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John Solit

@johnsolit

March 12, 2014


Broadband & Internet

After 25 Years, We're Still Confusing Innovation With Magic

@johnsolit

March 12, 2014

On this day in 1989, the Internet was born.

Of course, the Internet’s existed for longer than 25 years, so what this anniversary really commemorates is the birth of the World Wide Web, the very first day of the dot-com.

Back before Tim Berners-Lee gave us the greatest information management system ever conceived, we used to connect via CompuServe forums and arcane bulletin board systems. Even at the time they felt clunky. I was a first-grader at the time and technically I don’t remember any of this messiness, but good UI is good UI. HTML was a game changer and Mosaic, one of the world’s first web browsers, put all of that non-hypertext nonsense behind us.

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But even with a slick, user-friendly interface, after six years, in 1995, 42 percent of Americans still hadn’t even heard of the Internet. It wasn’t until the early 2000s when 50 percent of Americans claimed to access the Web. So for me, this anniversary isn’t a pat on the back about how fast and how far technology has come in 25 years, but a reminder that sometimes the most important world-altering innovations actually happen quietly, slowly, and without a press event or a billboard or celebrity endorsement. And that the true digital age innovators are the engineers and scientists who, for the last quarter-century, have pushed inch by inch the limits of what’s possible over networked computers.

It’s easy to buy into the idea that innovation is something you can purchase on contract and fit into your pocket. As a lover of consumable tech, I fall prey to this misconception every day. But Silicon Valley boomed, busted, and boomed again on the idea that technology is built by emotion and that innovation is akin to magic. It’s not. It’s the payoff of decades of hard work, personal investment, failure, and success. It’s what built the Internet, fiber networks, Wi-Fi, and cloud computing. And it’ll build and sustain whatever comes next.

So I’ll use this anniversary to remind myself that no matter how badly I might want to sound bite the role of technology and the importance of innovation, that these things are far from simple. They take time and investment to grow to their full potential. When we understand where our technology comes from and what the real cost of innovation is, it becomes possible to foster a more sustainable digital revolution today, tomorrow and far beyond.