The internet was not meant for the likes of us—and yet we have it, through means that tech historian McCullough capably recounts in this wide-ranging history of the internet era.
It wasn’t so long ago that technologists dismissed the thought that ordinary mortals would have a use for a computer and not so long ago that the internet was a skeletal version of its present self, confined to computers administered by the military-industrial complex. Chalk the change up, writes the author, to the opening of the net to civilian traffic—and then to techies at the University of Illinois who, building on earlier platforms, launched the first browser in 1993, early on called X Mosaic “because it was designed to work with X Window, a graphical user interface popular with users of Unix machines.” If any of the terms in the preceding clause are mysterious, then this book may prove tough slogging, but it has plenty of odd drama. For example, Bill Gates came calling on what later became Netscape, hoping to build an alliance; when rebuffed, he retooled Microsoft in order to build a browser of its own, having quickly divined how important the internet would become. McCullough’s story is populated by numerous geeky heroes, notable among them Steve Jobs but most far less familiar, along with some free-riders and businesspeople who realized that the internet’s free gift to the world was something that could be turned into a cash cow. Writes the author, “the Internet might have been launched in Silicon Valley, but to a large extent, it was monetized by startups in New York City.” Most of the individual components of McCullough’s story, which closes with the arrival of the “completely, conceptually perfect” iPhone in 2007, are well-documented, but few other histories of modern technology connect them so fluently. In this, the narrative resembles Steven Levy’s by now ancient Hackers (1984) and John Markoff’s more recent What the Dormouse Said (2005); it compares favorably to both. A tasty, educational treat for tech heads and other web denizens.