BOOK: A history of the Internet and the digital future

Cover of A history of the Internet and the digital futureAvailable at AMAZON.COM

Endorsements for A History of the Internet and the Digital Future

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

–Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing 

An immensely important book. … This narrative reads like the digital equivalent of the Manhattan Project, with all the excitement of discovery, blind alleys, failure to see the obvious, and thinking beyond established norms. … Wonderful, liberating quotes are threaded through this meticulous charting of a revolution by Johnny Ryan.

–Kevin O’Sullivan, Editor of The Irish Times 

“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. … 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

“Both an enormously useful work and great read.  Read it and understand what has made the Internet different.”

–Professor Tim Wu, Columbia 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)

“This is the best Western history of the Internet offered to date…”

Library Journal

“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.”

–Professor Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School and Kennedy School; Professor of Computer Science, Harvard SEAS; Author, The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It.

“a wonderful read”


“Absolutely fascinating … If I had to pick one book about the Internet, this would be it!”

–Rebecca Johnson, Amazon top 10 reviewer

A History of the Internet and the Digital Future


I published chapters one, three, and six, as free samples on ArsTechnica.

Publisher notes:

  • The first book to describe the entire history of the Internet, from the Cold War to the cloud.
  • Reveals the trends that are shaping the businesses, politics, and media of the digital future.
  • Analyzes the impact of the internet on the balance of power between the state and the individual, and on issues of censorship and freedom of expression.
  • Italian edition Storia di internet e il futuro digitale just released by premier publisher Einaudi

Here is an idea of what is in this book:

A great adjustment in human affairs is underway. The pattern of political, commercial, and cultural life is changing. This story is about the death of the center and the development of commercial 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.

Driving this move from the center is the Internet.

The Internet is a centrifugal force, user driven and open. These three characteristics have asserted themselves throughout its history. Understanding them is the key to adapting to the new global commons, a political and media system in flux, and the future of competitive creativity…

Listen to interview on BBC Radio (5 Live)

A History of the Internet and the Digital Future on the book shelf

Academic courses that use this book in their course list:
Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government, course: 2020 Visions & Information Policy: Considering the Public Interest

 [link]; Harvard University, Berkman Centre, course: CS42: Controlling Cyberspace [link]; University of Illinois, course: LIS 490TEG, iSchool [link]; Stanford University, course: Symbolic systems 201 [link]; University of California, Davis, course: History 102E – The History of Cyberculture [link]; University of Mary Washington, course: HIST471D7 [link]; SAIC – School of the Art Institute of Chicago, course: ‘Laptop Literacy and Digital Imaging’, and ‘Creating Culture and Community on the WWW’ [link]; University of Southern California, Introduction to Digital Media [link], Bradley University, Introduction to New Media Theory [link]; University of Winchester, course: Manipulating Media; University of Virginia, course: A History of Globalization [link]; Istanbul Bilgi University, Cyber Anthropology [link]; University of West Georgia, course: Digital History and New Media [link]; University College Galway, course: Geographies of Cyberspace [link]; University of Limerick, course: Introduction to Digital Media 2011 [link]; Washington University in St. Louis, course: Future networks and next generation Internet [link]; Universidade Católica Portuguesa [link]; University of Vassa [link].



Chapter 8. THE WEB!

This book will take the reader on a path through some of the most interesting events and documents of the last century. A few samples: wargame-style briefings outlining nuclear exchange scenarios presented to President Kennedy, memoranda from the Obama transition team in 2008, scientific proposals for resilient communications networks developed at RAND in the early 1960s, records of the US Air Force’s increasing reliance on statistics and research & development during WWII, Warran Buffet’s I-told-you-so letter to shareholders in the aftermath of the dot com bust, startling statistics of growth in value of eBay sales per year, schematics of Steve Wozniak’s Apple I computer… This book will be not only a history, but like all good histories, may say where we are bound in the future.

