Happy 25th Birthday Internet! 25 Things we wouldn’t have without you
Today’s world couldn’t exist without the internet. From it’s humble beginnings as an exchange network between mainframe systems to the sprawling interconnected universe of machines that our lives revolve around.
You feel it when you go to work, when you pay your taxes, when you go to church…(well maybe not that last one…) although it’s fair to say that the proliferation of the web in our lives has become as insidious as the Matrix, although with fewer ninja skills and more lolcats.
In honour of the Internet’s 25th birthday, while we get nostalgic about 56k dial-up and waiting 5 minutes for an email to download, lets review some of the things that wouldn’t exist without it.
Tablets\Smartphones – Yes tablet computers were around long before the internet, but it’s the abundance of WiFi and mobile internet that led to the Tablet/Smartphone revolution. Computers were no longer the domain of gamers and programmers, office workers and artists – they were for the common man and his need to check his Facebook page and buy things he didn’t need from Ebay. But more than that, it gave us the sum of human knowledge in our pocket.
Video Streaming – Video killed the radio star, so the song tells us. But video streaming killed video rentals and is well on it’s way to killing television as well. Services such as Netflix or the BBC iPlayer have changed the way we consume visual media and without the internet none of it would be possible. Instead of being at the mercy of broadcasters, we’re in the driving seat.
Online Shopping – Searching for that pointless office secret santa gift used to mean trawling round shops to find something that delivered the right amount of “I had no idea what to get you” with a dash of “and this was under the price limit”. But in the post-internet world, it’s never been easier. Amazon sells 426 items every second, that’s 13,434,336,000 items a year, and they still can’t get packaging right!
Cloud Computing/Storage – The internet gave rise to new technologies like never before. Cloud computing such as that used in the Xbox One, enables the use of offsite processing, graphics and actions processed in servers on the other side of the world and then fed back to your computer as a video stream. While I suspect it will be a while before client-side processing goes the way of the tape drive, the possibility for this in gaming or scientific software is limitless, adding almost infinite power to processing capacity.
Online Gaming – Multiplayer games started with Pong, the table tennis simulator where one player would take the keys W,S & X and their opponent would huddle at the other end of the keyboard with O,K & M. Now, we have virtual worlds which we can interact with thousands of players simultaneously. Famously, a battle in the online game EvE Online consisted of over 4,000 players fighting at the same time. Imagine that without the internet, that’s one big keyboard to share!
Social Networking – For all it’s ills, social networking has revolutionised the human experience. We can keep in touch with dozens, if not hundreds of people simultaneously. We can share our every thought, belief and lunch with the people we love. But we can also reach out to new people, meet people across the world who share our interests, who can unite to create new ideas and works. Many of the people working for Geek Pride were introduced across social network sites, and many other creative endeavours have started with people being brought together across the void of cyberspace.
Global Email – The Royal Mail aims to deliver letters from the UK to Australia in 5 to 7 days. In that time, millions of emails will have been sent along that route. Instant global communications, the exchange of information, files, images in a single moment have revolutionised the way that we work. While you will never beat the feeling of getting a handwritten letter addressed to you, we use email almost as easily as we talk. It’s unheard of to not have an e-mail address in today’s world. It’s as vital to your life as a passport or social security card, if not more so.
Global non-corporate news – Yes that’s a convoluted way of saying “Twitter”, but it’s not just Twitter that it relates to. News used to mean sitting down at 6pm and watching a television or radio broadcast of whatever was deemed to be sufficiently important for viewers to know. Now, we can learn about a cat stuck in a tree in LA as easily as we can learn what’s happening down the street. In recent world affairs, the ability for people to stay informed on the developments in Egypt or Ukraine has proved to be a real powerhouse in the way governments act and fall. In some ways, it’s this freedom of information and it’s viral spread that makes the internet the world changing thing it is.
Ebooks\Self publishing – Publishing a book used to be something that many aspired to and few would succeed at. It was market-led and it was controlled by a few publishing houses who dictated our literary desires to us. For better or worse, now anyone with an Amazon account can publish a book. It’s still market led, a few rounds of not selling a book or a series of bad ratings will generally drive someone out of the market. But as 50 Shades of Grey demonstrated, e-publishing lets people decide what they want, even if it is rubbish.
