How 40 years of the Internet changed the world

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The Internet's 40th anniversary conference had something the 30th lacked: a pop-culture panel.

At a campus conference on the invention of the Internet, some of today's top thinkers about the Internet veered from the obligatory Al Gore joke to a mock concern that settling arguments with an iPhone Google search would end bar fights everywhere. But when you get down to basics, they agreed, the Net is actually about building communities

The conference marked the 40th birthday of the Internet, which was created on Oct. 29, 1969, at UCLA when a team led by Engineering Professor Leonard Kleinrock successfully linked a campus computer at Boelter Hall with a machine at Stanford. Kleinrock predicted decades ago that the resulting connectivity would one day be a household product, like electricity, but said he never guessed that the Internet would be used to connect people to people, instead of people to machines.

"The infrastructure is easy to predict," he said at Thursday's conference. "The applications – that's hard. … The applications and services have constantly surprised us." E-mail, blogs, Google, social networking, video/music/photo-sharing and even the World Wide Web itself were all a surprise, Kleinrock admitted. Things have come a long way since the days when he literally knew everyone on the Internet.

The logistics of the conference itself revealed how far the Internet has come: Although 200 people attended in "real life," as speaker John Taylor from the band Duran Duran put it, the live webcast attracted more than 51,000 viewers, an uncounted number of whom submitted questions to the speakers via Twitter. Many more watched the conference via the online video posted after the event.

The speakers revealed how their early forays into web technology resulted in creating new communities. Taylor now blogs on Duran Duran's fan site. Blizzard Entertainment CEO Mike Morhaine and Frank Pearce, Blizzard's senior vice president of product development, talked about how the first of Blizzard's popular World of Warcraft series of online games immediately resulted in fan sites where gamers connected and shared info, creating the Internet-enabled universe the game has now become.

Though the Internet seems almost omnipresent, it's not fully grown yet, the speakers agreed. It's more of a teenager, they suggested, and will become not only more prevalent — embedded in clothes, walls, maybe even our fingernails, Kleinrock said — but also more sophisticated.

"The Internet has not yet come of age in terms of governing," said Arianna Huffington, editor of the Huffington Post. U.S. President Barack Obama would not have won without the Internet, she said, but politicians have yet to figure out how to engage voters after an election.

Likewise, the intersection of online games like World of Warcraft with social media is only beginning to take shape, Pearce and Morhaine said. "The future of online gaming is more connectedness," Morhaine said. "Twitter and Facebook are just a glimpse into the future."

The Internet has changed the hierarchy and authority of pop culture, observed John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the speaker who earlier lamented that Google was killing bar fights. "Five years ago there were people who still thought that 'pop culture' was something they manufactured, for the 'pop,' the unwashed populace," Barlow said. "The Internet is pop culture. The Internet is where it's made. … It's not about dropping a product on the consuming populace. It's about a conversation between everybody."

To illustrate how much the Internet has changed the world, the federal agency that funded the research that developed the Net used the UCLA conference to announce a $40,000 challenge this December. Regina Dugan, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), announced that DARPA will station 10 large balloons around the country for two days starting Dec. 5. The first person, team or company to submit the latitude and longitude for all 10 wins, she said. Imagine completing the task 40 years ago, unsupported by readily available GPS coordinates and free cross-country communication, she said.

UCLA's Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science also shared an announcement: Several of Kleinrock's former graduate students have teamed up to raise $500,000 to award him an endowed chair, pending approval by UC governing bodies. Dean Vijay Dhir announced that Kleinrock's equipment, used to send the first Internet message, would be housed in a laboratory-turned-museum at UCLA Engineering, and toasted "the innovation that changed all our lives 40 years ago."

"How important is it?" he asked the audience, both those at UCLA and those watching online. "You need only think of the panic that sets in when you want to connect — and cannot."

Courtesy UCLA

The Internet's 40th anniversary conference had something the 30th lacked: a pop-culture panel. Panelists, from left: John Taylor, bassist in the band Duran Duran; John Perry Barlow, Electronic Frontier Foundation; and from World-of-Warcraft producer Blizzard Entertainment, Blizzard officials Frank Pearce and Mike Morhaime. Photos by Todd Cheney/UCLA Photo.