Depending on how you look at it, 40 years is a really long time or the blink of an eye. It’s 1% of the history of the Jewish people, if you count back to the birth of Abraham in (reportedly) 1948 BC. It’s 283,824,028 times as long as you need to transmit 1 megabyte of data at the average global speed of an Internet connection.
It’s a little more than 10 times the average wait after filing your application for a US patent. In a bunch of OECD countries, including Canada, it’s the number of years you have to contribute to your pension before you can retire with full benefits. It’s the average lifespan of an elephant.
40 days from now, I’ll be 40 years old myself. As the child of classics professors I was brought up to see 40 years as not very long at all, but as an Internet professional I’ve come to see it as an eternity. When at age 25 I decided to make it the focus of my work in political science, the Internet was still a pretty niche interest, and I could buy every single book that was published about the Internet and society. By the time I finished my Ph.D. (2004, age 33) those books were coming out faster than I could buy them, let alone read them…but there was still no Facebook (for grownups, anyhow), no Twitter and no YouTube.
The truth is that 40 years is an incredibly long time in the life of the Internet: in fact, just about its entirety. So reaching the big 40 is not only a moment for me to think about my life, but to measure it against the history of the networks that have defined my life’s work. There aren’t too many fields that get re-invented in one person’s lifetime (at least, there weren’t until the Internet started re-inventing them): I’ve found myself in a field that didn’t exist when I was born.
As a result, I’ve grown up alongside the technologies that have defined the field in which I work, and the world in which I live. 1971 was when the Telnet protocol was formalized, and when the Intel 4004 microprocessor was released — the world’s first mass-produced microprocessor. It was the year Ray Tomlinson sent the first e-mail, introducing the use of the @ sign to separate the username from his location (in 1971, you could pretty much count on it being his location). Computer Space, the first arcade videogame, was created in 1971 by the folks who would go on to found Atari.
At the beginning of 1971, the ARPANET had 14 nodes: 14 places you could access what ultimately grew into the Internet. By the end of the year, it had reached 19 — that’s right, 19 whole places in the world where you could connect to one of 18 other places. This is what the Internet looked like the month before I was born, according to the Computer History Museum:
And this is what it looked like at the beginning of this month, in an interactive image from Peer 1 hosting that shows more than 19,000 nodes:
That thousand-fold growth represents the fastest transformation in human history. The explosion of the network itself is trivial compared with its impact on our politics, our businesses, our cultures and our relationships. Comprehending that impact has been the focus of my past 15 years. Documenting that impact will be the focus of my next 40 days.
From now until May 5th, I’m going to write a blog post each day, tackling one key technological innovation for each year in the past 40. I’ll look at how technology has transformed our world, speaking from my own experience as a first-hand witness. And since an awareness of the speed and breadth of change can often be overwhelming and immobilizing rather than inspiring and empowering, I’ll try to deliver one actionable insight in every post: one tool or principle or practice you can adopt to make the most of the Internet’s potential.
If this seems like an insane commitment (typing away at 11:30 on a Saturday night, it feels like an insane commitment), then I’ll let you in on my very first actionable tip: the Internet rewards its over-committers. Every beautiful, miraculous thing that has ever happened to me online is the result of my investing in some online project with an at-best nebulous ROI. Like our lives offline, our lives online unfold in unpredictable ways. The efforts that pay off — and the kinds of pay-off we receive — rarely follow a coherent plan. Invest your time online based on passion, rather than calculated strategy, and you’ll be able to sustain the long-run, in-depth blogging (or tweeting, or Flickring, or YouTubing) that will earn long-run, in-depth attention.
I’m counting on passion to sustain me over the next 40 days, the same way it’s driven the Internet’s growth over the past 40 years. As I try to blog my way from 1971 to 2011, I’l look at what kind of world that passion has created.