“Lo.” That was the first message to cross the internet, in 1969, sent from a router at UCLA to one at Menlo Park. And behold! Here we are. Year 50 of the information age, when nearly every human (and an increasing number of otherwise inanimate objects) live, willingly or not, simultaneously, in physical space—IRL—and a digital one.
Anniversaries are a crummy peg, and I’m particularly ambivalent about this one because the internet’s birthday was one of the first biggish stories I covered as a reporter, so it marks not only the internet’s decrepitude but also my own. Happy 25th anniversary to this 25th anniversary story, written with the great Barbara Kantrowitz (though she’s not bylined here). I can’t find my notes now, frustratingly, because at the time Newsweek still worked on ATEX, green-screened terminals that functioned as CMS, word processing, and interoffice messaging machines. Imagine Slack, gmail, Google Docs, and WordPress in one interface, controlled by a chunky mechanical keyboard. I sometimes still think of editors’ notes as “mode 6,” because that was the hidden-text comment option.
I know none of that makes sense today; none of the words I use today would’ve made any sense back then. Anyway, ATEX wasn’t connected to the internet—which made writing a story about the internet on ATEX slightly hilarious—and so my notes from that era, roughly Information Years 24 through 26, are nothing more than disorganized bits now, flowing through a binary loadlifter or moisture vaporator somewhere.
That bums me out, because Year 25-Me was super-psyched to talk to Vint Cerf, Bob Taylor, Doug Engelbart … they’d changed the future, and I wish I had my records of the conversations. One of the ways scientists and philosophers sometimes confuse each other is by talking about “information,” because sometimes they also mean “knowledge” and sometimes they just mean a numerical value that quantifies entropy. In this case the notes would’ve been knowledge; the ATEX files are probably still information in some other sense, the way that first “lo” was—bits flowing from one Interface Message Processor to the next, from imp to imp.
And now we’re all imps—Maxwellian demons, moving information around, swiping right, “liking,” staging insta shots. It’s no mistake that information on the internet is also called traffic. The bits coursing across the network of networks don’t mean anything, really, but they also mean everything—how people relate to each other, how transnational corporations quantify our behavior in the hopes of selling us stuff, how businesses run, how vehicles navigate, how political movements attempt to channel the ebb and flow of public opinion. The same things that allow the internet to work beautifully also mean it’s fundamentally broken, and because its users reinvent it every time they use it, every anniversary celebrates the life of a newly convened network of networks. The information never changes, but the knowledge is always new.
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social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/story/welcome-year-50-information-age