This history of how the Internet came to be traces its origins as ARPANET, an undertaking of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was created by the Department of Defense.
Abbate explains that the values of the Internet as we know it today are a combination of military values (survivability, flexibility, and high performance) and the values of academic scientists (collegiality, decentralization of authority, and open exchange of information).
Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn are celebrated for designing the internet architecture we rely on today, and Tim Berners-Lee is credited with the invention of the WWW application in Geneva.
Packet switching formed the basis of the ARPANET, even though the concept was met with skepticism at its outset. The whole project, in fact, was much maligned and regarded with hostility by most of the principal investigators, who saw the network as an intrusion and desired to concentrate on their own research. Forcing universities to connect to the ARPANET was the primary way that it actually got off the ground.
The project was consistently framed by the need to justify the project to the military in terms that were rigid and definable. At the same time, nonauthoritative, fragmented, and unpolished RFCs, or Requests For Comments, were one of the main ways that feedback was disseminated and given about the ARPANET, reflecting some of the values of academia mentioned above. In this way and many others, the net experienced transformative growth through user participation.
Biggest accomplishment of ARPANET: email. It was unplanned, unanticipated, and mostly unsupported. This represented a radical shift in ARPANET’s identity and purpose. This was the biggest surprise of the project: its greatest resource was people, and the greatest resource for people was communication.
As the ARPANET grew, it became clear that this project would expand beyond the limits of what its creators thought possible, but there were many problems to be encountered. Different systems and protocols had to be negotiated and overcome, and standards were difficult to agree upon as competing entities pursued their own agendas. On 30 Apr 1995, the government formally ended its ownership of the Internet’s backbone, as commercial interests could not exist on a government owned system.
It was the creation of the World Wide Web application and hypertext, along with the proliferation of personal computing and a graphical interface, that opened up the floodgates of users accessing and contributing to the Internet. With the introduction of web browsers and search engines to help sort and deliver the immense and rapidly increasing information available online, the modern Internet was born.
Essentially, Abbate’s book provides a very detailed history of the rise of the Internet, while stressing that it was the informal, participatory process of its invention which set the standard for the net we know today. From its inception as a research and communications network available to an elite group of academic and military personel within the United States to its eventual spread as a dynamic, multifaceted global web of information and commerce, its authoritative and technical structures remained remarkably decentralized, and its open architecture invited an active user participation which placed individuals in the roles of both consumers and producers of information on the net.