Who really invented the Internet? I was fascinated by the recent kerfuffle over this question, which started with Gordon Crovitz’s July article in the Wall Street Journal. The catch is that even if you could dispel the political agendas of the folks writing (Crovitz wanted to show that private trumps public), or erase the sad fact that only a few people know enough of this history to discuss it usefully, you would be left with a trick question – because the word “Internet” means several different things today.
Within Crovitz’s article and the various rebuttals to it, all of its main meanings are on display as well as some stragglers. The result is a thick stew of confusion. Yet if we take the different senses of “Internet” one at a time, we can find a certain clarity.
Let’s start with the broadest meaning, the one where “Internet” has become a generic term for the entire online world – from the wires and switches that lay its foundations, to a cat video playing on a child’s iPad.
“Internet” as a synonym for the whole online world
Just as Xerox became a verb for copying, “Internet” has become the popular generic term for anything to do with computer networks. This is partly because there was no well-established term when most people first went online in the ‘90s (or at least none shorter than “information superhighway”). So like a newborn duckling who forms a maternal bond with the first thing it sees, we collectively imprinted on the name of the best-known general component. Despite misgivings, I use the word in this sense for the CHM Internet History Program.