2 Chapter 2: The Internet and the Digital Transformation

2.1 Introduction

The origin of the Internet dates to the late 1950s, when the United States established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).1 This funding agency, which supports extramural research for the United States Department of Defense, was created in response to the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik. Its mission was to prevent the United States from “technological surprise” in the future (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, 2005). ARPANET was created by ARPA in 1969; it was the world’s first packet switching network and the precursor to the Internet. Since then, the Internet has grown and evolved from a simple communication tool used by few to an integral part of life for many. It has transformed the way we live, work, communicate, and perform daily tasks.

2.2 The Origin and History of the Internet

In 1961, Leonard Kleinrock, a graduate student in engineering at MIT who worked alongside engineer and mathematician Claude Shannon, the creator of information theory and the mathematical concept of entropy, published his paper, Information Flow in Large Communication Nets. This later became known as the first paper on packet switching theory, which forms the basis for the creation of the Internet (Kleinrock, 2010). With packet switching, a message sent from one computer to another is broken down into small packets of digital data. Each packet is given an address to travel to and is then routed to its destination. Packets can travel different routes to the point where they are reassembled into the complete message (Johnson and Donnelly, 2003). Initially, Kleinrock was inspired by Shannon’s work to study computer behavior as the interaction of large number of elements (i.e., nodes, users, data). This led to the development of distributed systems control and the study of large networks, crystallizing the central role of computers in communicating with each other.

2.2.1 Networks that Led to the Internet

In 1964, Paul Baran, an engineer for the RAND Corporation, published a memorandum, the first in the series titled On Distributed Communications Networks, in which he formulated the concept of packet switching networks. Baran believed that distributed and networked telecommunications would better enable military communications to continue during a catastrophic attack (Bollmer, 2019). Meanwhile, Donald Davies, an engineer for the British National Physical Laboratory working on the same concept, was credited with coining the term “packet” (Cohen, 2011). Together, Baran, Davies, and Kleinrock formulated the basic principles of packet networks.

Packet networks became a key concept in the development of the Internet. Specifically, Kleinrock’s mathematical theory of packet networks intersected with the concept of the galactic network (Kleinrock, 2010) created by J. C. R. Licklider, an experimental psychologist and professor at MIT. Licklider envisioned a globally interconnected set of computers through which everyone could quickly access data and programs from any site—a concept close to the modern-day Internet.

Licklider became the first director of the new Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) of ARPA. In 1964, Licklider passed the directorship of the IPTO to Ivan Sutherland, a colleague of Kleinrock’s from MIT. In 1965, Sutherland gave a contract to Lawrence Roberts, a researcher from the Lincoln Lab at MIT, to develop a computer network and to Thomas Marill to program the network. Roberts advocated for “knowledge sharing,” believing that sharing everyone’s work was the only way to advance knowledge.

Later that year, Roberts and Marill conducted what is regarded as the first actual network experiment, tying the MIT Lincoln Labs’ TX-2 computer in Lexington, Massachusetts, to System Development Corporation’s Q32 computer in Santa Monica, California. Roberts and Marill created the first wide area network (WAN) and used packets to communicate between computers with this experiment. The idea of connecting computers across long distances was born.

Sutherland then recruited computer scientist Robert Taylor to become the associate director of the IPTO. Taylor realized the strong need for a network to specifically connect ARPA researchers to the few, large, and very expensive research computers across the country. Charlie Herzfeld, director of ARPA, made it happen by allocating $1 million to initiate the project. The project became known as ARPANET. Roberts was chosen as the ARPANET project manager.

As originally envisioned by Baran, the ARPANET project was a collaboration among the US Department of Defense and several research universities (Bollmer, 2019). It used a packet-switching network to share computer resources among the universities. The ARPANET’s original design included multiple host computers connected via dedicated phone lines to devices called interface message processors (IMPs), which would eventually become what we refer to today as routers. In October 1969, the first two IMPs installed at UCLA and Stanford Research Institute were connected. The first message was “log in.” By December 1969, all four test sites were up and running. All 20 of the original sites were operational before the end of 1970. The ARPANET was born (Kleinrock, 2010).

It was not until 1972 that there was a public demonstration of the new communications network. Also, in 1972, electronic mail (e-mail) was introduced. It became the most popular application and a “harbinger of the kind of people-to-people communication activity we see on the WWW today” (Leiner et al., 1997).

Since packet-switched computer networks do not use identical hardware and software, and because they communicate at different bit rates, the need for inter-network communication became a critical one (Johnson and Donnelly, 2003). Between 1973 and 1974, this need prompted Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn to present the basic ideas for Internet protocol (IP), a program that allows an open architecture for multiple networks to be joined together, and transmission control program (TCP), which verifies that the correct data is delivered to the right address. Together, these two programs (TCP/IP) allowed each individual network to stand alone such that if another network was brought down, it would not cause the collapse of all joined networks. In 1982, the Department of Defense adopted the use of TCP/IP protocols on ARPANET. By the mid-1980s, the ARPANET had linked itself to nonmilitary communications networks (Bollmer, 2019) and was made up of 2000 host computers (Campbell-Kelly and Garcia-Swartz, 2013).

Another milestone in Internet history was the creation of the Computer Science Network (CSNET) in 1981. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), CSNET was conceived by a group of universities interested in obtaining a connection to a packet-switched network but ineligible to join the ARPANET. By the early 1980s, ten such ARPA-like networks joined to form the Internet, using TCP/IP to interconnect. With the success of CSNET, the NSF-sponsored NSFNET in 1986, a new backbone of the Internet that provided higher speed links to US community networks, was created. In 1990, ARPANET was officially replaced by NSFNET (NSF, 2003).

