(Looking) Back to the Future: Past Predictions About the Internet

The first decade of the 21st century is drawing to a close, and everybody's all a-Twitter about the latest iPhone app or social media website. But we here at Education Portal thought it might be fun to take a look backward and see what people were predicting about the Internet before it became such an integral part of our lives. Read on for a trip down memory lane and into the imagination of the 20th century.

1986 personal computer

An Intergalactic Network

'We techies should be more honest about what computers can do and what they cannot do, or else we are setting ourselves up for a big pie in the face.'

-Clifford Stoll, 1995

Bulletin boards. Internet relay chat (IRC). The information superhighway.

These concepts and tools dominated users' ideas about the Internet back in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Web was just emerging as an everyday tool for entertainment and communication, and just beginning to move beyond the world of the 'techies' and 'whiz kids' into the lives of everyday people.

The Pew Internet Project traces the origins of the Internet to the early 1960s, when scientists from Eisenhower's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) first dreamed up the idea of a series of computers connected across the globe. J.C.R. Licklider, one of the researchers on the ARPA team, jokingly referred to the idea as the 'Intergalactic Computer Network.'

But the work was serious, and by 1969 work was being completed on the first real computer network, which would one day blossom into the Internet.

Fast forward to the 1980s, and organizations were starting to make the first major efforts to create websites. By 1983, the National Science Foundation (NSF) had more than 70 sites online. During this time period, a series of networks emerged, including USENET, BITNET and UUCP (tech check: if you remember USENET, then you're an early adopter). Then in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, a researcher at a particle physics laboratory in Geneva, conceived of a worldwide network that would bring everything together.

In 1990, Berners-Lee wrote the first HTML source code and created the World Wide Web (almost) as we know it today. The first Internet Service Providers (ISPs) quickly sprung up to fill people's need to 'dial-up' to connect to the Web, and in 1991 the first user-friendly interface, Gopher, was created at the University of Minnesota. Gopher was no Firefox, but it was the first step in a rapidly growing movement to make the Internet accessible. By 1995, just a few years later, there were an estimated 16 million Internet users and Web-based businesses were booming.


The Information Super-Robot

'We're going to have to look at information as though we'd never seen the stuff before. . . . The economy of the future will be based on relationship rather than possession. It will be continuous rather than sequential. And finally, in the years to come, most human exchange will be virtual rather than physical, consisting not of stuff but the stuff of which dreams are made. Our future business will be conducted in a world made more of verbs than nouns.'

-John Perry Barlow, 1994

So where did people imagine this Internet thing was going to take us? Some individuals were prophetic, understanding that this new means of communication would transform the way we relate to information. They forecast the development of the 'knowledge economy,' although not in those words. In 1994, Nicholas Negroponte wrote, 'The value of information about information can be greater than the value of the information itself.'

Others, of course, reacted with fear. Even back then, people worried that the Internet would come to replace face-to-face human interaction. 'Are we headed toward a world filled with anemic drones, laboring away at sterile keyboards . . .?' wondered Dinty Moore in 1995. (This blogger takes issue with the phrase 'anemic,' but is now seriously considering taking a break to go outside.)

Many people also saw the Internet as the first big step toward developing artificial intelligence and 'body nets.' Some thought of it as a harbinger of a Matrix-style end of the world, in which robotic computers would overtake human beings as masters of the planet. Others had a sense of humor about the possibilities of human-computer interaction:

'As the electronic revolution merges with the biological evolution, we will have - if we don't have it already - artificial intelligence, and artificial life, and will be struggling even more than now with issues such as the legal rights of robots, and whether you should allow your son to marry one, and who has custody of the offspring of such a union,' wrote Jim Dator in 1993.

networked people

Freedom to Communicate

'Today we have the Net, the last accidentally uncensored mass medium in existence.'

-Steve Crocker, 1995

As early as 1990, people were already worrying over controlling the flow of information on the fledgling Internet. In March of that year, The New York Times published an article discussing attempts to determine if information transmitted over the Internet was protected First Amendment speech or intellectual property that can be guarded by copyright and regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Speaking primarily of bulletin boards, the most popular use of early computer networks, the article rehearsed arguments about the importance of unregulated forums and 'open and unstructured communication' versus the fears that people were using such forums for illegal activities, such as sharing stolen credit card numbers.

Twenty years later, the FCC has managed to wrangle some control over the Internet, but many of the challenges are the same. Think of the ongoing battle over Bit Torrent: Proponents of network neutrality argue that freedom to communicate (or share information) should be paramount, whereas ISPs like Comcast contend that they should be able to throttle Bit Torrent traffic because of its high potential for illegal use.

In fact, many of the hopes and fears that people expressed about the Internet back in the 1990s are still around. Although artificial intelligence hasn't really gotten past 'smart' vacuums and X-rated dolls, people continue to worry that the inevitable end of technological progress is robot domination. And the explosion of Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the social Web has renewed fears that people will forget how to interact without the computer as mediator.

Yet here we are, playing, fighting, loving, dreaming and doing everything together that makes us human - without our robot overlords.

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