A Season of Reason

Reason’s Greeting!

Day 6 - The Internet

Today we honor those people that invented the Internet.  There are many people who claim to have invented or discovered some technological advance that either launched or pushed the Internet along.  (feel free to insert a stupid Al Gore joke here, you can find them everywhere online).  There are many individuals and organizations that can legitimately say, “if we didn’t do this one thing, then the internet as we know it would not exist.”  As far as I can tell with my limited technical knowledge all of these people have arguments that I am not qualified to refute or even rank in importance.  That is OK since I have a different take on why we should honor the creators of the Internet.

The Internet may be the most important communication tool in human history.  In 500 years, it is the only thing that has even come close to the printing press in its scope and influence.  The reason that I am not willing to crown the Internet as the most awesome communication tool ever is because it is such a young technology.  We know that in the first 75 years of its existence the Printing Press helped unite the eastern and western hemispheres for the first time and fractured the Catholic church.  The Internet has done some remarkable things so far but I think that we won’t know how influential the Internet is until we are able to look back on it around 2100.  My bet is that it will surpass the Printing Press in influence and scope but we will have to wait and see how.  

The main reason that I think we should honor the inventors, scientists, and engineers that had a hand in creating what we know today as the world wide web is because the Internet is a prime example of the new model of science that will become more defined in the years to come.  Science has always been “open source” meaning that everyone has access to its results and benefits and can improve on a current development by adding or subtracting something.  When you think about it, all science is “open source” the web just makes this collaboration and sharing of ideas so much faster.  

It used to be that a person would discover something, write it up in a scholarly journal in their field, and have their peers examine the discovery and try to poke holes in it with their own research.  This was a very effective system but new advances took time to discover and vet.  Also, the only people who had access to this system were the experts themselves.  If you were not a subscriber to this literature, you were out of luck.  I assume that some libraries had these journals in their collections but it was probably few and far between.  This was not a very democratic system, the knowledge come from the top of the intellectual pyramid and filters down to the general public (sometimes).

Tim Berners-Lee is the person most often credited with the creation of the Internet as we know it today.  In 1991 he created a system known as HTTP.  Here Berners-Lee explains in his own words:

"I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and—ta-da!—the World Wide Web... Creating the web was really an act of desperation, because the situation without it was very difficult when I was working at CERN later. Most of the technology involved in the web, like the hypertext, like the Internet, multifont text objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together. It was a step of generalising, going to a higher level of abstraction, thinking about all the documentation systems out there as being possibly part of a larger imaginary documentation system." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Berners-Lee

Berners-Lee took existing ideas like Transmission Control Protocol and Domain Name systems and combined them in one system.  Berners-Lee also created the world’s first web browser that used HTTP to share information over networks in a new way.

I pick this as an example of scientific progress in the Internet age because it highlights how collaborative and democratic science has become.  Berners-Lee took other people’s advancements and created something new that enabled others to gain access to more and more information.  He also gave away this invention and placed it in the world’s hands to do with what they wanted.  In 20 years the world wide web has grown to be a ubiquitous presence in our world that has changed many lives for the better.  The reason for that is people from all walks of life have seized Berners-Lee advancement and have added their genius to it.  Anyone can access information.  There are many “open source” projects on the world wide web that are driven solely by individuals willingness to share and improve technology solely for everyone’s gain.  That in itself is special and was not possible 25 years ago in our old system of print based information.  

The Internet has not been all sweetness and light.  The worst of human nature is present in this invention as well.  Lies, propaganda, and pseudoscience are more easily spread than in the past.  New criminal enterprises have flourished on the web.  Some things that are too disgusting to discuss in polite company.  The internet is a mirror to who we are and that reflection is sometimes disturbing but I would say that on the whole the internet has given us more gifts than pitfalls in its short existence.  

We can only hope that the invention that Tim Berners-Lee launched in 1991 will continue to shape our world in positive collaborative ways in the future.  Hopefully that spirit of democracy and the value of working together to help everyone will spread from the online world into our day to day lives.

Your task today is to consciously use the internet.  Every time you use your computer or phone to access a network think, “I have access to more information than anyone who has ever lived.”

What you do with that gift is a reflection on you.