The birth of the cool

The internet is essentially nothing more than a means of connecting the stored data of many computers at diverse remote locations. The early wide-area-computer networks were only available to the military, then to academics and researchers in universities.

Universities were doing a lot of work for the Pentagon back then, so they decided to hook into this high-tech boys' club. So did military bases, defense contractors and those think tanks that hired guys with funny Eastern European accents to think about the unthinkable. Within a few years, things got so Strangelove-ish that the not-yet-named Internet was split into two segments: MILNET, where the Pentagon could lock up all the really cool stuff from prying spies, and ARPANET, where the civilians could party hard into the wee hours of the morning.78

Before the development of the personal computer, the advantage of these systems was that expensive mainframe computers could be used by operators at remote terminals. Implicit in this structure was a military advantage to Nato in that such systems do not rely on a single command centre. If part of the system were wiped out by nuclear weapons, the same data packets would continue to flow through the remaining routes.79

At first many of these networks were based on different underlying techniques and technologies, but there was a steady convergence which finally led to the idea of the internet, although the internet is not the only packet-switched network and TCP/IP is not the only packet switching protocol.80

Most of this electronic mail, file transfer, and remote computer operation was taking place over existing telecommunications infrastructure, the technology of which improved to allow greater information-carrying capacity (bandwidth).

Hypertext was first conceived by Vannevar Bush, a science advisor to President F. D. Roosevelt and director of the World War II efforts to develop an atomic bomb. He was concerned that post-war scientists made best use of the vast amount of research that had gone into the war effort.

In his 1945 paper, As We May Think, Bush envisaged the Memex, a device that would create links between related topics in different research papers. His Memex concept called for a way of linking related information electronically. In 1965 Theodore "Ted" Nelson, founder of Project Xanadu, coined the term hypertext for his computer-based system that linked words or phrases to descriptive or explanatory text.81

Hypertext markup language (html) enables a computer's text files to contain embedded links to other text files. The present-day WWW is a chaotic development of this system, and web browsers graphically present html documents so that users can click their mouse cursors on highlighted (hypertext) links which cause the software to display a new section of the same file, or a different file, possibly from a different computer at a distant location.

In 1990 Tim Berners-Lee and R. Cailliau of the European Particle Physics Laboratory (CERN), proposed WWW as a hypermedia system for organizing and distributing their documents. It was designed with full awareness of the internet and its potential. Its flexibility and facility won it acceptance throughout the internet community and by 1994 use of the WWW server at CERN was expanding at four times the rate of the internet itself.82

Nelson noted that networked hypermedia goes beyond a new technical system. It has more radical implications because it promotes:

As the efficiency of the internet became apparent to the world at large, demand from commercial users created a market that called a second generation network into being and commercial operators such as Pipex and Eunet supplied internet connections facilitate the demand. Thousands of internet service providers (ISPs) now provide cheap access to the internet's commercial backbones. The internet's present form has been created by utility rather than design.

While various companies own parts of the Internet, as per the old days, no one owns all of it. If you don't like something about the Internet, well, too bad - there's no one you can call up and complain to except me, and rarely can I do anything about it. Most of the time, you'll have to help yourself.84

Commercial and social use of the internet grew in popularity, to some extent bearing out Marshall McLuhan's prophecy of the global village. It allows e-mail to be exchanged with any other user. Hierarchies of text postings, known as news groups or Usenet groups, facilitate discussions on a range of bizarre topics. ISPs offer the facility to browse the WWW and provide computer storage for pages of hypertext. The WWW is based on a client-server model. "When you use the Web, you are using two programs. The client program that is running on your local computer, and the server that runs on a computer providing the Web information."85

The system requirements for running a WWW server are minimal, so even with limited funds administrators had a chance to become information providers. Because of the intuitive nature of hypertext, inexperienced computer users were able to connect to the network. Furthermore, the simplicity of html allowed these users to contribute documents to the expanding database that is the WWW. Also, the nature of the WWW provided a way to interconnect computers running different operating systems, and to display information created in a variety of existing media formats.86

According to the November 1994 issue of The Internet Index,87 every person on the planet will be on the Internet in 2003.88 Bob Metcalfe, founder of 3Com Corporation and inventor of Ethernet, prophesied: "I predict the internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse."89 However, as of 16:18:28 (Pacific Time) on April 24, 1998, there were an estimated: 292,163,026 people on the internet,90 and 449,108 sites on the WWW.91 The NetNames' new Search Engine revealed that over 200 Diana, Princess of Wales-type internet domain names were registered in September 1997.92

One of Marshal McLuhan's observations about telephonic communication was that it has the effect of sending the disembodied sender down the line at the speed of light, and in gestalt terms this enables the sender's figure to operate without any ground. As figures without ground humans have no morality, and no allegiance to local laws and customs. "Electric man has no relation to natural law, and therefore no morals."93

In 1996 two of the largest internet providers in Germany, under pressure from prosecuting authorities, tried to cut off access to pornographic and neo-Nazi discussion groups on the internet. But this had no effect on university networks, and was easily circumvented by technically-minded users. Attempts to censor the neo-Nazi material in particular had the opposite effect: American enthusiasts for free speech spread copies of the offending material to many of the most distinguished US universities. So-called mirror sites also ensure the continued online presence of guerrilla movements such as ETA and the Zapatistas.

