DARPANET, NSFNET—noticing a trend? And if you’re not satisfied with how fast your Net connection is, think again—your text messages zoom around about sixty thousand times faster than they did back in the days of these dozers. Anyway an especially smart guy named Vint Cerf (now there’s a name straight from a science fiction book) and some of his computer-oriented pals came up with a way for all these networks to talk to each other. A common language.
He probably wanted everyone to call it the “VINTERNET”, or maybe something super-nerdy like “TCP/IP Protocol” …oh wait, he did call it that. But no one wants to say “can you send me that via TCP/IP PROTOCOL?” because that answer’s always going to be “do what?” So people started calling it the “Internet.” Or the Net. How did it work? By cutting all information into little packages, and addressing each and every little package.
Sounds simple enough, but from Vint Cerf working all this out to Jane Shmoe ordering her first pair of stockings from Amazon.com? We’re talking about 20 years. From those stockings arriving to Jane reminiscing about them on her online video diary? Another 10. That’s now. Is that really the whole story? TCP whatever and then you have the Internet? No. Because the way the Net talks will change, but it will still be the Net. And however much it’s going to change, and change the world, it’s probably going to run on one much more basic idea than TCP etcetera. An idea that got pretty well worked out, oh, about 301 years ago.
When you argue with your cable company about how slow your Web pages are uploading? You’re talking bits. Megabits. Kilobits. Bits. That’s where it started. Germany. Way, way back in the day. THE BiT OK. Once upon a time, there was a mathematician with the biggest hair in all of Germany and possibly in all of the civilized world. His name was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In 1705 he published a paper about “bits,” and from that moment, the Internet was probably all just a matter of time. Lebniz had this notion (pretty much useless back in 1697, mind you) that you could reduce any math to just ones and zeroes and it would still work. No more one two three four, but on, off, on on on, off off. Forever.
Of all the inventions that had to happen for your phone to give you e-mail access, or your car to show you a live updated traffic map to the megamall, this is the biggie, this is the one that hasn’t changed one bit—ouch, I mean one iota—since its invention. It’s the basis of all modern computing. By the time Vint Cerf was figuring out a way to cut information into packets that knew where they ought to go, binary logic was rote memory from his first computer science class.
But now here’s the philosophical part. And Leibniz would have wanted it this way. Because he would say he didn’t invent binary numbers, he would say he discovered them, like an explorer discovering an island. And historians would back him up—other people had figured this out before, like thousands of years before. But it’s pretty safe to say that he’s the one the guys who built the first computers were reading. The thing is, he thought he’d discovered something truly fundamental about the universe, like fire, or electricity… And maybe he did. Think of it this way: “Computers” as we think of them might just be a flash in the proverbial pan of history, compared with the Net.
The Internet is taking over a lot of the duties computers used to have—your life is virtualizing as we speak. Your phone does most of the things you used to need a computer to do, and your computer will soon need the Internet to even function. Think about games for example. First you could play all sorts of games on your computer, but then the Web introduced multi-players games like Texas Holdem, and millions of players have used a titan poker bonus code to play online poker for real money. But nowadays people are using their phone to play these games, and they can enjoy that from almost anywhere as they do not need an Internet connection.
In fact, it was when cell phones switched from old-school “analog” (the digital age’s equivalent of shouting really loud) technologies to digital that they started working a lot better, and the line between the “Internet,” your “phone” and “a computer” got a whole lot blurrier. Everything is going online and the idea of being offline, at any time, will get more distant and strange with every passing month…or day, really. It won’t disappear, but the context will change.
Imagine a world where “I saw it on the Internet” is as archaic as “I lit the room using electricity.” Right? The Internet will soon be this fundamental. Our context is shifting, our perspective is in radical flux. We’re in the middle of something that by any measure is just getting started. Thinking about Leibniz, with his wig collection and his exquisite handwriting, filling up a thousand quill-ink pages on “bits,” might give a little perspective on the Net—or it might make you woozy. Or both. But Leibniz’ “bits” were the first flag on the information moon. They mark the beginning of the new territory, the information-space where everything that can be turned into bits, will be. Thank you for reading. We now return you to the history in progress.