Under the net

A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet

John Naughton <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson

The Internet, says John Naughton, is "one of the most remarkable things humans have ever built". It is open, free, global and so far unrestrained by companies and governments. Nobody owns it and nobody controls it. It was self-invented and is self-sustaining. Unlike every other machine, it cannot be switched off. But in truth, it is not really a machine at all, rather it is a place created by the interaction of millions of machines and people. It may well be the future.

Whether this thrills, bores or alarms you will be a matter of temperament. Naughton is thrilled. This is not a calm book; it is an adoring fan letter to the technologists who created the net and to the net itself. It is written by a man in love with communications technology. He remembers turning the tuning dial of a radio in 1956 and listening in awe as distant voices emerged from the static and he places this alongside an image of himself calling up a live picture of San Francisco on his computer in 1997. "What connects the two," he writes, "is a lifelong fascination - call it obsession if you like - with communication, with being able to make links to other places, other cultures, other worlds."

The net is the apotheosis of this obsession and so, as far as Naughton is concerned, it is an unqualified good. He pours scorn on those who fear its insecurity, its uncensored dissemination of porn and its unmediated flood of information. If this is what we do when we are free, if this is what we are, then we should not be afraid. Rather we should celebrate this as the first true expression of humanity's chaotic soul.

If this view were to be given a political label, it would be, I suppose, anarchic liberalism. And it is, as far as it goes, legitimate. The net is indeed something like neutral space in that it is open to all comers. In this sense, it will become more neutral as more people join. If, with 150 million users, it remains somewhat dominated by the nerd culture of the young and the technically obsessed, this will soon change as more normal types come on board. It must, for one thing, become easier, faster and more reliable - sane people are unlikely to tolerate its jargon, delays and continuous crashes. And, as this happens, it will become as meaningless to talk of the net as a simple cultural entity as it would be to say the same of the telephone network.

We are now on the cusp of this moment of change. In a couple of years one will hardly need to ask if one's friends are on-line: one will assume they are. This is, therefore, a very good moment to ask how we got here.

As Naughton's history makes clear, it didn't take us long. The most effective net system, the World Wide Web - created by an Englishman, Tim Berners-Lee - only came into existence in 1991. And all the various technological bits and pieces that make the net possible largely grew out of a frustration in the 1960s among computer scientists with the clumsiness and inaccessibility of existing computers. It is probably true to say that this remarkable creation, this global enterprise, took fewer than 30 years to build.

The key to this speed was chaos. Nobody planned anything; they couldn't because nobody had any idea what they were planning. Rather, a lot of brilliant people set out to solve strictly limited problems which, as the solutions came together, formed themselves into a system far more capable, resilient and, in essence, simple than anything any one of them could have conceived. There is no one "Father of the Net". There are instead several hundred scientists and several million users who, collaboratively, have wired the world.

As a result, there are also a large number of powerful people who, for a long time, missed the point. Bill Gates, for example, didn't get it until 5 April 1994. He had been blithely promising an information superhighway that was always ten years in the future, but, on that date, he suddenly realised it had arrived in the form of Mosaic, the first net-browsing software created by the team that had become Netscape. Gates then proceeded, with ruthless efficiency, to scupper Netscape and to attempt to bring the net under Microsoft's control. It is an attempt that, in view of the hostility to the company among net-users and within the American judiciary, is now unlikely to succeed.

Such moments delight Naughton. He is a true believer in the freedom from censorship and profit that has driven so many of the net's creators. It is certainly true that one of the most incredible things about this entire enterprise is that it has, in effect, been done for nothing. Software is given away and most of the big net companies have yet to turn a dollar in profit. Whole computer operating systems - Linux being the most famous - have been openly created on the net and, when IBM wanted to buy one net system, it found, to its amazement, that there was nobody to pay and no legal formalities of ownership.

This book is a handy guide to this strange and still undefined phenomenon. It will, at times, drive you as mad as it drove me. Naughton's writing can be appalling. His worst crime is that he has adopted the style of those hundreds of American narratives of techy innovation. So people "hit the ground running" or they are "out to lunch". And there is frequent, ghastly archness - "I don't know what you'd call that, but I call it astonishing." At one point we hear of a "no-bullshit engineering school" and, at another, we hear of somebody going "apeshit". Sensitive people don't write like this because they know sensitive people won't read it.

The more important criticism is that, as a result of his complete acceptance of the liberal anarchic ideal, Naughton fails to ask the big, serious questions about what we will become as a result of the net. Merely yelling "freedom" does not amount to philosophical, sociological or psychological analysis. He is right to regard the net with wonder but wrong to think that that is the end of the matter. The issue, as anybody who uses the net will know, is whether we can retain any degree of coherence, continuity, meaning and real freedom in the face of this fabulous monster.

We are all now, to use Iris Murdoch's title, under the net and that carries the ominous overtone of imprisonment, not liberation. We shall see. Soon.

Bryan Appleyard is a writer and journalist