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Johnny Ryan

A History of the Internet and the Digital Future

(Reaktion; US: Sep 2010)

Johnny Ryan’s A History of the Internet and the Digital Future contains everything one would expect a book with this title would contain.  Acronyms abound—from AJAX and AOL to WWW and X.25—as the book discusses the usual topics: the military’s involvement in the development of the Internet as well as Al Gore’s role. It shows the connections between the nuclear arms race and the Internet and talks about the development of chat rooms, the first emails, and the use of the Internet in political campaigns. It touches on Napster, Facebook, and Google—all the things one would expect from a book about the history of the Internet.


The book also contains an unexpected, but most welcome surprise: stories. Amidst the RANDs and ARPANETs, the dates and somewhat dry details, and the numerous footnotes (the book is about as well-researched as any I’ve read), Ryan weaves in stories. These stories are what make this such a wonderful read.


Among the most interesting is the tale of Zott’s beer garden, “a small, wood-paneled tavern and a historic focal point for the ne’er-do-wells of Silicon Valley”. In the early part of the 20th century, “the president of [Stanford] university wrote in vexed mood to the county supervisors requesting that they not renew the inn’s liquor licence because it was ‘unusually vile even for a roadhouse, a great injury to the University and a disgrace to San Mateo County’”.  Ryan turns the background and history of Zott’s into a great story and makes one chuckle when he relates that 70 years later Stanford Research Institution conducted its packet radio experiment there, leading Ryan to conclude “It was one of the more momentous events to have happened in any beer garden.”


Some stories function as analogies. Under the heading “dot Tulip”, Ryan goes back to the “tulip rage” of the 17th century and notes that some believed that in 1634 “a single bulb of the rare Sempre Augustus species of tulip was traded for enormous quantities of mixed goods including two lasts of wheat…four lasts of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat swine, twelve fat sheep, two hogsheads of wine…four tuns of beer…two tuns of butter, one thousand pounds of cheese, a complete bed, a suit of clothes, and…a silver drinking cup”.  Ryan then compares the tulip mania to the rise (and fall) of the dot-coms in the late-‘90s and early-‘00s. 


Ryan includes several other historical references/commentaries, including a passage on Lord Bryon and his daughter Ana—who is considered by many to be the world’s first programmer because of her translation of General Menabrea’s A Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, Esq. This translation included notes “that were longer than Menabrea’s original text and included a detailed description of how an operator could calculate the Bernoulli numbers, a sequence of numbers relevant to number theory in mathematics”.


Ryan’s stories and analogies serve several functions—first they make the book interesting and accessible. Second, the historical references put the Internet and all its technology into perspective and suggest that while inventions/technologies may change, people and the way people react to these technologies pretty much stay the same.


As the title suggests, the book doesn’t just examine the past, it also looks toward the future. Naturally, Ryan does this by going back to the 27th century BC and the discovery of the silkworm. The connection:


China, content to trade silk, but not the worm, and Rome, happy to sell wine but not the vine, knew as empires do the value of control over the platform of a valuable commodity’s production and consumption. What is new in the digital age is the centrifugal and open imperatives of the Internet. How these two forces act on each other is the question on which the future of business hinges.


The future, Ryan notes, “may be divided between those who Google and those who don’t”, and this is not a casual distinction. Ryan suggests Google “may become what American blue jeans and rock and roll were to generations of Communist Bloc teens during the Cold War: an icon of liberty”.


A History of the Internet and the Digital Future is a thoughtful book that is well researched and well written. The stories and historical references add color and life to the text and help show important cultural connections between today’s digital age and earlier times. They also make the conclusion particularly compelling:


Humanity faces the risk of ruining the Internet even before it becomes a mature technology, before its benefit as a global commons can be fully realized. Humanity needs to consider how it will deal with the new commons. It must weigh the prospect of failure.


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