Take time out on Sunday from twiddling on your Android SmartPhone or Xbox 360 to remember how the most ambitious revolution of our time began — 43 years ago.
The internet’s roots are humble enough. On Sept. 2, 1969, some 20 lab workers at the University of California watched ho-hum test information pass between two computers through a 15-foot cable. They oohed and aahed, oblivious to the forthcoming breakthroughs that would change our lives forever.
Computer technology has torpedoed us to the kingdom of science fiction.
Today we can video-chat live with loved ones across the world, store the Declaration of Independence on a chip no bigger than a white blood cell, and perform surgery using robots.
We wield smart bombs that can precision-target terrorists, enter fantasy worlds through video games, and shop and bank from home. Scientists are also toiling on a cell-regulating miracle material that may one day wash away diseases from our bodies.
The extraordinary advances can’t be attributed to one person, one nation, or one era, for they’re stacked upon the thoughts, theories, and innovations gathered over our entire existence. Some key figures, however, deserve special mention, including American scientists Leonard Kleinrock, J.C.R. Licklider, and Robert Taylor, whose inventions in the early 1960s paved the way for the internet.
British techie Tim Berners-Lee ran with that gauntlet in March 1989 when he handed his boss his proposal for a new information management system, which he named the World Wide Web — a vast cyber hinterland that would quickly deliver information from across the globe to our fingertips. The impressed boss scrawled “vague, but exciting” on the raw plan that would alter how we live, learn, communicate, and love.
Our immense technological gains have come at a steep price, the pros neck-and-neck with the cons.
The internet has exposed us to anonymous sex fiends, killers, scammers, and cyber bullies who troll the electronic highway with impunity, while cyber sharks stalk even the casual browser with target-based advertising — a sore point with its founding fathers.
“I want to know if I look up a whole lot of books about some form of cancer that that’s not going to get to my insurance company and I’m going to find my insurance premium is going to go up by five percent because they’ve figured I’m looking at those books,” Berners-Lee said in 2008.
Studies have also found that up-to-the-nanosecond news reports can pervert our perceptions and morality. Yet the obsession to make our private lives public is by far the internet’s most sinister gift. It has become an indelible message board for our worst behaviors, inviting scrutiny from prospective employers and unscrupulous types while redefining our attitudes towards sense, self, and others.
“I think that we’ll end up having to think about privacy from a different point of view,” said Berners-Lee at a Nokia world conference in 2010. “Imagine that everything you are typing is being read by the person you are applying to for your first job. Imagine that it’s all going to be seen by your parents and your grandparents and your grandchildren as well.”
That’s reason enough to cyber surf smartly, because there are no U-turns on the good, the bad, and the ugly infobahn.
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