At AquaSwitch, we are not MIT-trained computer scientists, but we know enough to give you a readable broad overview of how the internet has evolved throughout the years to become the cornerstone of global communications.
From its beginnings as an inconsequential local computer network to potentially defining the way we do finance and governance in web3, we summarise its brief history in this easy-to-read format.
Local Computer Networks
Some argue that the first “internet” came as early as telegraphy, which utilised electrical signals to communicate messages across the world.
But this is technically incorrect as it requires a global network of interconnected computers, which telegraphy apparatus were not.
During the 1950s 1st generation vacuum tube computers started coming into the scene, and interacting with them required physical contact with the mainframe.
There were no ‘terminals’ to feed information remotely onto the CPU (Central Processing Unit), as computers were 100% isolated inside large cooling rooms that required specialists for data input.
In 1957 the first remote (tethered) connection to a computer was achieved, and “time-sharing” so that multiple ‘terminals’ could interact with the same CPU became a reality: this was the first local network (Not global, yet!).
Network of networks
From then onwards, the key innovations that lead to the internet were happening in the US, UK and France.
At NPL (UK), packet-switching was invented, in which files were subdivided into little packets to make data transmission ultimately more efficient.
At ARPANET (US), messaging was greatly improved with things like senders being able to verify receipt. Also, the fear of nuclear war led to the development of decentralised networks which are resilient and still the basis of today’s internet.
AT CYCLADES (France), the French invented the concept of connecting all the different independent networks dotted around the world together.
This was the first network of networks or the “inter-net”. On top of this, the concept of transfer nodes was introduced so that the data could go from the origin to the recipient computer without having to be received and sent by each computer node in the network but merely let it pass.
You can think of this as building a motorway that passes next to a town and replace the local road that has traffic and passes through the high street.
An unstoppable global network
In the 1980s, the internet started catching an unstoppable momentum.
Telephone companies introduced X.25, which let computers communicate via telephone lines and lay the foundations for ‘dial-up‘ connection, the king of internet connectivity in the 1990s.
The first internet ISO standards were released, making adaptability significantly easier. It declared TCP/IP communications protocol (THE rules/procedures of the internet) as the de-facto method, ending the infamous “Internet Protocol wars”.
Symbolically, on the 28th of February 1990, the now dinosaur ARPANET network introduced in the 1960s was taken down without being of any consequence to the now unstoppable global network of computers, marking for us the beginning of the internet as the global infrastructure.
The first global internet: Web 1.0
In the early 1990s, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) started cropping up around the world, allowing any business or individuals owning computers to connect to the growing internet.
But there was still a missing link: the internet didn’t have a user-friendly front end and required technical know-how to access and utilise.
In comes the “World Wide Web”, which was invented as CERN’s local management system in 1989, and rapidly got global traction once it was made publically available during the early 1990s.
This user-friendly layer was composed of web servers that would store websites, web browsers that would let you search and display the websites, and hypertext markup language (HTML) for writing them!
The combination of ISPs, the world wide web, and affordable personal computers created the first iteration of this usable global network called web 1.0.
It became a gigantic web of read-only static websites available to any user who could access it, with the addition of messaging services like MIRC, AOL and, ultimately, e-mail.
Those dinosaurs who, like me, remember Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer as the only options to access snail-paced loading websites are part of this early generation of web 1.0 users. I personally even remember staring at the loading bar on the bottom right waiting for simple websites to load…
In fact, one of my first memories of internet usage was completing the epic video game “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” with the help of written game walkthroughs I found on Yahoo!
The culmination of web 1.0 came with the arrival of platforms like MSN Messenger. As youngsters, we’d constantly change our profile photos and pseudonyms, and we’d share homework and the latest gossip from the weekend’s parties. We started personalising our internet personas, writing blogs, and…
An interactive internet: Web 2.0
This was boom-time for internet cafes, which allowed people who couldn’t afford their own devices to have e-mail accounts, access to messenger apps, and social platforms that were soon going to take over the space.
So while Web 1.0 was a passive space where users would predominantly consume information, web 2.0 was interactive and would empower users to personalise and create their own content.
Think MySpace, Facebook profiles, Youtube videos, and even Wikipedia, which came to replace the now unscalable Encyclopedia Britannica as the source of general knowledge.
Instead of simply reading an article, people were now invited to comment, react and share. It was the beginning of WordPress and blogs. People would be able to review products on Amazon and like someone’s comments on Facebook.
