Internet: the Long View

The author

Steven Pemberton, CWI, Amsterdam


About me

Tutee of the man who built the first transistor computer.

Now a researcher at CWI, Amsterdam

Co-designed programming language that Python is based on.

1st user of European Open Internet (1988)

Built a 'browser' in the late 80's

Organised workshops at first web conference in 1994

Co-designed CSS, HTML, ODF and more

A Print, 1790

St. Albans, by Lievens

Same view now

The same view now

Jan Lievens (1607-74)

St. Albans, by Lievens

"Copied by E. Grosser, Esqr, from an Ancient Drawing said to have been made by LIVENS, a Disciple of Rembrant. London Pub May 1790, by E. Harding, No 132 Fleet Street".

Might this be true? Lievens was in England in the 1630's.
Thanks to the Semantic Web and I could answer that question:


St. Albans, by Lievens


St. Albans, by Lievens

Fourth reason

St. Albans, by Lievens

Abbey Gateway, St. Albans

St. Albans Abbey Gateway

The third printing press in England was set up here in 1479

Abbey Gateway, St. Albans

Abbey gateway today

The third printing press in England was set up here in 1479

1485 Chronicles of England

Chronicles of England 1485

Printed on that press. Note how it imitates a manuscript.

The Book

Before printing, books were rare, and very, very expensive, maybe something like the same price as a small farm.

Only very rich people, and rich institutions, owned books.

The first Universities were set up before printing; to borrow a book, a student had to copy it as payment. Usually book lenders only lent you part of the book at a time, to speed up the copying.

In 1424 The University of Cambridge had one of the largest libraries in Europe: 122 books.


Scriptorum The other producers of books were the monasteries.

"When the Anglo-Saxon Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey planned to create three copies of the bible in 692—of which one survives—the first step necessary was to plan to breed the cattle to supply the 1,600 calves to give the skin for the vellum required."

Book 1450

Printing in 1568

Gutenberg combined known technologies: ink, paper, wine presses, movable type.













Image source. Data source.


By 1500: 1000 printing shops, had produced 35,000 titles in 20 million copies.

Price of books tumbled (First bible 300 florins, about 3 years wages for a clerk).

Books became a new means of distribution of information.

It was a paradigm shift - new industries, paper production, binders, publishers, bookshops, newspapers.

People had a reason to learn to read.

Printing enabled the rise of Protestantism, and the Enlightenment is ascribed to the availability of books.

Information control

Previously, all information had been in the hands of the church (even universities were primarily religious institutions run by the church).

The church and state instituted censorship, to try and control information. Writers were killed or emprisoned for saying things that the church didn't like. (Such as Galileo for saying that the Earth moved)

Consequently many thinkers relocated to get out of the reach of the church.

"The twin occurrences -- that [Amsterdam] became a hub for scientists, and that it became the centre of publishing -- fed one another, resulting in the astounding fact that, over the course of the 17th century, approximately one-third of all books published in the entire world were produced in Amsterdam" - Russell Shorto

Information increase

Scientific journals1665: first scientific journals French Journal des Sçavans and the British Philosophical Transactions

From then on the number of scientific journals doubled every 15 years, right into the 20th century.

Even as late as the 1970's if you had said "there has to come a new way of distributing information to support this growth", they would have thought you crazy, more likely expecting the growth to end.

(Source: Little Science, Big Science, Derek J. De Solla Price)

The Internet

We knew it was planned.

And 17 November 1988 it arrived.

(At a speed of 64kb/s...)

The "first email" about the starting of the open internet

The first internet computer in NL

"Boring" The mighty VAX 780.

My current mobile phone is 70,000 times faster...

Exponential growth

Initially 64kb/s: a year later 128kb/s.

And yet since then speeds have effectively doubled per year.

By 1997, when AMSIX was created, it was running at 2Mb/s.

(This is of course less than you have at home now.)

Speeds at AMSIX

These are values I could track down (usage, not capacity by the way, and only the measured usage at that)

Speeds at AMSIX


Currently peaking at 6Tb/s (Tera is a million million)

Amsix building

At Home Too

My home bandwidth has similarly been doubling over the years.

Bandwidth on a log scale

True cost of communication

Before 1988, phoning long-distance was expensive.

The further you phoned, the more expensive it was. This matched people's expectations, but didn't match reality.

In fact, the expensive part is the local loop: only one person (you) is using that. The long-distance part is amortised over 1000's of calls.

The internet made this clear: the first thing I did on that first day of internet was log in to a computer in New York. It cost no more than logging in to a computer in Amsterdam

Free at last!

Once the internet got fast enough, it started being possible to do voice calls and then video calls over the internet.

Essentially, phone calls have become better and free with the right infrastructure.

Luckily, the internet isn't owned by anyone, so the telephone companies have had to sit by and watch their golden goose be slaughtered, and have been unable to do anything about it... There's no one to sue!

