Two years ago, when I was working on my book about understanding the Net, I was astonished to discover that many of the people to whom I talked thought that the Web was the Internet.
During a coffee break at a Royal Society conference, I mentioned this to Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web.
“That’s nothing,” he said. “There are probably 200 million people now who think that Facebook is the Internet.”
Multiply that number by four or five and you have the current position.
In the early, heady days of the Net — that is to say between 1983 and 1993 — we “netizens” believed that the network really was something unprecedented: A communications system that lay beyond the reach of the established power structures of our societies.
We nodded approvingly when John Perry Barlow, the lyricist of the Grateful Dead, launched his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace with its stinging contempt for the established order.
“Governments of the Industrial World,” it opened, loftily. “You weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
Predictably, it turned out that the aforementioned governments did not see it that way. As WCIT-12 showed, they may be having trouble getting a grip on the Net, but they will not give up on the project.
However, what Barlow did not reckon with was that another gang of control freaks would also get in on the act — the Facebooks, Googles, Amazons and Apples of this world. And, in a way, they are making more progress than governments at the moment.
The writer who has most vividly sketched the corporate threat to the Internet is the US legal scholar Timothy Wu. In his magnificent book, The Master Switch, he relates the history of the great communications industries of the 20th century — the telephone, radio, movies and TV.
Each of these started out as gloriously anarchic, creative, open and vibrant technologies. Their early days were ferments of anarchic creativity, but eventually each industry was “captured” by a charismatic entrepreneur who offered consumers a more dependable, consistent proposition.
In the 20th century, those entrepreneurs were men such as Theodore Vail, Adolph Zukor and David Sarnoff. In our day they are people like Steve Jobs, the Google boys, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. Will they enjoy the same success as their earlier counterparts and wind up controlling the Net?
That is the US$64 trillion question for us all.