The internet had a rather unobtrusive 50th birthday on October 29, 2019, celebrated in a low-key style mainly in the quiet hallways frequented by technologists. It has come a long way from the first unintended message “lo” sent by Leonard Kleinrock and Charley Kline in UCLA to SRI in Menlo Park. Much has been written about the health of the internet today and some has been written about where we are headed. In this post, I give a personalized take on three things that I think we have to celebrate about the internet today and the amazing lining up of brilliant geniuses, corporate interests, and circumstantial discoveries that led us to these. In the follow-up article, I give my list of three items where we have work to do to make the internet an even better accompaniment for humanity. In it I also give a quick, highly incomplete reflection on what work we are doing in the academic world today on these problems.
Watson, I Do Hear You
Hands down, the big win, the egalitarian win, has been in the way the internet has helped connect people across the world, across social, economic, and geographical boundaries.
The connection can happen whether you are at the end of a lowly feature phone or behind a style icon Apple product. The connection can happen whether you are among the uber connected or among those who have to watch every Kilobyte of data because it costs so much. Sure, the quality of the connection will vary, determining whether you can play an online multiplayer game or have to content yourself with the plebeian email. But to a majority of the world, the internet has brought the medium to communicate down to a reachable limit. This is quite a wonder, even to us who know the innards of its workings, considering how many different computing platforms and network devices there are. But thanks to the world agreeing to use some standard protocols (TCP, UDP, IP, HTTP … need I befuddle you more with the alphabet soup), this seemingly wondrous aspiration has become routine.
It is a majority of the world that can connect but only a bare majority. To some parts of that majority too, it has to go through hoops like VPN and Tor to ensure that the communication is safe. But to that part of the world, the internet has given the ability to communicate in almost real-time at low cost and effort. Sure, the romantic picture of a long-delayed and much-awaited postal mail is now lost forever. But all taken together, I will put the ubiquitous communication firmly in the positive column.
Fly, Fly Away
Freeing of information to roam in the vast reaches of the internet is another big win. This is not an unblemished win but still comes down strongly on the right side of the ledger.
The internet has been the big enabler for information to free itself from shackles. Shackles that had been put upon it by high pundits who believed that information is best kept in hard-to-reach ivory towers. Information in the form of streams of zeroes and ones, the bits and the bytes are stored in a dizzying variety of places and are communicated through a dizzying array of communication technologies to be consumed on a dizzying range of devices. The data is thus plentiful and those who can conjure knowledge out of all that data are the magicians of today. But without the enabling mechanism of the internet, the best data analytics algorithms would not be able to do their magic.
I am reminded of an analogy, and not an original one at that, about how the printing press had enabled dissemination of “knowledge” to the masses. The internet cannot make quite that bold claim of “knowledge” but it can justifiably claim to enabling the dissemination of information. Information that is empowering to the student in a dark part of the world who can now prove her caliber in Computer Science topics and come and join us at Purdue for graduate studies. Information that is empowering to the farmer in a far-flung rural area who can know the price his produce will get in each of the reachable markets before he makes the arduous trip to one of them. Information that is empowering the adult learner who aspires to escape the drudgery of her job to embrace for the first time a career.
In Service of the Optimistic Entrepreneur
The heading seems misleading to me even as I type it. Is there any other kind of entrepreneur but the optimistic kind? You have to be firmly the glass-way-full kind of a guy to create an enterprise out of your prized idea and put it out there in front of the world. But I would argue that the internet has made life a little less of a roulette for an entrepreneur.
With the internet’s reaches into talent anywhere in the world, an entrepreneur can create a team with the right set of people quickly. No longer are we at the vagaries of large hiring corporations. With the internet’s above-mentioned reaches into vast swaths of information, an entrepreneur can educate herself on what pain points are being felt by people in various strata, what headwinds are to be expected, and what opportunities exist in different geographies. Beyond human capital, the plain old material and capital capital are also easier to access through the connectivity brought about by the internet.
There is strong evidence that entrepreneurial activity picks up with the rise of connectivity [also WWW]. There is also strong evidence that economic prosperity rises with the rise of local entrepreneurial activity [also PDF]. In both cases, it is difficult to pin down the direction of causality definitively, but to most analyses there appears a strong positive correlation. The possibility of gaining a talented workforce free from the constraints of geography clearly has negative effects as well, the most talked of being that it reduces labor rates. The Economists can debate this far and long, but from my vantage I see that the overall trend in both developing economies and developed has been positive.
The internet has changed the world we live and play in. It is routinely ranked in popular opinion polls as among the most transformative accomplishments in our history. Here I have looked at three victories that I chalk out to the internet. The first is the myriad channels for communication that it has opened up, taming to some extent the tyranny of geographic distance. The second is the flowering of creativity as information flies freely to far corners of the internet. Even as our age creates tools to create knowledge out of the deluge of information, let us work to keep that information flowing and flying freely. The third aspect is the blossoming of entrepreneurial activity thanks to the reaches of the internet. This victory may at first blush seem to be elitist but on a broader canvas, it has helped most of us to rise up.