Blogs – Similar to ebooks, Blogging enabled everyone to be a columnist. The ability to share thoughts with an audience gave everyone a soapbox and has grown into an entirely new media. Without the shield of editorial journalism governing subjects or content (or spelling in many cases) the web is awash with people giving advice or sharing opinions, getting angry or sharing successes, standing up for what they believe in or shattering illusions about every subject imaginable.
Google (well, search engines, but lets face it, Google) – So you’re in the pub, someone is trying to argue that George Peppard was the guy in Buck Rogers. You know it’s wrong, but he’s not having any of it. You whip out your phone and within seconds you’ve Googled Buck Rogers and are proudly displaying a picture of Gil Gerard. Google’s search algorithm is a thing of beauty, the ability to find information on any subject in seconds, to find photos, blogs, news and shopping possibilities in mere moments. Google changed the way we work, the way we talk and the way we present information. My own career started by Googling pieces of code and jumbling them together and so have many others. Without the ease of searching for information across the globe, we’d live in a very different world.
Wikipedia – Encyclopaedias used to be cumbersome things, updated once a decade if you were lucky and bound in a series of up to 30 books like vast dictionaries of facts. Wikipedia’s changed that. Updated by anyone (although subject to editorial review – allegedly), Wikipedia truly is a repository of human knowledge. It’s a one stop shop for just about everything. Type a subject into Google and Wikipedia will most likely be in the top results. While it’s had its controversies over the years and it’s reliability can be questioned, since the Great Library of Alexandria such a wealth of information hasn’t been held in one place, well maybe it has but that’s a nice image! Wikipedia can be expected to supply information condensed into a summary on basically any topic. While it should probably never be taken as a golden source of information, it’s certainly got enough to get you started on learning about, well, anything.
YouTube – Much like Ebooks did for Authors or Blogs did for Journalists, YouTube gave everyone the ability to become a television personality. People have grown entire careers from their broadcasts, emerging from strange dark corners of the world. The site allows us to share videos with people all over the world be they of children and loved ones, or cats falling into bathtubs or people being punched by goats. In 2013 the success of the music video Gangnam Style was measured against the fact that it received over 1 billion hits on Youtube. It’s a phenomenon that feeds phenomenons and doesn’t look like it’s stopping any time soon. Certainly not while there are still cat owners out there anyway!
Photo sharing – Digital photography did away with the restriction of 24 pictures on a roll of film and dusty albums filled with the treasured snapshots of Christmases and birthdays. Now, by the time a child is a day old, 400 pictures will have been taken and most of them will have found their way to a photo sharing site. Whether it’s Facebook or dedicated services like Instragram or Flikr, photos can be shared with your Uncle in Scotland and your Gran in New Zealand instantly, every moment can be saved and shared and treasured with the added bonus that you don’t have to take up an entire bookcase shelf or attic to do so. Of course, not every photo needs sharing…one day someone will tell the world that…
Memes – What would the internet be without Memes? That single image to which can be applied any number of jokes for any given purpose. It is said that all memes can be traced back to 4Chan, the almost demonic layer of hell within the web-world where only the strong survive, but however they make it out and onto the web, everyone loves a good meme…even a bad one can give you a smile.
Software Patches – These are a double-edged sword. Before the internet, publishers would test games to breaking point and go through hundreds of rounds of testing. After the internet, the costly expense of testing was dumbed-down. What better way to test something that to have the general public do it for you? After all, you can patch it later on. That’s perhaps a little unfair; patching isn’t just about fixing faults, but adding new features to existing software, or expanding new developments and functionality. The software you bought a year ago for almost anything will have been adapted or changed at some point. Unless it’s FIFA or Call of Duty, then you just have to wait 8 minutes for them to release a new version!
