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A History of the Internet and the Digital Future 1st Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-1861897770
ISBN-10: 1861897774
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Editorial Reviews


"This is the best Western history of the Internet offered to date, but it is up to readers to connect the dots of where things may be headed."
Library Journal

"Understanding the trends driving this revolution is pivotal to success. Consider this book your road map to getting there." --Marc Benioff, CEO of

"This is a must-read for both governments and companies who need to fully understand this shift in power." --Susanne Dirks, Leader, Global Center for Economic Development, IBM Institute for Business Value

"Johnny Ryan has admirably captured the sweep of the Internet's development from its earliest days." -- Professor Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

"Ryan dissects the play of actors, the essence of their technical ideas, and the details of their activities with documentation and diligence, and even uncovers some discrepancies. He develops a narrative that I found intriguing, enlightening, and credible."
-Dave Crocker, The Internet Protocol Journal (Cisco)

"Ryan understands the power shift that the Internet is. If you see the Internet as Ryan does, you will understand how Craigslist kills newspapers, how Facebook rises from nothing and why everything is being invented anew."

(Phil Madsen, online politics pioneer (campaign manager of Jesse Ventura, 1998))

"Ryan describes a fundamental shift and dispersion of power from traditional centres of power to the networked individual. This is a must-read for both governments and companies who need to fully understand this shift in power and the implications it has on how they interact with the networked individuals who represent their citizens, customers, suppliers."– Susanne Dirks, Leader, Global Centre for Economic Development(IBM Institute for Business Value)

(Susanne Dirks)

"Johnny Ryan has admirably captured the sweep of the Internet’s development from its earliest days, showing us how its profound impact is in part an accident of history, a phenomenon whose most interesting and liberating aspects could fade without reinforcement of its core values."– Jonathan Zittrain, author of The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It

(Jonathan Zittrain)

"Thanks to the proliferation of cloud services, ubiquitous, low-cost bandwidth, and new devices like smartphones and the iPad, there are fewer obstacles to innovation than ever before. In the next decade, the ‘office’ need not be much more than an Internet connection. Johnny Ryan takes us through the history of the Internet to demonstrate how it has changed everything. But that’s not all; he also identifies what’s to come in the future.We are in a new era of transformation that has been powered by the Internet. Understanding the trends driving this revolution is pivotal to success. Consider this book your road map to getting there."–Marc Benioff, Chairman and ceo of

(Marc Benioff)

"Both an enormously useful work and a great read. Read it and understand what has made the Internet different."–TimWu, Columbia Law School

(Tim Wu)

"Amidst the RANDs and ARPANETs, the dates and somewhat dry details, and the numerous footnotes (the book is about as well-researched as any I’ve read), Ryan weaves in stories. These stories are what make this such a wonderful read. . . . Ryan’s stories and analogies serve several functions—first they make the book interesting and accessible. Second, the historical references put the Internet and all its technology into perspective and suggest that while inventions/technologies may change, people and the way people react to these technologies pretty much stay the same. . . . A History of the Internet and the Digital Future is a thoughtful book that is well researched and well written. The stories and historical references add color and life to the text and help show important cultural connections between today’s digital age and earlier times." (

“The WikiLeaks saga may have drawn us into new, and scary, galaxies of cyberspace, but this survey of the online story so far offers a handy catch-up that will prove a boon to geeks and dabblers alike.”


“An engrossing, well-written account of the Internet’s founding and the backstory of the underlying protocols and plumbing, which draws on that rich history to make predictions about the net’s future.”

(Cory Doctorow Boing Boing)

From the Author

The Internet, like many readers of this book, is a child of the industrial age. Long before the arrival of digital communications, the steam engine, telegraph pole and coalmine quickened the pace of the world. Industrialized commerce, communications and war spun the globe ever faster and increasingly to a centripetal beat. Control in the industrial- ized world was put at the centre. The furthest reaches of the globe came under the sway of centres of power: massive urbanization and a flight from the land created monstrous cities in the great nations; maritime empires brought vast swathes of the globe under the sway of imperial capitals. The training of workmen, the precise measurement of a pistol barrel's calibre, the mass assembly of automobiles, all were regimented, standardized in conformity with the centripetal imperative. The industrial revolution created a world of centralization and organized hierarchy. Its defining pattern was a single, central dot to which all strands led. But the emerging digital age is different.

A great adjustment in human affairs is under way. The pattern of political, commercial and cultural life is changing. The defining pattern of the emerging digital age is the absence of the central dot. In its place a mesh of many points is evolving, each linked by webs and networks. This story is about the death of the centre and the development of com- mercial and political life in a networked system. It is also the story about the coming power of the networked individual as the new vital unit of effective participation and creativity.

At the centre of this change is the Internet, a technology so unusual and so profoundly unlikely to have been created that its existence would be a constant marvel were it not a fact of daily life. No treatise or arch plan steered its development from beginning to end. Nor did its success come from serendipity alone, but from the peculiar ethic thatemerged among engineers and early computer lovers in the 1960s and '70s, and through the initiative of empowered users and networked communities. The combination of these elements has put power in the hands of the individual, power to challenge even the state, to compete for markets across the globe, to demand and create new types of media, to subvert a society - or to elect a president.

We have arrived at the point when the Internet has existed for a suf- ficiently long time for a historical study to reveal key characteristics that will have an impact on business, politics and society in the coming decades. Like all good histories, this book offers insight into the future by understanding the past. The first section of this book (Chapters 1-4) examines the concepts and context from which the Internet emerged. The second section (Chapters 5-9) traces how the technology and cul- ture of networking matured, freeing communities for the first time in human history from the tyranny of geography in the process. This section also describes the emergence of the Web and the folly of the dot- com boom and bust. The final section (Chapters 10-13) shows how the defining characteristics of the Internet are now transforming culture, commerce and politics.

