How the Internet Happened, Brian McCullough (10/10)

The trials and tribulations and the tech companies, personalities, and rivalries that formed the Web 2.0 internet as we know it today

How the Internet Happened, Brian McCullough (10/10)

Rating: 10/10

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🤔 Pre Read Exercise: What Do I Know About This Topic/Book?

Topic – very little other than experiencing it from a user’s perspective growing up. Born in 1995, I grew up with a Gameboy and enjoyed consoles like the PS1, PS2, PS3, PSP, Gamecube, and Wii, got my first computer at the age of 8, and enjoyed Age of Empires. I got a new computer at the age of 10 and became addicted to Miniclip and Runescape. I also got my first cell phone around the age of 10 or 11 and joined Facebook when I was 12. Beyond this, I understand the dynamics of a start-up, venture capital industry, and some Silicon Valley lore – but not too much else!

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. The trials and tribulations and the tech companies, personalities, and rivalries that formed the Web 2.0 internet as we know it today
  2. An animated, engaging, and comprehensive chronological history of the most impactful companies of the commercial internet and silicon valley
  3. Non-technical, qualitative, non-analytical/subjective

🎨 Impressions

I really loved this book a lot. It was very nostalgic, and it’s the perfect history book for anyone working in or thinking about technology.

It begins with the history of Mosaic and Netscape, founded by Marc Andreessen and James Clark, and other early web browsers.

Then, Bill Gates’ realization of the importance of the internet and, with that, Microsoft’s dominance of the browser experience with its Internet Explorer and cornering of its competitors.

The birth, growth, and eventual ubiquity reached by early online services, search engines, e-commerce, and community sites and portals are then described in detail. This is focused on AOL, Yahoo, Amazon, and eBay.

IPOs, funding dynamics, business models, and ad monetization are described and discussed throughout the book but take primary focus around halfway in, which coincides with the Dot-com bubble and an era of irrational exuberance.

The bubble bursting is well portrayed by the Time Warner and AOL merger and coincides with Google’s founding story and how Sergey and Larry monetised internet advertising.

After the Nuclear Winter, the book discusses the internet’s rebirth, led by Google and Napster, as well as technologies run-ins with legacy industries, á la Apple, Steve Jobs, the iPod, iTunes vs. Music, and Netflix vs. Blockbuster.

With that, the book covers the rise broader rise of Web 2.0 in the form of Wikipedia, YouTube, and Wisdom of Crowds, as well as social media, with a particular focus on Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg.

Finally, the rise of mobile, in the form of Palm, BlackBerry, and Smartphones, and the rise of the mobile internet with the launch of the iPhone and the App Store, which is where the book ends.

I learned a lot from reading this book. It is carefully researched, accurate, and detailed and manages to capture the defining mood and spirit of all the times.

It helped me think through and learn about things including business models, competitive dynamics, regulation, entrepreneurship and leadership, funding, irrational thought and exuberance, human nature, and more. The book is written in a way that makes it easy for the reader to draw their own conclusions from the key trends and stories highlighted.

I would note: this book is less about “how” the internet happened and more an intermingled history of several internet startups and the underlying funding cycles and trends of the ’90s and ’00s.

🔍 How I Discovered It

  • Chris Dixon had previously recommended it, and I recently heard Santi talk about it on the Empire/Blockwords podcast

🥰 Who Would Like It?

  • Pretty much anyone IMO, esp tech peeps

☘️ How the Book Changed Me

  • Greater awareness of timing with respect to tech

💬 My Top Quotes

The entire outro 👇

One of the true godfathers of the Internet was a man by the name of J. C. R. Licklider. In the 1950s, he worked at Bolt, Beranek & Newman, which would go on to build the computers that were connected to the first four nodes of the ARPANET. In the early 1960s, Licklider was the head of the Information Processing Techniques Office at ARPA, which would go on to fund the ARPANET. In 1963, he wrote the key internal paper that would plan for, and ultimately make the case for, the development of the ARPANET, the key precursor to today’s Internet. But like most computer scientists of his era, Licklider was also a theoretical visionary. In 1960, he wrote a paper called “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” which is considered a fundamental text of modern computer science. In 1960, as today, there were many who believed that true artificial intelligence was just around the corner. Licklider, however, put his money on cybernetics, the idea that man would meld with machine. In “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” Licklider argued that thinking machines many orders of magnitude smarter than humans might arrive someday. They might even be inevitable. But in the meantime:

"There will nevertheless be a fairly long interim during which the main intellectual advances will be made by men and computers working together in intimate association.
The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.
. . . Men will set the goals, formulate the hypotheses, determine the criteria, and perform the evaluations. Computing machines will do the routinizable work that must be done to prepare the way for insights and decisions in technical and scientific thinking. Preliminary analyses indicate that the symbiotic partnership will perform intellectual operations much more effectively than man alone can perform them.”

At its core, the Internet Era represents that “fairly long interim” that Licklider envisioned, where humanity and computers came together in profound ways. First, we connected all the world’s computers together. Then, we uploaded all of humanity’s collected knowledge into the virtual space that networks created. Then, we made all of that knowledge searchable. We tied our commerce systems, our financial systems, even our media and information systems, to the network. We created a world where any good, any piece of media, any piece of art, any fact or thought, any idea or meme, is available, on call, for the instant gratification of any curiosity or desire. Over the course of a decade, we learned how to behave, and then to actually live with this new networked paradigm—to actually exist in this virtual environment. With social media, we connected ourselves together just as comprehensively as we had connected all the computers. And then, we started wearing actual supercomputers on our bodies, taking them with us at every waking moment of our days, to navigate, not only the intellectual, the social, but even the physical space of modern life. And we did all this unbidden, undirected, unplanned—almost as if we were following a biological impulse, guided by some unconscious evolutionary imperative.

When you see everyone around you hunched over the glowing screens of their smartphones, you’re seeing the fulfillment of the intimate association of man and machine that Licklider envisioned. But are we better off? Are we truly thinking as no human brain has ever thought, just as Licklider supposed? That’s the open-ended question as the Internet Era continues.