Happy 50th birthday, Internet – What’s Next?

50 years ago, on October 29, 1969, Dr. Leonard Kleinrock and his grad student Charley Kline sent a message from UCLA’s room-sized computer to another computer at Stanford Research Institute (“SRI”). They used the ARPANET, which was a packet-switched network that connected universities working for the Department of Defense. In 1969, there were only 4 computers connected to the network, three in California and one at the University of Utah.

In true tech fashion, the first transmission was only a partial success, but was celebrated anyway. Kleinrock intended to send the word “Login,” but the system crashed after sending the letters “LO.” An hour later, those two letters were received at SRI, and a new era was born, although it would be 20 years before the internet’s impact would be generally known in the workplace and home. I remember in the early 90s when Michael Dell’s assistant, Scott Eckert, was bugging me to get the product information for desktop computers up on Dell’s new webpage. I didn’t make it a priority because I didn’t think this whole internet thing would ever take off.  Who would ever buy a $2,500 computer over the phone?

Not the first time I was really wrong about a massive new tech direction, and it won’t be the last. in any event, it’s a momentous week, for tech and for humanity. Who can imagine a world without the internet, ecommerce, email, or social media?

As we launch into the next 50 years of the internet, people are no longer questioning what the technology can do. The crucial questions are now policy-related, particularly in the area of privacy. The policy is behind the tech in this regard.

Computing is now everywhere, not just on the desktop. It’s on our wrists, in our refrigerators, and in our cities. It is ubiquitous. And as we know, internet and social media giants like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft make billions from the data emanating from those tiny computing devices that are in everything. With the recent announcement that Waterfront Toronto is moving forward with plans for Google’s Sidewalk Labs to build a 12-acre digital city at the waterfront, to the news that Google is buying Fitbit, questions of who owns the data, who decides what to do with it, and who can share it are paramount.

The trouble is we legislate in analog, and we innovate in digital, and digital innovation is outstripping our capacity to legislate.

                                                                                                                                     – Toronto MP Adam Vaughan

Thankfully, the revised Sidewalk Labs agreement includes a requirement to de-identify data at the source. This means that data such as where you shop, how you move around, and what you eat, are disconnected from your personal identity. It is these kinds of policy decisions that need to dominate the next 5-7 years of the internet’s development, before artificial intelligence becomes ubiquitous and machines start learning from our data at a far faster pace than we can now imagine – much as we could not possibly imagine the impact of the internet in the early 90s.

Ubiquitous computing and social media create a permanent digital footprint of our intellectual, social, and emotional development, particularly for our children. Now is the time to take privacy seriously and preserve their right to a future in which individual privacy and humanity are not lost to pervasive, always-on technology. 50 years from now, the world will thank us.

Comment (1)

The internet has been an incredible solution to many problems. The crazy amount of information that you can have at your disposal is staggering. I hope that we can clean up some of the negative elements and protect people from dangerous elements that can hurt vulnerable people.

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