In 1996 the US congress passed the Communications Decency Act to prohibit the knowing distribution of indecent material to minors by computer. However, enforcing the law is the real challenge. Given the millions of websites and the ability of paedophiles to encrypt photos, most police authorities are ill-equipped to find the filth. Software applications such as 'Net Nanny' (similar to the V-chip developed for television) have been marketed to assist parents who want to restrict the sites their child can browse on the internet. Some service providers, such as America Online, perform the same function."94

When the internet became fashionable in South-east Asia, cyber-cafes opened in the region, even in Sri Lanka, and use of the World Wide Web grew explosively. On March 7, 1996 information ministers of the seven countries in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) announced they would set up a regulatory body to come up with "appropriate responses" to the internet.95 They expressed concern about pornography and "disinformation" on the internet, which could create racial tension and disharmony. Singapore's Information Minister George Yeo said: "The influx of objectionable materials via the new electronic media, if left unchecked, will undermine our values and traditions."

This was reported in the Independent on Sunday by Andrew Brown who summed up the Asean dilemma in lay terms: "The nature of the internet means that it is easy to access a computer in Sweden from London via Ohio, San Francisco and Amsterdam. At each hop, the local laws are different, and without the co-operation of all the telecommunications companies carrying all of the traffic, it would be impossible to follow the progress of the call." The point was better made by "one pioneer" quoted by Brown as saying: "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."96

In Singapore censorship appears to have successfully controlled access to hotter sources of information, restricting publications such as the Economist and the Far East Economic Review. Satellite dishes are banned altogether. Licensed internet providers can have their licences withdrawn, and may be held liable for accessible online material. Time will tell how the contradictions implicit in such measures will ultimately be resolved in the context of global commerce and technology. Brown observes that nations turning their backs on the internet would effectively be excluding themselves from the front-rank economies of the 21st century.97

A similar move had been announced by the Chinese government earlier in 1996. China' s size prevents it from exercising the same control, but it cracked down on the spread of satellite television. Rupert Murdoch's Star-TV stopped transmitting BBC's World Service Television to north-east Asia under threat of losing the lucrative Chinese advertising market.

On 10 December 1997 an international conference of the world's eight most industrialised democracies98 (the G-8) was hosted by the US justice department because "thieves, organized-crime figures, drug dealers, counterfeiters, and pornographers all are turning to the internet, and the internet has freed criminals to think and act globally.99 At the conference, UK Home Secretary, Jack Straw, called for 24-hour contact between each of the law enforcement jurisdictions among the G-8. Justice ministers from each of the eight nations reached a 10-point agreement to solve some of these problems but US Attorney General Janet Reno acknowledged that this would be a slow process. These new measures will take time and will affect only these eight countries despite the internet being available in 150 countries already.

These examples of nation states' concern over content seems to support McLuhan's tenet that it is ground, rather than figure, that affects us the most. More significant than the criminal content is the way the very nature of the internet as medium has forced governments to respond in this new way. The more governments and corporations attempt to control the internet, the more the internet seems to change the behaviour of governments and corporations.

78 Lou Dolinar, 'COMPUTER 102 / The Wild and Crazy Birth of the 'Net'., Newsday, May 4, 1997, p A57.
79 "Dynamic routing worked pretty well in the real world, and even got a combat test a while back. Iraq bought a few pallet-loads of commercial routers and Internet software and used the gear to set up a military network to run the invasion of Kuwait. Well doggone! The Air Force blew up every switching center, phone booth and outhouse from Kuwait City to Baghdad and still couldn't knock it out" - Lou Dolinar ibid.
80 A protocol is a set of rules concerning how computers talk to each other. This may be at a very low level like the Internet Protocol (IP) which underpins all communication across the internet, or it may be a set of rules that defines the messages sent between application-level programs like the Client/Server pairs that provide services such as Gopher.
81 Mark Sheehan, 'The Lure of the Web', University Computing Times, March/April 1994 Accessed May 10, 1998.
82 Sheehan, ibid.
83 Stephan Wilson, World Wide Web Design Guide, (Indianapolis: Hayden Books, 1995), p. 6
84 Lou Dolinar ibid.
85 Gill ibid.
86 Lenny Zeltser, The World-Wide Web: Origins and Beyond Accessed May 10, 1998.
87 Open market Inc. Home Page Accessed May 10, 1998.
88 Ellis Booker, Gary H. Anthes, Mitch Betts, 'Predictions, publishers and the press on the net', Computerworld, November 28, 1994, p 65.
89 'Internet Overload: Disaster in the Making?', PC World Online, October 1, 1996
90 Here 'on the Internet' is taken to mean access to e-mail, ftp, gopher, and telnet services. These accounts may be dial-up shell accounts, PPP/SLIP accounts, or accounts on company LANs connected to the Internet. 'Sites' here means domains offering web pages. Many service providers host web pages for many companies and individuals. They are counted as one site if they have the same host. For example, '' and '' are here considered one site, although the content may be quite different between the two areas.
91 'Internet Statistics -- Estimated', Accessed May 10, 1998.
92 'Web Sees Huge "Diana" Domain Name Growth', Telecomworldwire, October, 3 1997.
93 Marshall McLuhan's probes, Understanding McLuhan, (CD-rom created by Southam Interactive)
94 Bob Trebilcock, 'Child molesters on the Internet: are they in your home?' Redbook Vol. 188, April 1, 1997, p 100.
95 Andrew Brown, 'Asia tries to tie up the Net', Independent on Sunday, March 10, 1996, p 14.
96 Brown, ibid.
97 Brown ibid.
98 The US, the UK, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada, France, and Russia.
99 Chitra Ragavan, 'International Meeting on Computer Crime', All Things Considered (Washington: NPR, NPR News, December 10 1997.