Video Communications – High-quality video communication would be virtually impossible without the internet, and ludicrously expensive without it. Services like Skype are changing the way we communicate and keep in touch. It’s no longer a disconnected voice on the phone, it’s being able to see and show across the web. It’s being able to let your relatives hundreds of miles away watch your kids open their presents on Christmas morning as it happens or to have a virtual presence wherever you may be. The world is getting smaller, and being able to share a face-to-face with your loved ones no matter where they are is making sure that it stays not just small, but cosy too.
Crowd funding – Finding like-minded people to invest in a project used to be the domain of Venture Capitalists, who would take a giant slice of the pie in return for helping you get your dream off the ground. Now, the man on the street can get into the action and support whatever weird and wonderful projects take his fancy. From cookery books to video games, from movies to plans to build an actual Death Star to defend the Earth, crowd funding will help you find the people and cash you need.
Comments sections – Letters to the editor used to be the only way you could express your feelings about an article or news item, now we can punch out our disagreement or support in seconds. What would a news site be without a comments section? Without the polarised debates that take place over subjects nobody involved has any personal interest in sorting out? Comments sections are an evolution of forums and sometimes where the real action in a story takes place, and the place where more than a few hours of work are lost across the world.
SharePoint – What Facebook did for socialising, SharePoint did for working. SharePoint enabled businesses to get people to collaborate. While it’s used in many businesses as an extension of their network folder sharing, it’s potential to enable people to interact, connect and to come up with new solutions or change their perspectives makes it one of the most underused business tools around. As the digital generation start going to work though, expect networking tools like SharePoint to become ever more present. With telecommuting becoming ever more present in the world, business interaction and therefore the business world will change in tune with the technology that supports it.
Online Banking – If the internet has given us anything, it’s control. Banking has always been something that the customer was a hindrance in. You had to queue, you had to ask your ill informed questions and you more often than not had to wait for either someone in a call centre to not understand you, or for some snotty counter representative to take down your instructions only to execute them incorrectly. With the advent of online banking the customer regained control. Now you could move money from your accounts or someone else’s in seconds. You could govern your entire financial life from the comfort of your arm chair. Sadly, there will always be more month than money – not even the internet can fix that!
Free distance learning – When the Open University began in the UK, it was a costly affair of sending books out and essays in and ultimately attending an onsite course which incurred even more expense. Now, online courses enable people to learn just about anything. Institutions like MIT and Harvard are offering free online distance learning where anyone with the patience and dedication can study subjects ranging from basic law to cosmology without the expense of formal qualifications. While the courses offered by EdX are not going to substitute a formal education, learning for learnings sake has never been more accessible.
Ebay – The original internet of things. Ebay is the great car boot sale of the world. If you want to offload any old crap you find lying around your house, Ebay is going to be your port of call. The ability to sell anything to anyone was the reserve of used cars salesmen, but now, you can offload your toaster to some guy in Norway and make a few quid out of it. Ebay was perhaps one of the first online marketplaces and continues to grow as an online classifieds ad, selling everything from socks to personal jets. Ebay has it all and usually in Used or Nearly New condition…
Indie games – Independent games developers used to have a terrible time of it. They had to convince someone to distribute their games or spend forever and a day trying to sell copies of them to anyone who’d come near them. With the internet, came freedom, and technologies that would change the face of games development forever. The internet is full of sites where amateur games developers can show off their wares, where games can come with new and inventive ideas and enter the arena for public affection. The powerhouses of games development are still the major publishers, but independent games developers can often give them a run for their money, even without the massive marketing budget.
Smartphone apps – If you take everything in the list above, you can squash it down to smartphone apps. Games, information, photos, video, there’s an app for everything (even Geek Pride, as of next week!). These little programs have changed the way we read the news, the way we surf the web, the way we check the weather or monitor our health. Smartphones were in the pockets of 722 million people across Europe and the US in 2012 according to a survey done by the International Data Corporation (IDC), and that figure is growing exponentially. Apps are finding uses in science and medicine as well as in far less noble pursuits, and are literally changing the way we live our lives, the way we eat, the way we quit smoking, the way we exercise and the way we sleep. For everything, there’s an app for that.