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The Internet: The World’s Greatest Megaproject

Written by Paul Hollowood

Introduction

Much like the wheel, penicillin, the telephone, flight, and the light bulb, today’s Megaproject has had a life-changing impact on the world, revolutionising communications and computers systems beyond anything that has come before it. Should it not be such an integral part of society today it would probably be seen as a marvellous wonder too unlikely and unusual to even exist at all.  With it we connect, reconnect, buy, sell, trade, advertise, learn, educate, among many other vital and not so vital uses that we have become so accustomed to today. This decentralized wonder of the modern age isn’t owned by any one person, organisation or country, and without it the world would be a much quieter and slower place where we certainly wouldn’t enjoy those handy next day deliveries we seem to depend on so much. Yes, let’s take at look at one of the world’s most crucial tools; the internet.

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Architects of the Future

The Cold War; a Megaprojects favourite and a time when computer and communication systems were utilized by the military in an effort to gain the upper hand on the enemy. While the United States had a hugely powerful defence force, the need to communicate quickly and clearly was now becoming of increasing importance in order to allow the United States to successfully retaliate to any potential threats from around the globe.

One man had seen the future of communications, J.C Licklider of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His vision was one of a globally interconnected computer network with a wealth of information that would be easily accessible.  Sounds a lot like what we call the internet today. And so the United States generously funded research department, the Advanced Research Projects Agency or ARPA, which later changed their name to the much more adventurous DARPA, or the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, began work on improving communications. In 1962 Licklider joined ARPA and was subsequently appointed to the head of the Information Processing Techniques Office, or IPTO, and it was here with his new found power that he was able to push his ideas on a globally connected series of computers.

Within two years Licklider had moved on from his role and several years later the new head of the IPTO Robert Taylor picked up where Licklider left off and became instrumental in the early development of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET. Together in 1968, Licklider and Taylor published a co-authored essay in the Science and Technology journal that predicted many of the technological wonders of today, giving the general public a teaser of what was to come.

Over the next few years the minds of ARPA continued to refine their ideas and by 1969 the problem of sending messages across a network was solved with the invention of ‘Packet Switching’. Packet switching was the solution to the problem of connecting via the old circuit switched telephone system, the idea coming from the mind of Leonard Kleinrock who had written on the theory in the early 1960’s. The idea was to split and send data in ‘packets’ across networks then reassemble the data into a single file when they reach their destination. Packet Switching would allow the data to be sent securely and even work using damaged networks.

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First Contact

October 29th 1969 marks a historic day in not only the creation of the internet but also in the advancement of communications. Leonard Kleinrock and Charley Kline were the first people to send a message between two computers via the use of packet switching, one at UCLA and one at Stanford University, which contained one word; LOGIN.

However, it is reported that in very typical style a bug crashed the system, leaving only the ‘L’ and the ‘O’ part of the message to arrive safely on the other side. Overcoming this issue a second attempt was made and the experiment proved a huge success. This brand new messaging service crowned the ‘Mailbox’ would snowball in popularity and leave users wanting more. Specifically, they wanted an answer on how to send an electronic message to a user outside of the internal network.

We would need a way of identifying other computers and their users. So, in steps Ray Tomlinson. He devised a method of being able to contact various users through various computers with the use of the ‘@’ symbol. Now in order to identify each user from their computer, we would need to type the name of the user you want to message, followed by the ’@’ symbol then their computer.

The first email to be sent over the ARPANET came in 1971, when Tomlinson sent a message between two computers that were both sat on a desk right next to each other. By 1973 the network had increased significantly, now reaching thirty locations around the world, but there still laid one challenge to overcome as the current network used fixed links and the computers of the time were unfit for mobility. In order to utilize this system for the purposes of the military then Arpanet had to be accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world, as travelling to a specific location to be able to send and receive messages simply wasn’t going to work. The first challenge was to create a wireless network that could send information by radio or satellite to the wide-reaching arms of the United States military machine.

The second challenge was to connect these wireless networks to the wired Arpanet, allowing the military to communicate during combat operations and potentially giving the upper hand in a situation of war. ‘Internetworking’ as it was known would change the face of communications forever and overcome the biggest problem of getting the various different networks to speak to each other in the same language. 

