A People’s History of the Internet
How to think about the internet’s legacy
Around 1776, a group of people in the Thirteen American Colonies discovered that by creating a nation, a story of the future United States, that they could join millions of strangers together to fight for a common cause. Stories of these Founding Fathers are at the core of classroom education around the country.
The internet is in need of a similar story.
Founded on October 29th, 1969, the internet has brought immeasurable benefits to humanity. Yet as we approach the internet’s 50th anniversary in 2019, a symbolic story uniting the people of the internet is missing from our collective consciousness.
Luckily, the internet already has a wonderful origin story. But this story isn’t taught in our high schools, and unfortunately, it isn’t well known by the majority of people.
The internet wasn’t funded by Silicon Valley venture capitalists. It wasn’t sold off to Apple or Microsoft, and it never had an IPO. The Founding Fathers of the Internet, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, gave the internet as a gift to humanity. This wasn’t an accident; it was by design.
Early settlers to the internet, hackers like Steve Wozniak, Stewart Brand, and Richard Stallman, advocated that “information should be free,” and that access to the internet could make the world a better place. Fast forward to the early 90s, and you’ll find stories of Tim Berners Lee, who put his revolutionary invention the World Wide Web into the general public domain — free for everyone to copy, no strings attached. Around that time, John Perry Barlow founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which has since become something like the ACLU of the internet. In 1996, Barlow published his manifesto A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, in which he wrote:
“I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us […] We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.”
John Perry Barlow passed away last year, which led me to wonder, when this first generation of internet pioneers make their exit, what legacy will be upheld in their absence?
Author Joi Ito lamented this tide-change in his recent Wired piece “The Next Great (Digital) Extinction,” in which he offers the analogy of the early internet generation as being anaerobic bacteria, unable to thrive, and dying out in the mud of time. But allow me to entertain another possibility for the future: What if instead of passively shedding history, we actively work to remember and celebrate it?
Facebook is not the internet
In the absence of a symbolic story uniting the people of the internet, we are left to tell the stories of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google as if they are our story. For many, a common narrative has become the idea that these companies are the internet.
Let’s take a look at one example: Facebook.
Facebook is not the internet — if anything, Facebook is part of the ruling class of the internet. Similar to how the British monarchy once taxed the colonies, Facebook comes with a tax: they harvest your private data and sell it to advertisers.
We need a story that endures over generations
Looking back to 1773, the key factor that separated The Boston Tea Party from just another mob of angry protesters was our ability to remember it as a small chapter in a larger journey. It wasn’t just about a tea tax. The story of the Boston Tea Party is about one night when a group of people stood up against King George of England, and eventually won their freedom.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, hundreds of thousands of Facebook users posted #DeleteFacebook on Twitter. Perhaps this could have been the internet’s “Boston Tea Party” moment. Yet without a better story — a story about building a better society — those who attempted to jump ship found there was nowhere else to go.
I’m not suggesting that we need to overthrow Facebook to create a compelling history, but that we do need to establish a narrative that is independent of these massive corporations.
Over the past decade, the perception of the internet has gone from being a tool advocating global democracy, and upward mobility, to a place fraught with Russian trolls, Chinese censorship, and endless reports of fake news in America.
How do we restore the original vision of the internet? And how do we maintain one clear, positive, vision over the next century?
Answer: We need a story that will guide us. Like an anchor, a good story can connect us to our past as we move forward into the future. In order to unite the people through the inevitable turbulence that lies ahead — we need a story that represents the 3 billion people, not just the corporations or governments, that live on the internet.
Preserving the Legacy of the Internet
Legacy is preserved through rituals and story. The legacy of the internet is the story of a tool that was created of the people, by the people, and for the people. This is our history. These stories exist, and we need to start telling them.
I find strength in hearing stories of the early internet: Stories of ARPA, J. C. R. Licklider, Paul Baran, Vint Cerf, and Bob Kahn, who worked to accomplish one of the biggest, and most audacious of goals of the past century: to create one global decentralized internet for all of humanity.
And I’m deeply inspired when I see Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, actively fighting to restore power and agency to individuals on the web. This year, California Congressman Ro Khanna, with the blessing of Tim Berners Lee, took a noble step forward for the internet’s legacy by proposing an Internet Bill of Rights. We need an Internet Bill of Rights! But why stop there?
If the United States endures as a result of its symbolic stories — the Bill of Rights, the flag, democracy, and a will to preserve the legacy of our Founding Fathers — perhaps the internet should follow suit.
Next up: Who Invented the Internet? (and what exactly did they do?)