Happy Birthday, Internet: a personal look back


The Internet is turning 50 years old. Time then to take a look back at the part of its history that I have witnessed myself.

My first encounter with computers was - as with so many members of my generation - the Commodore 64. My first personal computer was an Amiga 500 Plus (with 1 MB RAM!). That was still a completely offline experience. Ghosts’n’Goblins, Giana Sisters, Boulder Dash, Lotus Turbo Challenge, unbelievably cool demos (if anyone from Red Sector / RSI is reading this - THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!). My parents were not very enthusiastic about how much time I spent in front of the “box”. I carried on using the Amiga until around 1997, when it was replaced by a P133 - with a 40 GB hard disk. I was convinced at that time that I would never be able to to fill it up during my lifetime. Today, the raw footage for one of my weekly YouTube videos alone would take up a quarter of it. 

First contact

It must have been in 1994 or 1995 when I first came into contact with the Internet. I don't remember exactly. It was at school, in room 352. Walls painted pale green, dark brown lino flooring and that smell of hot dust, paper and cleaning agents - it still smells the same today in some official buildings. The gateway to the Internet was opened by an old IBM with a monochrome amber monitor, which even at the time was no longer the fastest, but, on the other hand, was hellishly loud. My first tottering steps were limited to writing texts that would never be read again and to Turbo Pascal. I hated it - even Delphi couldn't really spark my love for programming later. I never managed to get further than the obligatory BASIC program “10 PRINT HELLO 20 GOTO 10”. The machine could be used for writing emails, but this required the supervision of the teacher. And I wouldn't have had anyone outside school that I could (or wanted to) write to anyway. Also, I never got a reply to my first email. 

I was able to access the Internet at home too, but for a long time that was limited to a very slow (by today's standards) dial-up modem. I had a fabulous 56.6kb baud rate at my disposal. And I was only allowed to connect to the Internet when my mother wasn't on the phone (which was rare). I had the opportunity to play with an acoustic coupler with a friend - for me still one of the devices with the Highest Coolness Factor Ever™.

The next level

“Technology” was my favourite subject in secondary school, because there were PCs connected to the Internet everywhere in the room. The standard operating systems were Windows 95, 98 and NT4. AltaVista, Yahoo! and Lycos were the kings of the search engine world, and we could find interesting texts on mailing lists and in forums. Within the network, we played practical jokes with programs like BackOrifice. It may sound cheesy, but it was somehow an innocent and free kind of Internet. And above all... different. No Google, no Facebook in sight, even things like data retention were not yet an issue. 

Just before I left school, the next step was taken - a DSL line at home. Now nothing could stop us anymore. The “main PC” was in my brother's room - simply because it was closest to the telephone socket. The connection to my room was via a long network cable that I somehow ran right across the house. My parents didn't understand the concept of a “flat rate” at first (“It can't be right that you don't have to pay for the minutes, it just doesn't work like that!”), but that soon changed anyway. The first connection with the new data superhighway immediately brought disillusionment. As soon as I connected with the network, the PC immediately shut down. I’d power it up, reconnect - and suddenly a timer would appear on the screen, telling me that the computer would shut down in 60 seconds. Yes, I was welcomed to the high-speed internet by Sasser.A. ,Thank you very much for that. 

And today?

A lot has changed since Sasser. Where once there was a race between the timer to shut down the computer and the download bar to update Windows, today everything runs automatically. The Internet has created a host of possibilities - both positive and negative. 

Dear Internet: Access for all to information - this was the mission you were created for back then. On this day 50 years ago, you started life as a small computer network between a few universities. You had a total of four users. Today, there are about four billion - almost half of all humans. Not bad for a technology that many in the 80s were sure would be just a fad that would never catch on. In the meantime, however, you have caught out many people. They are overwhelmed by your possibilities and, faced with all the opportunities and risks, have fallen into a state of shock and complete listlessness. Many modern things are built on time-honoured foundations, which today can no longer support the things for which they were once built. More and more people with less and less expertise keep making more and more far-reaching decisions about you and the way in which you are used.  For some time, a term was popular in Germany that roughly translates to “those who print out the internet” (in German: “Internet-Ausdrucker”), referring mostly to law enforcement and politicians who had (and in many cases still have) only a very rudimentary understanding of how the internet works.

Whereas in 1996 I looked jealously at Captain Picard and the fact that he could ask a computer anything and get an answer within seconds, today I'm sceptical whether this really is such a good idea - because the computer is always listening. On the other hand, being able to stand in my apartment and control the light with a voice command or have the weather forecast and the news read to me does have a certain appeal. Today you can get a little bit of a Picard and Iron Man feeling. Any information that could potentially interest me can be searched for and found on the net. All human knowledge is at my fingertips - and yet (sometimes at least) I prefer to look at pictures of cats. 

But criminals have also taken you for themselves. They misuse you to steal, blackmail, spy or drive others to commit suicide. Many people forget how to behave once they are on the Internet - they say things to other people that they would never dare to in reality for fear of consequences. That's a pity. But I can't blame you for your users. Your great strength is also your greatest weakness - anyone can write anything and use you to shout it out to the world. The people who are starting to use the web for the first time today have never known a world without you. They don't know what they would do without you. Just take a look around on the street or in the bus in the morning: Almost everyone is staring at a screen and surfing the net. Or playing games online. Whatever, they're connected to you. Sometimes, however, it would be nice if more people would just consciously switch off - literally. 

Well, Internet - you have done a lot in your time. You've also properly messed up quite a few things. And with some things you seem to have a problem. But as I said: your users are not your fault.  
Overall, you’re pretty OK. With that being said: Happy birthday, Internet!

from Tim Berghoff
Security Evangelist