I’ve spoken to some interesting people recently, including Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, Steve Crocker, Robert Cailliau, Bob Metcalfe, Dave Crocker, Heidi Heiden, Shih-Pau Yen (inventor of Gopher), Bill Thompson, Gregor BailarRalph Lee Smith (author of “Wired Nation” in 1970), Brian Pinkerton (search engine innovator), Gordon Bell, and Phil Madsen (man behind Jesse Ventura’s Internet driven 1998 campaign), Thomas Bruce (creator of Cello, the first PC web browser), Alan Emtage (inventor of Archie), Perry Pei Wei (creator of the first Unix WWW browser), Andrew Weinreich (founder of the first social network,, and Josh Tauberer, founder of, Justin Williams (activist against the App Store NDA policy), Netfrack (the first MP3 pirate), Steven M. Bellovin (one of the founders of Usenet), Carlye AdlerMarc Benioff (the founder of Salesforce and SaaS pioneer).  A range of people including Peter Kirstein, Howard Rheingold, Micah Sifry, Nick Yee, have helped with sources. The RAND Corporation have kindly permitted the reproduction of Paul Baran’s diagram on distributed networking.

The ideas in this book are have benefited from the insights of thought, business, and policy leaders who participated at the IIEA Digital Future Group since October 2007, including Timothy Wu, Viviane Reding (European Commissioner for Media & Information Society), Larry Sanger (co-founder of Wikipedia), Peter Fleischer (Chief Privacy Counsel of Google Inc.), H.E. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Jonathan Zittrain, and US Congressman Rick Boucher.

[image: a selection of books on my shelf at the moment]

The publisher is Reaktion Press, an interesting publishing house that produces books like A Cultural History of Boxing – see The Economist’s review of that book here. They distribute in the US through the University of Chicago Press. According to Wikipedia, Reaktion was runner-up for the Sunday Times Small Publisher of the Year Award in 1996, 1997, and 1999, and was shortlisted in 2003

See a note here about the word ‘Openness’, which has a little controversy surrounding it in some circles…

[image: my old desk in Cambridge – and top marks for Hanns’ budget 28″ screen]

48 thoughts on “BOOK: A history of the Internet and the digital future

  1. New title idea: ‘Centrifuge: the history of the Internet and its lessons for the future of society, politics, and business’.

    More and more the idea of the Internet as a centrifugal technology becomes compelling. Now, with just over two months until I give Reaktion my manuscript, the threads are coming together from all directions. It’s now clear that OPENNESS is the major theme, but that a slightly more developed concept, THE INTERNET AS A CENTRIFUGAL TECHNOLOGY, applies even more fittingly.

  2. Open Access: a history of the Internet and its lessons for the future of business, politics, and society

    Open Content: a history of the Internet and its lessons for the future of business, politics, and society

    Open Source: …

    Open Circuit: …

    Not very good, I know, but might give you some other idea.

    1. Thanks – the tricky thing is to nail a title that doesnt limit the book to one specific subject (content, development, access etc.), but which also gets across the idea of things moving from the center and from hierarchy into a meshed network.

  3. Yes, you obviously want to say to much in the title, my 2cents is that you should leave some things implicit (like lessons in politics, economy, sociology and the like) and go sexyer. If you like one of those, and you send me your book, i will be greatly honored (that said, these suggestions are freely given).

    Openness and centrifugal forces: A people’s history of the Internet


    Openness and centrifugal forces: An Internet’s history prolegomena for the future of society


    Internet history’s lessons for the future: Openness and centrifugal forces as dynamics

    note: if you want to incorporate the various dicipline of social science in one fell swoop, “social science” is the way to go. If it’s the “thing” in itself that you seek to name (i.e. the intransitive OBJECT of knowledge common to the various discipline of politics, economics and sociology), and not the organised knowledge of it (the transitive objects known discover by the various discipline and schools) then your best bet is “Society”.


