The Internet At 40: A Promise Deciphered - InformationWeek
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10/30/2009
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The Internet At 40: A Promise Deciphered

The Internet turned 40 yesterday, and it got me thinking about its relationship to the time and place in which it was invented. The happenstance of its first message belies why it wasn't just an innovation or improvement, but a truly disruptive technology.

The Internet turned 40 yesterday, and it got me thinking about its relationship to the time and place in which it was invented. The happenstance of its first message belies why it wasn't just an innovation or improvement, but a truly disruptive technology.In 1844, Samuel Morse send the first telegraph message from the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC, to the B & O Railroad Depot in Baltimore, MD. He typed "What hath God wrought?" (or so most people believe), which was a Bible-inspired rhetorical statement of fear and wonder. It suggests that he was aware of the miracle that was instantaneous long-distance communication, which went on to change everything from our concept of time, to what qualified as news and truth.

Alexander Graham Bell spoke in 1876 into the telephone he'd invented and declared "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you!" Could this have meant that he recognized the immediacy and personal qualities of the gizmo in his hands? The telephone changed our conceptions of space and community, enabling far-flung individuals to feel a part of a greater whole.

I can't find the exact first words uttered on the first radio and television broadcasts, but my gut tells me that they were commercial. Both media came into being hand-in-hand with mercenary desires to sell stuff; they wouldn't exist without advertising having been there since the very beginning. I know that the first live satellite broadcast was of the Beatles singing "All You Need Is Love" in 1969 (part of a program linking spots around the globe in a "One World" telecast). This content fit snugly into the era's hopeful desire for peace.

What were the first words transmitted from UCLA via the ARPANET to the Stanford Research Institute?

"Lo."

Granted, the system crashed before the user to finish typing "login," but it's telling that even the entire word would have been utterly devoid of meaning at the time. No promise about what the device meant, whether then or in the creative imaginations of its inventors (about whom the planned message gave no human insight).

"Lo" was pure nonsense, and yet it befitted a technology that found uses and applications that nobody could have predicted. It was the biggest idea of the 20th Century (other than state-sponsored mass murder). Saying anything more would have been simply incomplete, or otherwise dated the moment with the nostalgic silliness of limited vision. It wasn't an innovation, but a disruption.

Now at 40, we've deciphered the promise of the Internet by using it.

Lo [and behold].

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, writes the Dim Bulb blog, and is the author of Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs.

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