Finding order in the muddle of the Internet - Reviews - Books - The Independent

Finding order in the muddle of the Internet

A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet by John Naughton(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99)

A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet by John Naughton(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99)

IMAGINE TRYING to conduct a love affair before the telephone and the taxi were invented. How could the lovers talk? How would they meet? It could be done, of course. Asquith, while Prime Minister, bombarded the young Venetia Stanley with love letters, often scribbled during Cabinet meetings. But this was a game for the ruling class alone. Middle-class, mass-market adultery needed the telephone and the motor car before it could get under way.

Social changes have social causes, and stem ultimately from human desires, but technology determines which desires are realistic and which get reinforced by success. Men dreamed of flight for years before the Wright brothers, but once the dream was possible, it changed in all sorts of ways. And it is certain that no one, before the aircraft's invention, dreamed of an airport full of charter passengers waiting hours for a plane. Otherwise, they would have brought the Kitty Hawk down by throwing bricks at it as soon as it left the ground.

The Internet today is at a stage somewhere between the romance of the Wright brothers and the horror of Luton airport at half term. So any history of it is partly a history of the technology and partly a history of changing patterns of desire. John Naughton almost pulls it off. I'm not sure that anyone writing today could entirely succeed. We still have not reached the end of the history of the Internet; and if the end is in sight, as it may be, no one has recognised it yet.

Still, what we have today seems closer to mass air travel than the age of heroic pioneers. When my 82-year-old mother can go house-hunting on the Internet things have changed a very great deal from the way they were 10 years ago. Then, a notice went round The Independent explaining that we now had an e-mail connection - but that this should only worry the people who knew what it meant.

Naughton starts in exactly the right place, with the romance of the thing. As a young man in rural Ireland, he fell in love with short-wave radio, when the love of radio involved transmitting as well as receiving. There's some lovely writing here about the sense of wonder that a radio could evoke, and the knowledge, too, that his father had felt the same tug but been constrained by poverty from responding. Radio transmission, though, never got beyond the romantics. It appealed to people whose imaginations were so entirely saturated by the chain of miracles required to allow them to connect to the other side of the world that when they got there all they could do was to broadcast meteorological observations.

It is a measure of progress that the modern Internet allows anyone to gossip about the weather. Arthur C Clarke famously observed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. There is a corollary to this law which says that any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.

Naughton's book explains more clearly than anything I have read how the technology turned to magic. Because he loves it himself, and keeps a sense of wonder, he can tell the story as an engineer would - which means by giving due weight to a curious notion of beauty. It is related to the beauty that can be seen in chess combinations: the discovery of a single short, right answer to what had appeared an intractable tangle of insoluble problems. He tells the whole story of the Net as a search for elegant solutions to complicated technical problems.

Money, in Naughton's telling, is a constraint on people's actions, not a motivating force. His heroes did not want stock options, but discerning patrons who would let them get on with interesting research in peace. Almost the last of this line is Tim Berners-Lee, the Englishman who invented the World Wide Web and has devoted himself to keeping it running while lesser men have made uncounted billions from the fruits of his work.

It is this bias, I think, that leads Naughton to conclude his work with a resurgence of "open source" software such as Linux, which seems to promise a return to the days of arrogant idealists who wanted one true answer for every problem. I only wish he were right. But I fear we are closer to Luton airport than he thinks.

The reviewer's book is 'The Darwin Wars' (Simon & Schuster)

Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week