The original Internet was invented in the 1970s by the US government to protect its nuclear weapons from hacking.
They realised a single computer controlling all the rockets in peak Cold War was a recipe for disaster. So they built a decentralised network of multiple computers instead.
This meant the US could keep its part of the "mutually assured destruction" bargain even in case of a Soviet cyberattack.
In 1990, the Internet was a bunch of connected computers. The web was its first application, created by Tim Berners-Lee.
Web1 was designed as a "hyperlinked information system." A giant library of data sourced together on a screen from computers all across the network for users to browse by clicking around linked text and images.
30 years later, three billion users are connected to a much bigger, faster and more ubiquitous web, powered by monstrous data centres. The clicking around has remained largely the same.
In its early days, the web was a niche tool, used almost exclusively by academics. Mass adoption came five years later with the introduction of browsers like Mosaic and Microsoft Internet Explorer.
These were the good old surfing days. You'd dial in. Downloading a picture took years. Altavista was the default search engine. Nobody had thought of web design yet.
- Decentralised — Powered by regular computers from regular users.
- Open-source — Anyone could build on the web.
- Read-only — Publishing content required some technical skills, so most users were readers.
Web1's decentralised infrastructure symbolised its original ethos. Anyone could publish information of any kind, to anyone in the world, without the permission of central gatekeepers.
Fast-forward 10 years, the Wild West had grouped around winners like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, pulling in huge numbers of users and talent black-hole style.
For the first time, anyone could publish online. As barriers faded, users and usage surged. The Internet had something for everyone.
In the backend, three big shifts shaped web2 as we know it today:
- Mobile — Smartphones move us from a few hours per day at our desktops to "always connected". Apps and notifications rule our lives.
- Social — Friendster, MySpace and Facebook get us to show our faces and emerge from anonymity. They make it easy to create, share, interact and recommend. We go from sharing photos with friends to getting into strangers' cars.
- Cloud — Amazon, Google and Microsoft make it cheap to build on the web. Instead of having to buy and maintain expensive hardware infrastructure, you can now rent it low-cost from vast data centres around the world.
The Internet has become centralised. It's essentially a bunch of closed systems interacting with each other.
Big Tech is extracting you
As we suddenly gained access to more people, ideas and technologies than our brains knew what to do with, the central platforms blew up like mushroom clouds, consolidating network effects into monopoly power.
Networks become exponentially more valuable as they gain more users. You join WhatsApp to talk to your friends. Mom joins WhatsApp to talk to you. Dad joins WhatsApp to talk to mom. Before you know it, the whole world uses WhatsApp. You can't leave.
In February 2021, WhatsApp changed its privacy rules in a take-it-or-leave-it announcement: it would harvest more user data for profit. Millions swore they would ditch the app for more private alternatives — including yours truly. Not enough to escape the network's gravitational pull, it turns out. While many chat on Signal and Telegram these days, few managed to get off WhatsApp completely. You still want to talk to Mom and Mom still wants to talk to Dad.
In this digital era, customer value is a direct function of network size. Users can't leave. Startups can't compete. Media, developers and creators have no choice but to play ball. The network's pull is too strong.
Locked in, we pay the price not in dollars but in personal data and content. To be mined, sold and fed back into secret algorithms that hijack our attention so we'd give more. All under the veil of "free" and "improving user experience."
Your self-expression = their market cap.
Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon (GAFA) control our conversations, searches, content, media and data. The open forum has become a walled garden. Today's Internet is an oligarchy.