02/07/2013 08:02 BST | Updated 31/08/2013 06:12 BST

How the World Wide Web Was Almost Lost


We like to organise history into coherent narratives, despite its tendency to look like a series of accidents when you get up close to it. Take the internet. As we surf a medium which has no CEO or proprietor, is chaotic and infuriating and yet gathers the world's knowledge for no better reason than that it can be gathered, we seldom stop to wonder how different things might have been.

My last book, Moondust, was about the men who walked on the Moon as part of the Apollo programme between 1969 and 1972. So when I began to research its successor, Totally Wired: On the Trail of the Great Dotcom Swindle, I was intrigued to find that Apollo and the net were not only related, but sprang from the precise same moment and motive; from the launch of the first man-made object into space, the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1, in October 1957.

Sputnik 1 caused panic in the US, as opportunistic generals raised the spectre of an orbital bomb or death ray and lobbied for the Pentagon to take control of space and science. And they would probably have succeeded, had the White House been occupied by anyone other than President Dwight D "Ike" Eisenhower, a Republican ex-military man who adored scientists as much as he mistrusted his own brass and the "military industrial complex" (his own term) they served. Instead of handing these two frontiers to the military, Ike pointedly placed both in the hands of civilians in 1959, via Nasa and the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).

Guided by a handful of 60s-infused academics who saw computer networks as potential bringers of enlightenment and peace rather than fancy adding machines, ARPA ultimately gave birth to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) in 1969, the same year that Neil Armstrong stepped on to the Moon. We owe this to Ike, and it might have been so different: his own vice-president, Richard Nixon, despised academics and would likely have humoured the generals and doomed us to a centrally controlled, militarised or corporate-owned internet far into the future.

But our luck doesn't end there. A little-known fact is that ARPA had always intended to hand its new network over to the private sector in short order, which is why the internet -- yes, the internet -- was offered to established US telecoms companies to run and effectively own from the early 70s onwards. The monolith AT&T reportedly formed a committee which debated the issue for six months, before rejecting the new technology as "incompatible" with its existing business. Had these internal deliberations turned out differently, one can only guess at how different our online experience might be in 2012.

Even two decades later, when Tim Berners-Lee conjured the world wide web out of the net's primordial ooze, there were those who disapproved - most notably the early computer activist Ted Nelson, who had begun work on his own global knowledge bank, Project Xanadu, as early as 1960. Nelson coined the terms "hypertext" and "virtuality" and complained that the web trivialised his team's original hypertext model by offering no management of content or copyright, and that in mimicking the properties of an obsolete technology -- paper -- it lacked sophistication. All true. Later in the 90s just about every major media player, from Time Warner to the Murdoch empire, thought they could colonise and dominate it... and the truth is that they might have, but for the work of those 60s idealist scientists and thinkers who had organised it along cybernetic principles, as a "distributed" rather than centrally directed system.

Truth is, the net we got is not the only one we might have had, and the spread of point-to-point apps, combined with the growing clamour over copyright and pornography, suggest that its anarchic wild-west days may be drawing to a close. Many of us are only now coming to understand what a strange and unprecedented couple of decades we've lived through.

Totally Wired: the Wild Rise and Crazy Fall of the First Dotcom Dream is out now in paperback, published by Simon & Schuster