The Internet

Enough has been written about the Internet in the past couple of years to fill a library. While many comprehensive guides and analyses are available, both in the bookshops and electronically; for the purposes of this paper I am primarily concerned with how the Internet acts as a vast platform on which all manner of information services may be based. The size of the Internet is significant: users counted in tens of millions10 and connected computers counted in millions—each measure having a doubling period of something less than a year. But equally significant is the central communications protocol which holds the Internet together—TCP/IP, where ‘TCP’ stands for ‘Transmission Connect Protocol’ and the ‘IP’ stands for ‘Internet Protocol’. As its name implies, the Internet is first and foremost a network of networks.

TCP/IP provides for the transmission of electronic mail messages and the establishment of communication sessions between computers, by routing messages through whatever number of intermediate computers are needed to complete the connection. The many long links along which messages travel are largely provided by telecommunications carriers, while the computers and some local links are provided by members of the Internet community, or, in a small but important number of cases, by dedicated ‘backbone’ service providers. While there are various associations of members of specific parts of the Internet community,11 including a few peak bodies which take responsibility for technical coordination, there is no all-embracing organisation to which all Internet members belong. As a consequence the Internet appears to be both anarchic and democratic, and is certainly not without its politics. I will stress in later parts of this story the importance of the Internet’s capacity to support collaboration on many scales, and I contend here that is that capacity which underpins its anarchic success.

A couple of other services fitted comfortably onto TCP/IP and added much to the early character of the Internet, although they were not necessarily co-extensive with it. ‘Usenet News’ has become a system of thousands of globe-spanning bulletin boards where questions are answered, kites flown and arguments rage, running happily at the lowest level of priority to use up the ample surplus capacity of the networks that is available between bursts of peak demand. From the news groups and the, in many ways similar, mailing lists have emerged phenomena such as ‘threads’ and ‘flames’ which have greatly influenced the developing culture of the Internet. The other key early development was File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and, importantly, ‘anonymous FTP’ through which anybody could connect to an advertised FTP server and ‘download’ files of their choice, including public domain software. The much more recent Gopher and World Wide Web services are largely concerned with providing ‘user-friendly’ access to FTP-able information all over the Internet.

Information services based on the Internet are able to be distributed over any number of host computers because a supporting infrastructure is already in place. While Xanadu includes its own unimplemented specification for distribution across many hosts, for other information services that question has largely been ignored.

Many in the academic community see themselves as authors or even publishers, so it is not surprising that quite a number quickly saw the Internet as a way of distributing their works to an audience without the barriers of cost and editorial review that they see constraining their access to conventional academic publishing channels.