Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the internet.
In 1973, a number of computer networking researchers – including Louis Pouzin of France’s Cyclades network, Donald Davies of the UK’s NPL network and Bob Kahn of the USA’s Arpanet – collectively worked on how to federate their respective networks to form a uniform infrastructure that could, in principle, be scaled worldwide. A key idea was to remove responsibility for the reliability of any individual network out of the network itself, and instead move it to the computers connected at the edges.
In 1974, these ideas surfaced in a technical specification that the researchers named the transmission control protocol (TCP). The document was one of the first to use the word “internet”.
The TCP technology remains the core foundation of the internet and is used by almost every single computer and device worldwide to connect to the internet. The decision not to centralise the daily operation of the internet within a single organisation has been key to the extraordinary growth of global digital connectivity, allowing individual operators to monitor and control their computer networks at a local level.
You might argue that this is a negative attribute, since some jurisdictions, such as China, Iran, India and others, can regulate what access their citizens have to global internet content. However, it is otherwise difficult to conceive how a single global authority operating a single global network could ever have been politically or economically acceptable.
The internet has resulted in a democratisation of human discourse, a “flattening” of public conversation, allowing individual citizens to be heard and become influential. I have often reflected on how online chat rooms and message board technology in the 1980s and 1990s, and now today’s social networks, have disrupted the unilateral flow of entertainment, news and, yes, some propaganda, produced by media corporations and state-run broadcasters that were dominant in the 1970s and 1980s.
Without the internet, we might have headed towards the stupefaction and docility envisaged by Aldous Huxley in his transcendent 1932 novel Brave New World – a conformist and obedient society, in which servitude to authority is completely accepted because of the contentment brought by technology, consumerism and society norms.
But the internet has broken passive consumerism. I think Huxley might have been pleased to have seen bilateral debate by the public with politicians, mainstream media and corporations, rather than the largely unidirectional flow of content in the 1970s and 1980s. Bloggers have diluted the monopoly of corporate and government journalism. Passive consumption of TV and film lost momentum as the public produced, shared and discussed its own video content alongside that which was corporately produced. There is a wealth of online discourse on societal challenges such as minority representation, climate change and basic concerns such as health, hearth and humanity.
Without the internet, there might not have been the Arab Spring a decade ago, the Black Lives Matter movement, nor the recognition of Me Too, and the voices of human rights defenders worldwide might have been totally unheard.
But impressive as the democratisation of discourse has been, there has also been a darker side. A global digital platform is an opportunity to influence and nudge behaviour. Social networks, and Meta/Facebook in particular, have been remarkably successful in convincing advertisers and brands to target consumers based on their online behaviour. The internet has been used for political influence in multiple campaigns worldwide, not least in the Brexit debate and recent US presidential elections.
But in just the last two months, the online public has reacted to the risks involved in allowing a single corporation, or even a single billionaire mogul, to control a social network, its content promotion algorithms and its digital debate policy.
Since October, many have walked away from Elon Musk’s Twitter to alternatives such as Mastodon. Unlike Twitter, or indeed Meta/Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok or Alphabet’s Google, Mastodon is not a centrally run service, nor even a company. Rather it is social network run by a loose federation of administrators, many of whom are voluntarily doing so.
Each Mastodon service is run independently and can have its own ethos and guidelines on what is acceptable content for its community. You can, in principle, join any of these “instances”, but you can dialogue with anyone anywhere on any Mastodon service.
Most will presumably choose an instance that ostensibly respects their own expectations and norms, filtering out content from the bad guys and trolls. Nevertheless, if the grass appears greener elsewhere, it is relatively easy to then pick up your identity and move there instead. Thus a healthy dynamic emerges between the value systems of different administrators and communities, and of individuals who can relocate at any time.
The internet was conceived as a federated service, with no single individual, government or corporation dominating and managing its discourse. We should be grateful that the experiences of the recent post-truth years, of woke digitisation, and of the ongoing Twitter soap opera remind us of the original values of the internet pioneers.