Happy Birthday To The Internet At age 40, the Internet has redefined how the world works and plays by creating new types of professions and by revolutionizing communications through tools like e-mail and blogging. Digital journalists Mario Armstrong and Xeni Jardin talk about the web's transformative effect on society and the looming digital divide.

Happy Birthday To The Internet

Happy Birthday To The Internet

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At age 40, the Internet has redefined how the world works and plays by creating new types of professions and by revolutionizing communications through tools like e-mail and blogging. Digital journalists Mario Armstrong and Xeni Jardin talk about the web's transformative effect on society and the looming digital divide.

(Soundbite of music)


Okay, Mario.

Forty years ago, several people watched two computers at the University of California in Los Angeles pass meaningless test data through a 15-foot gray cable. It was the first test of Arpanet, which is an experiment - which was an experimental military network, and it was the start of the Internet.

Today the Internet has changed the way we communicate and do business. From banking to games, entertainment, shopping - the Internet has become part of daily life.

We decided to talk to two experts about the 40th anniversary of the Internet, what this means and what's coming next, and I'd like to welcome them. Mario Armstrong, host of "The Digital Spin" and a regular technical contributor at NPR - he's in the studio with me. And then Xeni Jardin, she's a blogger and technology pop culture journalist.

Welcome to both of you.

Ms. XENI JARDIN (Blogger): Pleasure to be here.

Mr. MARIO ARMSTRONG (Host, "The Digital Spin"): Thanks so much for having me in, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Mario Armstrong, as we get at a distance now from the start of the Internet, it becomes easier to forget that it started out as a military deal.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: That's right.

WERTHEIMER: What was Arpanet and why did the military want it? What did they think of using it for?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Well, you know, it was all about trying to communicate and trying to look at new ways of being able to communicate across varying networks. So the idea of being able to use these massive computers - you have to remember, there weren't these little netbooks or...

WERTHEIMER: Yeah. Right.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: ...mobile phones that we see nowadays, that where - you know, you could stuff in your pocket. So it was very monumental for them to be able to figure out ways that they could communicate to each other over long distances.

WERTHEIMER: And who were they trying to communicate with? I mean, with themselves or with - well, sort of like NATO or…

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Well, you know, I think themselves, other researchers, other scientists, and people in the military that were looking for ways that maybe this could help enable intelligence and communication gathering. So I think there were a variety of different uses and application, but still no one really had an idea of where this would go.


Mr. ARMSTRONG: If you do any of the research and talk to any of the folks from that time, they really didn't say, you know, this is what we envisioned it would turn out to be.

WERTHEIMER: Xeni Jardin, the Internet got its start 40 years ago, but it was a long time, as Mario just said, before it became what it is. What do you think was the moment when the Internet started in the direction that - where we now see it? What made us all start to use it, do you think?

Ms. JARDIN: Well, I mean - Leonard Kleinrock, the UCLA professor in whose lab that historic test happened 40 years ago today, when you hear these guys talk about what drove them in those early days, Kleinrock talks about like letting a thousand flowers bloom, the flowers being Web servers or nodes on the Internet, and that kind of idealism really I think is what fueled this sort of open growth that made all of this innovation, all this experimentation, all of the commerce, all of the communication possible.

These guys now also talk about, though, the notion that censorship and you know, networks being limited, how different limiting effects could change where the Internet goes from here.

WERTHEIMER: Mm-hmm. Mario, in the '90s there was an awful lot of talk about the digital divide.


WERTHEIMER: And it was just a fact of life that you had to have a certain level of income, very likely, to have access to computers...

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Correct.

WERTHEIMER: ...let alone to own a computer. It's all very different now.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: It's all very different. But you know what's funny? It still remains to be the same. It's just not the buzz word that's of coolness to actually say nowadays. But be rest assured, there are people that are still disconnected from the Internet and they're missing out. They're missing out on the access to information that could change their life. They're missing out on business opportunities. They're missing out on educational opportunities.

We are seeing - you know, a recent study was done by the Pew Internet in American Life Project. And it's called the Home Broadband Adoption 2009 study. And what...

WERTHEIMER: I'd expect you could probably read it if you went to the Pew site, right?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: That's right.


Mr. ARMSTRONG: P-E-W, Pew. That's right. And what they found was that this was the second consecutive year of broadband adoption growth for African-Americans and Hispanics that were below the national average. So there's still a lot of catch-up to do, and some people could say, well, it's relevant, whether it's relevant to one's life - it certainly has some economic issues in terms of getting people the finances to afford broadband connectivity.

But we are seeing some hope in the mobile sector. It looks as if in a separate study done by Pew we're seeing that African-Americans and Hispanics are twice as likely to use mobile phones to access the Internet than a PC.

WERTHEIMER: And those, of course, are much, much less expensive.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: That's correct. And can be used for other things.

WERTHEIMER: And can be used for many things.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Absolutely right.

WERTHEIMER: Now, both of you, I want you to gaze into the future...

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: ...and tell me where the Internet is going...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Okay. A crystal ball.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Is it - and I'm also interested if you think that there's any possibility that the Internet could ever go the way of snail mail and just be over? Let's start with you, Xeni Jardin?

Ms. JARDIN: It's hard for me to imagine a world in which this communications network doesn't exist. But it's not hard for me to imagine a world in which the nature of that traffic is so blocked that we don't have the same freedoms we enjoy today. I mean...

WERTHEIMER: So you're very concerned about censorship in the future.

Ms. JARDIN: You know, it's not just censorship. I mean we're also talking about providers like, you know, Comcast, who got a big slap on the wrist last year for blocking and delaying certain kinds of file sharing, people using BitTorrent. They were ultimately sort of forced to stop from public opinion, and we at Boing Boing have also experienced the direct effects of a kind of kinder, gentler censorship, where companies will hire Internet filtering systems to, say, block the use, the access of pornographic Web sites or offensive Web sites from airports or libraries or places of business.


Ms. JARDIN: But you also block out some of the good stuff too, because those are blunt tools.


Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. I would say that, you know, this is a challenging time. I would never - I can't understand life without the Internet. I think the magic moment for many Americans or people that use the Internet was email. When email first hit I think that really changed a lot of people's lives. The ability to communicate, send photos of family and loved ones and...

WERTHEIMER: But young folks tell me email is so over.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Well, email is past, you know, that's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: They're over email. They're on to things like Facebook and Twitter and instant messaging. But my point is that, you know, we're looking at a time now where, for example, the Seattle Post Intelligencer became the first major daily newspaper to move entirely online. So what would the Internet be without, you know, opportunities like this? So I am worried, just like Xeni is, about content and control. I am worried about the Net neutrality issues. But I also believe that down the road we're going to start seeing 4G and wireless technologies and impacts to health care like we've never seen before.

Ms. JARDIN: You know, and I would...

WERTHEIMER: I'm sorry - we're out of time here.

Ms. JARDIN: Oh, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: But I want to thank you both very, very much for joining us.

Mario Armstrong is host of "The Digital Spin" and he's a regular contributor at NPR. He joined me here at our studio in Washington. Xeni Jardin is a blogger and a technology pop culture journalist. She joined us on the telephone from California.

Thanks very much to both of you.

Ms. JARDIN: Okay.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Thanks for having me.

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