Its been twenty years since Mosaic was introduced to the world as a way to “browse” the World Wide Web. The excitement is palpable in a New York Times article introducing the browser. It is described as, “a map to the buried treasures of the Information Age.” There was a general giddiness at the thought of having the ability to communicate and share information with people around the world. In some quarters- particularly the philosophical ones, there was a belief that the Internet might prove to be the elusive “public sphere”– a place where citizens could come together in serious and respectively debate about contentious topics. So how does the present measure up to that dream?
Like anything that includes the ideal of freedom, it’s been a rocky road. The first group outside of Academia to really take advantage of the Internet was the porn industry. On July 3, 1995, TIME magazine’s cover read “CYBERPORN” and asked “Can we protect our kids, and free speech?” In the name of the dream, porn became protected under Freedom of Speech. Written content has also proved controversial. What should we do with Forums advocating violence? Domestic Terrorism? The rise of social media during the past few years means that children must now deal with Cyberbullying.
All of these are serious issues that must be addressed. Yet to view the Internet according to these attributes is to risk missing the forest for the trees. Taken in the aggregate, the tale of the Internet is one of progress. In the early days only a few key demographics were populating the internet- the net looked more like the jungle of streets in downtown Manhattan than an “information superhighway.” A lot of the content available, therefore, was the bad and harmful stuff. It took the development of online exclusive content via services such as YouTube, Facebook, and Wikipedia to attract other demographics onto the net. I think we can all agree that the quality of information on the Internet has increased in leaps and bounds since those early days. Of course you can always find wackos and bullies but in many ways that actually reaffirms the degree to which the Internet has become more representative of the offline world.
So how should we look at the past twenty years? To say that it’s complicated is an understatement. Much of this is based on the fact that we do not expect the Internet to be simply a tool- we expect it to be something larger than life. The Internet is every bit an Idea as it is a physical network of applications. The past twenty years tell a story of constant progression towards the Idea of an interconnected world. But like any Idea, it has generated strong opposition and at times vicious disagreement. Aaron Schwartz’s more than tragic suicide is emblematic of this “digital divide”. Hopefully this tragedy will spark serious dialogue between these opposing camps and what better time to do so than on the twenty year anniversary of Mosaic.
The history of the Internet has been fraught with trials and tribulations but also full of amazing achievements. Any assessment of its use must take the bad with the good and also include the fact that the Internet is a creature of progress- ever changing and expanding. Always reaching towards that elusive dream of connectedness.