Three characteristics have asserted themselves throughout the Internet's history, and will define the digital age to which we must all adjust: the Internet is a centrifugal force, user-driven and open. Under- standing what these characteristics mean and how they emerged is the key to making the great adjustment to the new global commons, a political and media system in flux and the future of competitive creativity. 

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 246 pages
  • Publisher: Reaktion Books; 1 edition (September 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1861897774
  • ISBN-13: 978-1861897770
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #594,120 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Johnny Ryan (1980- ) grew up in Dublin, Ireland, and was educated at University College Dublin and at the University of Cambridge, where he was an O'Reilly foundation scholar at Magdalene College.

He is Executive Director of The Innovation Academy at UCD, and an associate on the emerging digital environment at the Judge Business School of the University of Cambridge. Previously he was Chief Innovation Officer of The Irish Times.

His second book "A History of the Internet and the Digital Future" is on the reading list at Harvard, Stanford, and other top tier institutions. His PhD at the University of Cambridge examined how terrorist memes proliferate online. His previous research was the most cited source in the European Commission's official impact assessment that decided against pursuing an EU-wide system of Internet censorship, and he has written has appeared in Fortune, Contagious, BusinessWeek, NATO Review, Ars Technica, and The Irish Times. In an earlier existence he planned to be a 3D animator and worked as a designer.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By richardpike on November 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is a really easy to read and excellent history book and like every good history book it shows how the past might shape the future. To like this book you dont have to be a techie just interested in how the internet came to be. I have tried to read a few books about the internet but found them either too technical or too up in the clouds, this has the right balance.
If you are in business and have to utilise the internet (dont we all) then this book is a great way to find out where it all came from and where it might be going.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Peter G. Markiewicz on June 12, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is good enough that I'm using it as the primary text for a 'cyber theory' class. While on one hand the book is a fairly complete history of the events leading to the modern Internet, it is also conceptual. The author considers the unique features of decentralized, lateral peer to peer communication of the modern Internet, and unifies the historical text by considering how these concepts could possibly emerge in the context of a military-government project. It's interesting to see how easily it might have gone another way. If we re-ran history, we'd be unlikely to get the same network - it probably would have been closer to cable television, or expanded phone service.

Though the text is extremely detailed, it is highly readable, due to Ryan's extensive cross-references, which help you remember where you are in the story. That is, when he describes a development in the telcos, he relates it back to what was going on at DARPA, as well as concepts advanced by various individuals. It makes Internet's origin and growth a coherent story instead of a mass of facts, or the popular "survive a nuclear war" fable.

The book concludes with a cautious, though conventional prediction of the Internet's long-term impact on society. Ryan again considers the effect of decentralized networks, and avoids the starry-eyed predictions of world peace common in many "Internet saves the world" texts. He doesn't consider the 'dark side' - whether the Internet might morph into something less friendly - but this is a minor issue in an otherwise great read.

In short, I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to move beyond the breathless myths propagated in hindsight, and really understand how this extraordinary technology came to be.
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Format: Hardcover
I read this book when it was first published in 2010 and then re-read Tim Berners-Lee's Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor (first published in 1999) and strongly recommend that both be read in combination. The three defining characteristics in the title of this review are what Johnny Ryan has in mind when noting that Berners-Lee "came to realize the potential of a system that would allow a loose arrangement of ideas and data unconstrained by hierarchies or categories."

Berners-Lee had developed a piece of software called "Enquire" in the 1980s to map relationships between and among the various people, programs, and systems he encountered at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland and the world's largest particle physics laboratory. "Enquire marked the first step in his invention of the World Wide Web."

Ryan explains that there were three phases of the development of the Internet: its emergence (discussed in Chapters 1-4); the maturing of its technologies and culture of networking between and among communities (Chapters 5-9); and finally, he examines "how the defining characteristics of the Internet are now transforming, culture, commerce and politics (Chapters 10-13). Ryan also explains the three characteristics "that have asserted themselves throughout the Internet's history, and will define the digital age in which we must all adjust: the Internet is a centrifugal force, user-driven, and open.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Mukund Rathi on May 26, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
The fundamental issue with Ryan's book is not that he gets facts wrong or lies - it is his ideological approach, which is sharply dedicated to American capitalism. I won't get into all the complicated ways in which ideological bias can influence historical discussions, but there tends to be a lot of leaving out of important facts or discussions, incorrect generalizations, and a little bit of lying and erroneous facts.

In the preface, Ryan lauds the "great adjustment in human affairs" (7) that the internet is bringing about in decentralizing the world. This is so at odds with so much of actual reality, but at the very least clearly contradicts NSA spying which requires "the central dot" of organized heirarchy in the internet, as constructed by giant telecoms like AT&T. He is incredibly utopian about the internet's effects on society, with the following conclusion on Obama's 2008 social media campaign: "dollar by dollar, electoral power is shifting from large donors to individual voters" (172). This collides with the Citizens United ruling and all the issues with campaign funding that have happened since and before that - while Ryan cannot predict the future, but he clearly misread political currents. The fever-pitch of his American utopianism comes at the end of the book, with this quote being particularly instructive: "the free Google of the rest of the world may become what American blue jeans and rock and roll were to generations of Communist Bloc teens during the Cold War: an icon of liberty" (194). In the wake of the Snowden revelations and massive international backlash, it is quite clear that American internet will not be heralded as an icon of liberty. These are just a few examples.
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