To achieve this Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf locked heads, and in 1974 the pair devised the TCP/IP, Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, which would allow computers to speak the same language worldwide by sending data through digital envelopes also known as a ‘datagram’. Interconnected networks could now transmit and receive vital data quickly from around the globe and as a result the Arpanet continued to expand and evolve.

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As cheaper technology and portable computers came along during the early 1980’s more and more Local Area Networks or, you guessed it; LANs, began to emerge and keeping track of all the IP addresses was becoming something of a problem. To combat this Paul Mockapetris and Jon Pastel came up with the Domain Name System or DNS in 1983, which was effectively the phonebook of the internet.

It is fair to say that without ARPA there would be no internet. Their creation the ARPANET, was the predecessor of the internet, and would be the beginning of a communication revolution that continues to this very day. Alongside this ARPA can also claim responsibility for the creation of parallel processing, computer flight simulations, computer graphics and many other groundbreaking achievements that have had a lasting impact on our daily lives. Although discontinued in 1990, the ARPENET will remain a pivotal part of the history of the internet.

The World Wide Web

Back in those early days nobody at ARPA could have possibly envisioned the meteoric rise of the internet, nor could they have imagined how commercial it would become once it became more accessible and popular with regular civilians just like us. But what was an already incredibly useful tool was about to boom in popularity with the introduction of what would become the world’s leading information retrieval service; the World Wide Web or simply, the Web.

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Now the Web is often referred to as the internet even though the two technologies are completely different. Where the internet connects computers, the Web connects people as a service available on the internet. Yet without the Web the internet may not have become the sensation that it did, so its significance to the internet’s success deserves the recognition it has most definitely earned itself.

Conceived by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee and his fellow colleagues at CERN in 1989, the Web would take advantage of a newly emerging technology, Hypertext, which would be a way of sharing information on the increasingly popular internet which now had millions of computers connected to it. His proposal would at first be met with little fanfare, but ultimately the ability for researchers, scientists and academics to be able to share their work without the need for back and forth messages and with the ability to drop information online for use at any time of day was the obvious solution moving forward. Over the next year or so Berners-Lee would go on to create HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language, URI, or Uniform Resource Identifier, and HTTP, or Hypertext Transfer Protocol , three technologies that should be very familiar  to you and still remain the foundations for the Web. 

Berners-Lee soon realised the potential danger of anyone person or organisation having ownership over the Web, he also realised that there was only one way to ensure the Web was to reach its full potential and advance beyond anything originally imagined, by making the Web free from copyright.

A Global Free for All

Now all Berners-Lee had to do was persuade his peers that making the Web accessible to all was the only way to go. He was convinced that monopolising the Web would only restrict the technology, so he and his colleagues began devising a way to persuade those above him to see their point of view and the long term advantages free access would bring.   

Just a year later in 1990 we had the first web page and soon after the introduction of the most user-friendly browser Mosaic, the world saw another huge leap in the life of the internet. Mosaic was easy to download and install, it could be used on various different computers and would use the now very familiar point-and-click system to browse, with the added bonus of being able to see images and texts together as opposed to having to view images in separate windows.

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Mosaic was the brain child of Marc Andreesson and Eric Brina who together created the browser while at the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications, or, you guessed it, NCSA. However the NCSA were one of several companies trying to monopolize the Web and so Berners-Lee rose to the occasion, finally convincing his superiors to see his vision and releasing the code for the Web protocol for anyone to use. Not happy with the creation of the Mosaic browser, Marc Andreesson went on to create another, Netscape Navigator. Netscape would go on to dominate the US and European browser market until Microsoft’s Internet Explorer was released. Shortly after the Web exploded in popularity and the internet would take its next steps in its evolution. Tim Berners-Lee truly is a true ambassador of the internet, giving free reign to Web enthusiasts and future users ultimately allowed the technology to develop faster and better than any one company could achieve, but he could not have expected the boom that was to come during the rise and dramatic fall of the ‘dot-com bubble’.

