The Internet turned 25 years old today. At least that is what several articles in the press are reporting. That anniversary is somewhat in dispute, but hey, crowdsourcing is never wrong, right? The news report on the local CBS radio outlet pointed out that anyone under 25 would not know a time without the Internet. Well, duh. Perspectives change. I never knew a time without television, radio, telephones, cars, or any of the other technological advances that allow individuals to roam and communicate freely. It’s evolution. Anyone remember the telegraph? Think of Morse code as packets sent over a wire to a receiving station, though a bit more manual than what we are used to today. Evolution.
The Internet itself has evolved. I don’t need to go into things like Gopher sites (remember them?). I remember complaints in the early days when advertisers and merchandisers established web sites to sell us stuff. Some believed this was the wrong direction for a medium with such a strong educational potential. The Internet is now an enthusiastic marketing paradise for consumers and companies alike. Education is in fact one of the products.
I want to harken back to a few events at the dawn of the Internet age that come to mind when these anniversaries pop up. I don’t know if anyone remembers Usenet. It was (and is still is) a global discussion board for all kinds of topics. Law academics and technologists would use it to share ideas about the distribution of legal materials. The discussions were substantive and interesting. A message appeared in 5,000 newsgroups one day in April, 1994 from the law practice of Cantor and Siegel. It offered firm services in regard to a green card lottery. The discussion groups exploded in outrage. My point about this is outrage or not, spam should join the terms death and taxes as certainties. Wikipedia has more information about this.
The second event happened a little bit earlier. Anyone remember Lotus 1-2-3? It was the spreadsheet software of choice before Microsoft Excel hit the market. Lotus announced in 1990 that it intended to sell CDs with contact and other demographic information for 120 million U.S. consumers. It would include purchasing habits in the information set. The collective outrage forced Lotus to cancel the project approximately one year later before any CDs were released. Today the discussion focuses around how much of our information corporate collates.
I think we have more or less accepted the concept that we are tracked. How secure that information is kept and who has access to it seems to dominate the conversation these days. There are those, of course, who believe we shouldn’t be tracked at all. I acknowledge their fight. I think the best we can get is control over how our information is used in some form. I’m not averse to being surprised in this policy fight, however.
My point for those 25 year olds who never knew a life without the Internet is simple. You also may not have known an Internet without spam, without tracking, without government interference, without being characterized or classified. Consider the cultural norms that have evolved with the Internet and decide if you’re happy with the trade-offs you accept for convenience. The Internet wasn’t always the way it is now. Some of those old norms still have value. — Mark