Happy Birthday Internet


How do we define the birth of the Internet? As an ambiguous, shifting entity, it is often hard to define what even the Internet is, let alone it’s beginning.

In my eyes, the date the first message was sent across the telephone network, from one computer network to another – late on the evening of 29th October 1969 – seems the most significant. It is really the unprecedented level of connectivity and communication it enables which is the Internet’s most enduring legacy.

The Internet has become so ingrained in our daily lives, 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. 

The Internet’s 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. 

Britain’s pioneers have been absolutely instrumental in driving forward innovations in the internet; they are a vital part of Britain’s legacy on the global stage. Donald Davies invented packet switching, the fundamental technology 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. Tim Berners-Lee gave us the World Wide Web; a concept which has now become a casual, throw-away reference in everyday life.

Looking forward, no bets are off the table in predicting what 2069 will bring for the Internet. Bold innovations like quantum computing will continue to transform it over and over. The Internet will be everywhere. 5G will bring us total connectivity, and with it huge challenges and opportunities.  Cutting-edge technology continues to transform the parameters of the internet’s capability at a rapid pace. Artificial Neural Networks, taking inspiration from the biological structure of the animal brain, means intelligent AI is increasingly making decisions for us.

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 people would describe the Internet today as the opposite. It is imperative 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 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 an optimistic future.

This article was written for City AM