes on to discuss recent phenomenons such as social networking via the internet.

The first part of the book begins with a discussion of the need for a distributed network by the military as far back as the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Cold War was on. Russia and the US were pointing their nuclear missiles at each other. This need, to ensure survival in a MAD world, gained importance, which eventually resulted in the creation of RAND, a think tank formed to advise the US armed forces. It was here that Paul Baran proposed that messages could be transmitted via small "packets" of information rather than the conventional end-to-end  transmission method. This single idea, which was also proposed by Donald Davies, underpins and drives the entire internet today. A detailed account is given of the people who developed on this idea, people you may not have heard of unless you are in the scientific community.

In transitioning from these early days to the www of the 1990s, Mr Ryan also recounts the developments that took place in Universities and hobbyist communities that resulted in technologies such as BITNET, FidoNet and for a time, the very popular Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) . This part of the book will be interesting to people who missed out on this transitional phase in the use of communications technologies leading up to the ubiquitous e-mail systems today.

These, really, are the interesting parts of the book.

Mr Ryan goes on, in the second part of the book, to discuss the development of the World Wide Web, stressing a common underlying approach that brought it so much success - the centrifugal/community/social dimensions. The book concludes with Ryan's discussion of the future of the internet, including its use in the political/social arena (e.g. Obama's very successful use of the Internet to reach out to the electorate, and how US candidates for the Presidency have managed to use the medium to gather monetary contributions for the expensive campaigns that characterizes bids for US political office). Topics and issues on Web 2.0 are also discussed. These issues have been covered in numerous books but Ryan has brought the account up to date.

This is a "can't put down book" once you start.