But despite the internet becoming an increasingly participative space, the boost in user interaction also brought numerous new issues like cyber-bullying, cancel-culture and hate speech, that has plagued social media over the last couple of years and is perhaps a result of a more fundamental problem: data misuse.
The way in which a user interacts with the web (i.e. the websites they access, the comments they like, the posts that they share) tells a lot about them. When researchers realized this, data harvesting became very attractive for marketers, as they’d be able to tailor whatever narrative to suit the consumers, users, clients, voters, patients, etc.
And despite digital companies forcing users to give out their data to utilise the platforms, history has shown us that the same companies often mishandle the data. Their centralised server gets hacked via security vulnerabilities, or the data is even sold to other companies “unknowingly”.
This was the case with, for example, Cambridge Analytica, a company in the UK that manage to get large amounts of data from Facebook and essentially change public opinion enough to have an effect on the U.S. presidential election and even the Brexit vote.
This was done through fake-news strategies on targetted individuals, all possible through data-driven psychological profiling.
To counteract this, things such as Incognito mode and the Tor network are alternatives to protect user privacy, but they are certainly not permanent solutions and are not in-built into browsers.
Large corporations such as Facebook and Google have been accused of data mishandling as they keep ownership and rights over data harvested from their users on their mammoth databases.
The future internet: Web3
So despite democratising the internet for good in web 2.0, we also became the product of different digital companies that use our data for profit. So what is the reaction to web 2.0?
In comes web3, a new iteration of the internet where users are both the owners and managers of their personal data, and where the different applications that we utilize are owned by the same stakeholders that use them. It’s a paradigm shift in ownership and governance.
In web3, we wouldn’t have to share all of our data to use essential digital tools like WhatsApp or Google to run our daily lives, and we can perhaps even be a stakeholder in them and help run it.
Without web3, the control of all global data by a few institutions or governments is ripe territory for increased inequality in the world and even potential variations of totalitarian nation-states, comparable to some dystopic episodes of Black Mirror.
And with technology improving and immersive technologies like virtual reality and metaverses already available at present, there is an increasing amount of data out there to exploit.
We digress, web3 could be a solution to this, and there are three key innovations to make this possible:
Satellite Internet Constellations
Despite internet access being ubiquitous in the developed world, only ~60% of the global population has regular access to the internet. Satellite Internet constellations like Starlink and OneWeb are able to provide internet connectivity all over the world regardless of ground infrastructure and at speeds comparable to fibre optic.
This decentralised data storage solution is resilient, censorship-resistant, permissionless, incorruptible, and user-governed. Let’s break this down:
- Resilient: Being run by computer nodes distributed around the world like the internet, it is very difficult to bring down.
- Censorship-resistant: It cannot be controlled, regulated or controlled by any country or institution as its distributed, like the internet.
- Permissionless: It is open to anyone with an internet connection; you don’t need an intermediary like a bank or government.
- Incorruptible: Once stored in a blockchain server, the information cannot be amended or deleted by design.
- User-governed: Through the issuance of governance tokens, the users of the platform can also become those who run or vote on key decisions.
This has a myriad of use cases for all industries and is essentially a paradigm shift in not only how we use the internet but also in how we can influence all the digital things we interact with, how we look at finance and even fight climate change.
Zero-knowledge Proofs (ZKP)
ZKPs are a series of abstract maths methods that can be encoded into software that has some incredible utility. In this context, the most important is that it can prove to someone that something is true without revealing everything about it.
For example, I could prove that I am over 18 years old and have a Geology degree without having to reveal my full name, nationality, race, age, etc. Here is a great Youtube video that explains it better than I ever will.
This is a crucial way in which you can have a digital identity associated with yourself (like your Google account or LinkedIn profile) without revealing or giving away all of your data.
And combining this with blockchain means that this utility could be hard-wired, making loopholes and ways to cheat the system much harder while preventing a single entity from knowing everything that is happening (i.e. Big Brother).
The future of web3
Web3 is currently just a concept, and blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies are still in their infancy.
However, blockchain is possibly the fastest, most rapidly iterating industry in the world, where innovations are rapidly implemented and tested over trial and error. This is the recipe for failure, with the upside of rapid innovation (i.e. You learn faster from mistakes than from just observing).
We digress; web3 and these technologies are the pillars of a fairer, more private internet, which, let’s face it, is gradually becoming the core infrastructure of modern society.
And if this essential global layer becomes rotten to its core, what’s going to happen to us? The internet is already unstoppable.