Creative Disruption: The Changing Landscape of Technology

The Emergence of the Internet

In the course of this series, I’ve written about email, the World Wide Web and iTunes - all innovations made possible because of the existence of the Internet. Although many people, particularly those new to telecommunications, think that the terms "Internet" and "World Wide Web" are synonymous, they are as synonymous as Italy and Rome. The Internet, in its current form, went live in 1969 - the World Wide Web didn't arrive on the scene until 1993. Here we'll look at the history behind the Internet. But as we already know, it changed everything. (To learn more, read What is the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web?)

From Industrialization to the Internet

The Internet was an outgrowth of a huge culture shock that occurred in the United States in the last half of the 20th century: the launch of Soviet satellite Sputnik on October 4, 1957. The U.S. had emerged from World War II as the obvious world leader in manufacturing, science and technology. Its factories, once ramped up, had out-produced every country in the world in the weaponry needed to win World War II. The planes, tanks and warships rolled off the assembly lines in a seeming non-ending parade. When the war ended, that production power was turned to televisions, cars, radios, kitchen appliances, and other consumer products, while some other countries in the conflict were forced to turn to rebuilding bombed-out cities and factories.

On the science side, the U.S. developed the first (and, for a good while, the only) atomic bomb. This is what brought an end to the Pacific portion of WWII. The big development on the technology side was the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), the first working electronic computer developed with government funding. ENIAC was developed at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Engineering by a team headed by John Mauchley and J. Presper Eckert. In actuality, the computer was finished too late to be of use in the war effort, thereby setting a precedent for all future major IT projects, 50 percent of which are still estimated to come in late and over budget.

With the great success in the war, a weary United States turned its attention to consumer projects that would bring comfort to returning veterans and others who had contributed to the war effort - new homes, larger and plusher automobiles, kitchen appliances, and the new technology capturing America, television. While this was going on, the leader of the Communist world, the Soviet Union, was concentrating on any science and technology that could narrow the gap between it and its largest rival, the United States.

This competition had actually begun during the war with the theft of atomic secrets from the Los Alamos development laboratory by possibly well-meaning but misguided scientists who believed that the Soviet Union's centrally-planned system was the path to a more peaceful and fair world. As the competition progressed, most saw the Soviet-produced competitive devices as "clunky", inferior technology and laughed at claims that its scientists had actually invented television and other new technologies. Then, in October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to be put into the earth's orbit. It was a major technological feat at the time, but more than that, it was a statement.

Sputnik Launches

The reaction by the United States was swift. On February 7, 1958, it announced the formation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Although the initial focus of ARPA had been on space-related projects, it moved into computer communications with the appointment of J.C.R. Licklider as head of the Behavioral Sciences and Command and Control programs in 1963. The previous year, Licklider, then with Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN), had written a memorandum outlining his concept of an Intergalactic Computer Network. This memo is considered by many to be the basis of what became to be known as the Internet. (Read a complete history in The History of the Internet Tutorial.)

In his five-year term with ARPA, Licklider was able to convince ARPA directors Ivan Sutherland and Bob Taylor of the importance of developing such a network and in April 1969, APRA awarded a contract to BBN to build the network that became known as the ARPANET. The initial ARPANET connected four locations: the University of California, Los Angeles; Stanford Research Institute;the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Utah. The first message between systems was sent on October 29, 1969, and the entire network went live on December 5, 1969.

In the 1960s Paul Baran at the Rand Corporation and Donald Davies at the National Physical Laboratory in the U.K. independently came up with the concept of packet switching, a technology that broke up communications messages (of any type) into small packets, sending each of them along the best possible route at the moment of sending, and putting them back together to deliver the message to the recipient. This methodology has the advantage of routing around problems, unlike the standard for voice communications, circuit switching, which depends on all lines in the circuit staying up until the transmission is complete.

Internet Infrastructure Emerges

In 1973, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn included packet switching in specifications for Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). It was paired with Internet Protocol (IP), and TCP/IP became the standard for the Internet. It is still the standard to this day.

It is important to understand that TCP/IP is simply the rule for sending any information through the now vast network that we call the Internet. It does not define the functions, use, or logic of the data. The computers, devices and communication lines (and, now, wireless connections), along with TCP/IP, make up the infrastructure of the Internet, just as the roads, bridges and tunnels make up the infrastructure of a city. The rules for a city’s infrastructure are rather simple - stay to the right and stop at red lights - but the infrastructure itself will have its own rules, or standards. There are separate rules for passenger cars, trucks, motorcycles, taxis, buses, bicycles and pedestrians, and these standards are developed as new types of vehicles come into use.

Similarly, as innovators think of new types of Internet use, new standards are developed. Over the years, we have seen the Internet grow from a domestic system to exchange information between scientists to a world-wide system that is used for email, file transfers, the World Wide Web, instant messaging, social networks, cloud computing and whatever else some innovator somewhere cooks up before you even read this.

Small Time Frame, Big Changes

It is hard to believe that the Internet is less than 50 years old and that the World Wide Web did not come into common use until the mid to late 1990s - hard because of the dramatic changes this technology has brought to both the overall economy and our everyday lives.

While the Internet did not bring foreign outsourcing (or offshoring) into existence - American companies had sales and manufacturing facilities in foreign countries for decades - it did facilitate the great expansion of the practice. Previous to email and file transfer, it was difficult and/or expensive to constantly coordinate activities with foreign offices. Suddenly, it became easier and businesses reacted. Soon, help desks followed manufacturing offshore to Jamaica, Ireland, India, the Philippines and former Soviet Republics.

Previously, engineers and computer scientists from other parts of the globe had to relocate to the United States to make significant incomes. Now they could stay home and more and more businesses offshored development to India and China.

Furthermore, once the World Wide Web turned into the "killer app" that caused computers to become a staple of homes as well as offices, firms were able to convert customers into components of their business networks by paying their bills, downloading books and music, sending mail, doing research, booking travel and looking for housing online. Many of these activities were previously done by people, such retail clerks, bank tellers, real estate agents, data entry personnel, librarians, travel agents, professors, book sellers, mail deliverers, etc.

Finally, the advent of mobile apps has given us the ability to perform all of these activities on Smartphones where we are and when we want to.

Technology That Changed the World

Once again, technological innovation has provided many of us with great benefits - and some negative disruptions. The Internet has changed the way we do so many things, from the way we work to the way we communicate and form relationships with others. That isn't to say that all the changes have been positive for everyone, but innovation often means disruption, leaving most of us with only one choice: bend to the change or be broken by it.

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Written by John F. McMullen
John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. He is also a member of the American Academy of Poets, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freelancer's Union, the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and the World Futurist Society.

His current non-technical writing includes a novel, "The Inwood Book" and "New & Collected Poems by johnmac the bard." Both are available on