How the Internet Went From a Conversation Space to a Shopping Catalogue
We were going for networked utopia, but ended up with a digital strip mall
The net seemed to offer personal autonomy at the same time as it connected people in new ways. Popular mythology holds that computer networks began as a sort of informational bomb shelter for the U.S. Defense Department. In reality, computer networking started as a way of sharing processing power. It was a bit like cloud computing, where dumb terminals were connected to big but primitive mainframes. Processing cycles were scarce, and networking allowed many people to share the common resource.
An extra benefit of connected computers was the ability to leave messages. When your colleagues logged on, they’d see the little text files you left for them in their user folders. That was email. Messaging and other conferencing tools and bulletin boards soon became more popular than computing itself. Eventually, individual servers began connecting to one another, and what we think of today as networking was born.
The defense industry saw in these ad hoc networks a new, resilient, and decentralized form of communication. If one part of a network was attacked, the rest could still function and even route around the broken parts. So the government funded the implementation of a big “network of networks” that finally became the internet.
But from the earliest days of networked computing, users were socializing, sharing recipes, or playing games instead of working. Although inhabited originally by scientists and defense contractors, the net soon became the province of cultural progressives, geeks, and intellectuals. The government didn’t want it anymore and tried to sell it to AT&T, but even the communications company couldn’t see the commercial possibilities of a free medium driven by the pleasure of communication.
For their part, the hackers and hippies inspired by the internet saw it as an extension of the human nervous system. Each human brain was understood to be a node in a giant network. Aspirations were high. The internet would transform humanity into the planet’s brain; Gaia, the planet’s spirit, was to become fully conscious.
Traditional media companies and advertisers, who had decidedly less interest in planetary consciousness than they did in quarterly profits, became gravely concerned when they learned in 1992 that the average internet-connected family was watching nine hours less commercial television per week than families without the internet. So they took a two-pronged approach, vilifying the net in their broadcasts and publications while also steering the internet toward less interactive and more advertiser-friendly uses.
The World Wide Web was originally intended as an easier way to find and hyperlink research documents. But its visual, clickable interface felt a lot more like television than the rest of the net, and attracted the interest of marketers. Users didn’t need to type or actively think in order to participate. They could just click and read or, better, watch and buy.
To the dismay of the hippies and hackers building utopian virtual communities, the web quickly became more of a shopping catalogue than a conversation space. Gone was connectivity between people, replaced by “one-to-one marketing” relationships between individuals and brands. Thousands of companies arose to peddle their wares in the dot-com boom — more companies than could possibly make a profit, leading to the dot-com bust.
Internet utopians declared victory: The net had survived an attack from the forces of commercialization and could now resume its mission to connect us all. We announced that the net was and would always be a “social medium.”