The Internet has integrated itself into nearly every aspect of modern life, following users on the cell phone, at work, and at home. While the Web grows, however, its history and future remain a mystery to the common user.
Author Johnny Ryan hopes to change this with his new book, “A History of the Internet and the Digital Future.” The book is the first to tell the story of the Internet from its inception up to the present. The Epoch Times had the pleasure of speaking with Ryan about his work via e-mail.
Ryan is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of International & European Affairs. His first book, “Countering Militant Islamist Radicalization on the Internet,” was published in 2007.
The Epoch Times: First and foremost, what was it that made you decide to write a book about the history of the Internet?
Johnny Ryan: I had a simple question at the start: There’s clearly something different about the Internet. But what is it?
There are certain characteristics that assert themselves throughout the Internet’s history, and which are shaping the new worlds of business, media, and politics that we can observe forming around us. If we look to the future with one ear cocked to history, there are patterns that can help us adapt.
I realized that to fully understand the functions, character, and implications of the Internet I had to explore it from the beginning. What were the assumptions on which it was built? How do Internet protocols govern communications between machines? Why did some dot com startups fail and some succeed? To capture what makes the Internet unique I had to go back to the beginning.
The origins of the Internet lie in the pressure cooker environment of the Cold War. It is 50 years since the memos began to circulate in the U.S. on how to make an Internet-like system. It is about 35 years since the introduction of the first PCs that people could properly tinker with in their garages and create parts and programs for, and a little over 35 years since the invention of e-mail. It is almost 20 years since the invention of the Web. In this time certain trends have revealed themselves, and understanding them is the key to adapting to the future of business, politics, and society.
The Epoch Times: Did the original point you wanted to relay change after you began researching?
Johnny Ryan: No. I had no initial assumption. I wanted to learn what the genie in the bottle was. What makes the Internet special? Very early on my research for the book began to reveal what this is.
The Epoch Times: As you went through with your research, were there any parts that stood out for you in particular?
Johnny Ryan: There is a big, but simple, story in the history of the Internet. We are children of the industrial era. We are used to a world in which power, resources, and control were drawn to the center. Steam, rail, and telegraph shaped our world, and allowed for empires, capitals, and trading hubs. The lesson from this book is that the emerging digital era is different.
We live on a historical fault line—moving from the old centralized patterns of life of the industrial era, when the world revolved around centers of power, hierarchies, and standardized approaches, to a new pattern whose defining characteristic is the absence of a central point. In its place is a mess of many points.
This applies to political power, to service provision, to how we attribute authority to information, to creativity, to all forms of effective participation.
What this means is that individuals are becoming more empowered, and this is disrupting politics, media, and business.
Johnny Ryan: Jesse Ventura, a Navy SEAL-turned-wrestler-turned-actor-turned-politician, defied every calculable set of odds to become Governor of Minnesota. He was an independent. He had a single staff member and no organized network of volunteers. His budget was puny, at just over half a million dollars. Yet Ventura beat established candidates from the Democratic and Republican parties who had spent many millions on their campaigns. The secret of his success that his website and e-mail list put responsibility and power to fund and organize much of the campaign in the hands of a large but loosely connected community of supporters.
Much like Howard Dean’s campaign in 2003 and the Obama campaign four years later, the center of the campaign was weak but the periphery of active supporters was strong. Connecting both was the Internet. But this is only half the story. As this book argues, the Internet has yet to be properly used to transform politics. I think we are going to see what I call “network governance” in the coming decades, but that is a story for another day.