First published August 4, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
This past weekend, I turned 50. In the deluge of smart-ass cards I received, there was one that was at least noteworthy for the twist it took in insulting me. It reminded me that when I was born, “cable” referred to something that held up bridges, a “cell” was something that contained criminals and the “net” was used to capture a fish.
As I paused to reflect (something you’re allowed to do more often when you cross the half century mark) I thought it would be interesting, given the ever-accelerating pace of technology, to look back and see just how far we’ve come in the past 50 years.
Perhaps it was coincidence, but the year I was born was one when America’s eyes were firmly focused on the future. Kennedy was in the White House and just that year had promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. As the decade dawned, futurists were working overtime imagining a glossy, if somewhat sterile future that involved flying cars, moon colonies, videophones and robot servants.
Imagine my surprise when, after a little research, I found that the seeds of what would eventually become my career were being sown before I ever emerged on the scene.
The year before I was born, in 1960, AT&T introduced the dataphone and the first known modem, Digital unveiled the PDP-1, the first minicomputer, and a gentleman by the name of Bob Bemer introduced the now ubiquitous backslash.
In 1961, Leonard Kleinrock started laying the groundwork for the Net in a paper entitled “Information Flow in Large Communication Nets,” published just 60 days before my birthday.
Eight years later, on Oct. 29, 1969 (just 96 days after the first moon landing), the Internet would be born in Kleinrock’s UCLA lab when his server became “Node 1” of the Internet and he sent the first online message.
I would be willing to bet you’ve heard of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin but until now had never heard the name Leonard Kleinrock.
The next year, Steve Russell created “SpaceWar!” — the world’s first computer game.
In 1961, Steve Jobs was in the first grade in Cupertino, Calif. and would soon start hanging around the after-school lectures at HP in Palo Alto. Seven hundred miles to the north, in the Haller Lake section of Seattle, little Billy Gates was also starting grade one and was just six years away from skipping math class at Lakeside School to write programs for the school’s new GE computer. Neither of these activities made them any more popular at school dances, but who’s laughing now?
This little trip down memory lane reminded me of a fabulous book by Kevin Kelly, “What Technology Wants.” In it, the Wired magazine co-founder posits that technology is a living, evolving force unto itself — one that relentlessly pushes forward, carried by the critical mass of cumulative discovery.
Technology wanted the double helix structure of DNA to be discovered, and if it weren’t Watson and Crick, it would have been someone else a few months or, at the most, a year or two later. The same is true for radios, electricity, the telegraph and the Internet. Although there are famous names associated with these discoveries, this isn’t a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” If Edison, Marconi, Morse and Berners-Lee had never been born, we’d still have lightbulbs, radios, the telegraph and the Internet. The form and the timing might be a little different, but the discoveries themselves were inevitable. It was what technology wanted to happen.
And so, somehow, I feel a little better about the fact that even when a very, very young Gordie Hotchkiss entered the world on the evening of July 30, 1961 at Holy Cross Hospital in Calgary, technology was already making plans for me. It was making sure there would be an Internet so that someday, such a thing as Internet marketers could exist.
On second thought, maybe it really is a Wonderful Life!