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)

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