Starting in 1995, the dot-com bubble was the result of huge sums of money being invested into internet start-up companies with the notion that they would turn a tidy profit. Entrepreneurs and major companies alike held high hopes that these online companies would soon be worth millions. But, with the race to make millions many investors failed to follow the fundamental rules of investment such as P/E ratios, which is where the ratio of a company’s share price is compared to its per-share earnings, market trends and even business models were thrown out of the window in an almost euphoric spending spree to capture the most profits. The shares of these internet companies would rise much faster than those in the real sector due to the sheer speculation and excitement over the prospects the internet age could bring.

Many companies would have great success from the internet boom, Google, Ebay and Amazon have gone on to huge lasting success and are familiar brands the world over. Hundreds failed to live up to the expectations of the investors and despite the warning signs the bubble was about to burst very little was done to prevent it. When it began to crash in 1999, it crashed hard, and not because of the overhyped Millennium Bug, which according to many should have crashed computers worldwide when the outdated 1960’s technology failed to deal with the date beyond December 31st 1999. Luckily for mankind the Millennium Bug didn’t happen, but the market crash did and trillions of dollars were lost between 2000 and 2002, add to that the financial damage suffered after 9/11 then you have a recipe for disaster that took the stock market years to recover from.

But it’s not all doom and gloom as the dot-com bubble era also saw the internet being utilized for online shopping, for sharing news and enhancing communications in an era where the world became more connected than ever. Over the next two decades the internet became a part of most of our lives in more ways than we think. With the introduction of the Web 2.0 we saw the emergence of social media and users were now encouraged to interact and create rather than just use the internet for information purposes.

Innovating the Internet

What followed was an incredible surge in internet usage. Over the last two decades we have advanced from those pesky slow dial-up connections to super-speed accessibility from almost anywhere in the world, we have seen the introduction of social media, online currency, streaming services, online gaming, the rise of mobile phones and the internet becoming part of pretty much every aspect of our daily lives. Even the underworld has taken advantage by utilising the Dark or Deep Web to aid them in their unsavoury gains. We have seen the rise of misinformation that has the potential to influence mass amounts of people via viral campaigning. We have become so enamoured and reliant on the internet that should it ever simply stop working then there would be chaos as the world would be plunged into internet darkness where communications would be impossible for most of us.

This doomsday scenario is much more of a possibility than we may think. Taking the internet for granted we don’t always see how its usage infiltrates more and more of our lives and so the loss of the internet would impact the world much more than many expect. We could lose it all in a heartbeat through cyber attacks, cutting the deep sea cables, solar flares or even through a kill switch that many governments around the world have installed. One of those countries, Egypt, famously used their kill switch in 2011 during the Arab Springs uprising, shutting down the internet in an effort to halt the coordination of protests that were being organised online. There may be plenty of threats that can bring the internet down, but casting technological Armageddon aside the future of the internet is full of potential and can ultimately enhance our lives for the better if applied properly. So what does the future bring? There are many predictions that have been made on the future of the internet but some experts agree on several that we should expect to see come to pass before long.

One of those predictions is that we will see the end of the keyboard and mouse and live in an increasingly virtual world where we may be able to use the internet through a form of augmented reality, no longer needing phones or monitors to view information but seeing it in the real world through specially designed glasses which will enhance our interactions with people and places.

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We may see machines become a more integral and some may say intrusive part of our lives, internet connections should become permanent and new forms of communications may come in the shape of implants that will allow us to shift in and out of normal and virtual reality. We should expect privacy to become a thing of the past but to the advantage of having a tailored-made virtual life that will be designed to suit our every need.  We will even see an interplanetary internet where it will be possible to enjoy the latest instalment of Megaprojects, all the way from the comfort of Mars.

Unlike other revolutionary inventions and creations there was no one person who was responsible for constructing the internet as we know it, but rather a group of various individuals from various parts of the world whose contributions and inventions combined would help build a system that to this day is still evolving and adapting to the world around it. We can’t really see the internet as such and yet it is all around us and in recent years has become an even bigger aspect of human life. It is constantly reminding us that it is there even when we may not realise it, and it will surely only enhance our lives from here on.

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