  4. What about a title that reflects that the internet’s ultimate influence is much broader than was thought originally? I’m wondering is there a quote equivalent to the famous statement from IBM in the 60s that there would only ever be a world market for four or five computers, or the many statements from Lord Kelvin that heavier than air flying machines/internal combustion engines/something else now wildly popular were impossible? If there is a similar it’ll-never-catch-on type quote for the ‘net, maybe it could be a source for the title?

    1. Boom! You’ve got it. The Dead Centre. It says allot. But now, how to actually explain what that means in relation to the book? I want a politician, a lawyer, a businessman, a student – just just a computer networks person – to be able to lift up this book and know that it tells a story of how the world is changing for all, and why.

      The Dead Centre: the history of the Internet and its lessons for the future.

      I want to get across the idea of a new global commons, a political and media system in flux, and the future of competitive creativity.

  5. Does “The Centre is Everywhere” with that subtitle get it across better?

    Maybe dropping the definite article from “The Dead Centre” makes it punchier – something like “Dead Centre: the internet, its history, its future, our future.”

  6. Back, Forward, and Home: A history of the Internet

    Our Virtual Home: A back and forth History of the Internet

  7. Hey Johnny,

    Not sure if you’ve settled on a title just yet, but I’ve had a thought, one which I may or may not have mentioned to you before.

    I put it forward as it seems to be exactly what it is, yet if you don’t have information in there explaining the term, the title might be out of place or redundant as well as people not quite knowing what it is on first glance which as you said is the utmost importance. That and you just might not like it.

    EMERGENCE: a history of the Internet and its lessons for the future of business, politics, and society

    Appropraitely the internet is given as an engineered or cultural example of emergent behaviour. At its very basic, it is millions of bottom up processes all with few but distinct boundaries or rules, resulting in an unlikely but highly complex system with no centre, no head and is difficult to predict.

    But as i said then you have to explain what the term means, or into how much depth you’d want to go, so it’s probably not very straight forward. But hey, it was just a thought.


    Also why limit yourself to just one word? I understand the desire not to have 17 of course and for it to be catchy, but why not two if it suits better.

    OPEN INTERNET: a history of the Internet and its lessons for the future of business, politics, and society

    OPEN ORDER: a history of the Internet and its lessons for the future of business, politics, and society

    ORDER REDEFINED: a history of the Internet and its lessons for the future of business, politics, and society

    OPENNESS REDEFINED: a history of the Internet and its lessons for the future of business, politics, and society

    OPEN FUTURE: a history of the Internet and its lessons for the future of business, politics, and society

    OPEN CHANGE: a history of the Internet and its lessons for the future of business, politics, and society

    FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE: a history of the Internet and its lessons for the future of business, politics, and society

    -This one above really gets across the extent of how the world has altered due to the rise of the internet.

    All of that is most probably completely useless. No matter, best of luck and looking forward to seeing you on Friday on board the boat.


    1. Cheers Al. Emergence is a very interesting idea. It does not, however, describe the flattening and distribution that comes with the Internet. I need a word for that.

      1. The idea of emergence is great. It really does the linking with the dead center/centrifugal forces. Above the idea of “order” seems great too. A mish-mash:

        Centrifugal emergence: A history of the Internet and its lessons for the future of Order

        might want to put an s to order(s) or not

        Cheers and good luck

      2. BUT – I need to get the “future of business, politics, and culture” in there so that it’s clear that this is a practical book with material that a business strategist should read too.
        So how do we fit all these elements together? Emergence / Openness / Flattening-Centrifugal-etc / Business-Politics-Culture.

    1. Ivo – you’re right. The thing is that I’ve agreed the final title with the publisher and we’ve landed at A History of the Internet and The Digital Future. Near enough.

      Seamus, Ivo’s film USNOW is excellent. On the train right now to meet him…

    1. Apparently it is. My publisher, Reaktion Books, tells me a Kindle version is coming out any day now – but I have no release date yet. The irony of a book on the history of the Internet that is not published digitally has not escaped me, but that will shortly be corrected.

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