(Mobile providers are still overcharging us for international calls though)

The Web

The coming of the internet enabled the Web.

Tim Berners-Lee (and Robert Caillau) created the Web at CERN. First server 1991.

They brought together existing technologies (Hypertext, the internet, MIME types) and created a cohesive whole.

The Web is now replacing books and many other things.

Telephone directories, encyclopaedias, train timetables, other reference works are already gone. Others will follow.

Books (as an artefact) will become a niche market. All information will be internet-based.

The true cost of content

Just as the internet showed us the true cost of communication, the web will show us the true cost of content.

To publish information in a book you need an expensive infrastructure: paper manufacture, printing presses, distribution channels, advertising, bookshops.

When you buy a book, the infrastructure consumes most of the price: typically the producer of the information (the author) gets 10%.

But with the internet, you no longer need that infrastructure; anyone can publish, even from home.

The book made everyone a reader.
The internet can make everyone a publisher.

Web 2.0

Unfortunately, the first successful web browser, Mosaic, left out the publishing part, and only allowed you to read web pages.

And so we got "Web 2.0".

The term Web 2.0 was invented by a book publisher (O'Reilly) to conceptualise the idea of Web sites that gain value by their users adding data to them, such as Wikipedia, Facebook, Flickr, ...

The dangers of Web 2.0

By putting a lot of work into a website, you commit yourself to it, and lock yourself in to their data formats too. Moving comes at great cost.

If the site closes, you lose all your work. (Plenty of examples)

If your account gets closed down, you lose access to the services. (Plenty of examples).

Why you should have a Web Site

Web 2.0 partitions the Web into a number of topical sub-Webs, and locks you in, thereby reducing the value of the network as a whole.

What should really happen is that you have a personal Website, with your photos, your family tree, your business details, and aggregators then turn this into added value by finding the links across the whole web.

All there needs is a way of identifying who is trying to look at your content, and we can replicate Facebook without anyone owning your data.


All those passwords!

Solution: Use public key cryptography at a low level to log you in.

You would still need to register with sites, but instead of picking a password, you exchange public keys (or rather your browser does).

When you log in, the site asks your browser to decrypt a random message. You know it's really them asking, and when your browser decrypts the message, they know it's really you.

And you're in, without typing in a password.

Something like this was in the original design of the internet, but was too expensive to implement then. We are paying the price now for them not leaving hooks for this to happen.

Will a decentralised web happen?


It is trivially easy to have a webserver at home: the connection speeds are now fast enough. Many home modems already support it.

There are already some examples, for instance Tim Berners-Lee's Solid, and decode.

The internet of things

Really: Things on the internet.

An IoT coffee mug


An IoT toothbrush


Not all IoT artefacts are stupid. These for instance allow you to control the temperature of rooms individually, and give each room its own schedule. It asks to turn off the heating when you leave.

An IoT radiator


A Pebble watchOne of the biggest dangers of IoT is exactly the same as with Web 2.0: they use their own servers.

If the company dies, your devices die with them. Example: the Pebble watch.

Or Lowes that shut down its whole home IoT platform.

The Future

The current internet is still very immature.

When books were first introduced by Gutenberg, It took 50 years before the idea caught hold that books didn't need to imitate manuscripts.

We are still feeling our way in society in how to use and deal with the internet.

The first books looked like manuscripts.

And the Web is (still) imitating old media.

What is to come

Interlinking of services.

All information freely available.

Internet everywhere, lights, oven, your alarm clock, everything connected.

All communication via internet.

Everyone a publisher.

Nothing unavailable, nothing ever going 'out of print'.

Paradigm shift

A lot of existing information is distributed by people who have concentrations of the means of distribution, and that is the reason they exist.

Music industry is healthy, record industry is not.

Old media is struggling to retain ownership.

Turning point

We are at a turning point in history.

The internet is going to have as great an effect on society as the book did, only much quicker.

We are in a turbulent period now because we are, historically seen, in the midst of a paradigm shift.

"We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run." Roy Amara, The Institute for the Future

In Conclusion

In the mid-80's, a famous Dutch computer scientist said "No one will need a connection faster than 9600 baud, because people can't read any faster than that."

Around the same time, I calculated how powerful my computer would be in the year 2000 if improvements continued at the same pace. I was shocked, and wondered what on earth I would do with so much RAM, disk space, and speed. My colleagues frankly didn't believe my prediction.

However, in the event I predicted correctly, and yet when 2000 arrived, of course my disk was full, and of course I needed more RAM, and of course I needed more speed.

If the current internet bandwidth growth continues, then in 25 years time, AMS-IX will be running at 30 Exabit, and I will have a 4 Terabit connection at home.

If anyone asks today "why would anyone want a connection that fast?" I will write it down on a piece of paper, get them to sign it, and come back in 25 years and display it on the screen so we can all have a good laugh...