Monday, February 18, 2008

History Repeats Itself

The short history of the Internet (see ISOC list of Internet history documents here) and the Web is a recapitulation of all of human history. I find it a fascinating encapsulation of the best and worst of human nature played out electronically. Being electronic and virtual, it seems to cover vast swathes of time in much shorter time.

For instance, the Internet’s predecessor, ARPANET was a military-subsidized network. Even the Internet began with an academic and military research elite accessing it for development of instant communication. (See Hobbes’ Internet Timeline here) From the 1940's theory to 1970's ARPANET and other related networks, until Tim Berners Lee wrote the code underlaying the Internet in 1980, only researchers and consultants at elite research institutions used the networks to share information. Then, in 1990, Berners-Lee developed a graphical user interface that accessed the networks that became known as the World Wide Web in 1991 (see A Little History of the Web here)

As with the earliest users of the, Web users were the intellectual elite, using a new web of communication to support government and military developments. In the same way, the earliest cuneiform tablets appear to have been bookkeeping for kings, developing slowly to other palace administrative uses. (See (Richeast High School in Forest Park, IL) on uses of cuneiform here) Cuneiform lasted as a writing system for government and religious administration from about 3,000 BC to about 75 BC, the date of the last-known cuneiform writing (see Wikipedia article here) Following cuneiform, hieroglyphics in Egypt, writing systems in India, China and the Fertile Crescent all began as support for kings, military and religion. Only with the passage of thousands of years did the general population become literate and writing become used for other purposes. With the development of the printing press, access to books of all kinds became much easier, and literacy became much more widespread.

But it only took a couple of decades for the Internet to become more accessible, and develop uses beyond support of research for government and military uses.. During the 1980's, librarians and researchers at less elite universities and colleges began to use the Internet. And then, with the development of graphical user interfaces and easy-to-use search engines and menus, the World Wide Web made the already vast resources of the Internet accessible to the general public. Of course, now, the Web is dominated by commerce, gossip and news for the general public.

And as the general populace moved into the Web, so did all the best and worst of human nature. In November, 1988, the first worm ate its way through the Net, affecting about one tenth of the existing nodes (Hobbes). By 1993, worms had been adapted to the new Web environment and began proliferating (Hobbes). By 1994, shopping malls arrived on the Web. Advertising now drives the economy of the Web, as Google’s ad-based revenue generation becomes the new model to support websites. We have spyware, adware and malware proliferating. E-mail has become nearly useless as spam, worms and viruses spread. Identity theft has become a huge new crime. And people have begun to joke about Nigerian e-mails as scams become so commonplace as to humor material.

And, one of the more endearing developments, as all this weirdness grew up, the users of the Web developed a system to classify the strangenesses. See Trolls ( ) which tries to define and differentiate between trolls, flamers, kooks and just garden variety @ssholes. There is also this thoughtful essay by Paul Graham at his blog here ( musing about trolls and what causes such behavior. A troll is a person who visits a social site of some kind and posts inflammatory messages, intended to provoke a reaction from the readers.

So, while writing and reading took millennia to develop and be used by the general population, the Internet recapitulated that development in a matter of decades. Now, like literature, a huge amount of the action on the internet is around commerce, thievery, sexploitation, and twitting or scandalizing one’s neighbors. And, like librarians classifying the world of written knowledge, some faithful souls are carefully cataloging the world of the Web. I can’t decide whether to weep or cheer.

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