2.2.2 The Development of Internet Technologies

In the early 1980s, Tim Berners-Lee investigated programs that handled information similar to how the human brain organizes and links information together. Using a method called hypertext, a way to link words from one document to another document on one computer, Berners-Lee was able to connect information on his own computer. However, he was not satisfied with just the information on his computer and wanted to connect to other computers on the Internet. To connect pages across the Internet, Berners-Lee created a set of rules called hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) in 1990 (Berners-Lee and Fischetti, 1999), which is still used today to navigate the web. HTML, a coding language, was also created in 1990.

In 1991, Berners-Lee (2010) called his new system the WWW. The Internet and the web are two very different technologies. The Internet is like “an electronic network that transmits packets of information among millions of computers,” whereas the web is like “a household appliance that runs on the electricity network.” The web was an easy-to-use graphical interface created for the computer.

Berners-Lee wrote the first WWW client, as well as the communication software that would become crucial to its function, including uniform resource locators (URLs), HTTP, and HTML (Cohen, 2011). In their 1992 paper published in the Proceedings of the Conference on Computing in High Energy Physics, Berners-Lee and Cailliau described the WWW in the following way:

The WWW consists of a hypertext paradigm in which text is used to represent links. A search function is added to the hypertext model to give the WWW its powerful utility, and this contains large sets of structured information in databases that are indexed and searchable. The architecture of the WWW consists of browsers (clients) which know how to present data but are ignorant of its origin and servers which can extract data but are ignorant of how it will be presented. Thus, servers and clients are unaware of each other’s characteristics and formats. All data on the Web is presented with a uniform resource locator (URL). Authors create documents by typing files in plain text using hypertext SGML markup or a W3 editor and linking them to the Web. Hypertext links may be made to any non-W3 servers (e.g., FTP, Gopher, WAIS). Clients share a common library of network information access codes. File servers distribute existing files to hypertext browsers (Berners-Lee and Cailliau, 1990).


By 1993, the web exploded. Universities, governments, and private corporations all saw opportunities on the open Internet. Everyone needed new computer programs to access it. That year, a group of students and researchers at the University of Illinois developed a sophisticated browser called Mosaic, which offered a user-friendly way to search the web. The launch of Mosaic was a landmark moment in the evolution of both the web and the Internet. It provided a dramatic illustration of the web’s potential for publication and commerce (Naughton, 2016). The following year, Andreessen founded Netscape and released Netscape navigator to the public.

Microsoft responded with its browser, Internet Explorer, in 1995. By bundling Internet Explorer with Windows, Microsoft used its dominance in the operating system market to take over the web browser market.

2.3 The State of the Internet

2.3.1 Internet Growth Statistics

The Internet has been growing at unprecedented rates since its inception.

In the 1990s, the Internet spread explosively across the globe. Businesses discovered the value of communicating electronically. The Internet has continued to double, even triple, in size almost every year for the last two decades. Today more than 1 billion hosts are distributed over the Internet. Figure 2.1 illustrates how the Internet has grown. The linear plot on the logarithmic scale shows the exponential growth of the Internet over many years. It is worth noting that the growth of the WWW has dominated the growth of the Internet in recent years. The web was released to the computer community in the early 1990s.


Figure 2.1 Internet growth measured by the number of hosts in the domain name systems from 1993 to 2018. Source: Internet Consortium Survey’s Internet Domain Survey (https://www.isc.org/survey/)
Figure 2.1 Internet growth measured by the number of hosts in the domain name systems from 1993 to 2018. Source: Internet Consortium Survey’s Internet Domain Survey (https://www.isc.org/survey/)

The number of Internet users is often regarded as one of the major Internet access and use measures. Its increase is notable. As of January 2021, the number of Internet users worldwide stood at 4.66 billion, which means more than half of the global population is connected to the Internet. Of this total, 92.6% (i.e., 4.32 billion) accessed the Internet via mobile devices. Asia was the region with the largest number of Internet users. The global Internet penetration rate, which corresponds to the percentage of the total population of a given country or region that uses the Internet, is 59.5%, with Northern Europe ranking first with a 96% Internet penetration rate among the population. The countries with the highest Internet penetration rate worldwide are United Arab Emirates, Denmark, and Sweden (Johnson, 2021a). Figure 2.2 presents the percentage of Internet users in the entire population by country.


Figure 2.2 Share of the population using the Internet in 2018. Source: World Development Indicators—World Bank (2021.07.30) (http://data.worldbank.org/data-catalog/world-development-indicators)
Figure 2.2 Share of the population using the Internet in 2018. Source: World Development Indicators—World Bank (2021.07.30) (http://data.worldbank.org/data-catalog/world-development-indicators)

Among the largest online markets in the world, the United States ranks third with over 313 million active Internet users nationwide. A 2019 American Community Survey showed that 92.2% of households had broadband Internet service (Census Bureau, 2020). A more recent Pew Research Center report (Perrin and Atske, 2021a) revealed that 93% of Americans use the Internet. Of the 7% who do not use it, age is the largest factor. Twenty-five percent of adults who are 65 or older report not using the Internet. However, this is in stark contrast to 20 years ago, when 86% of adults aged 65 and older reported not using the Internet (Livingston, 2019). Because age remains a significant factor in Internet use, it is not surprising that younger Americans report using Internet-based technologies at a much higher rate (Perrin and Atske, 2021a). For example, 93% of Millennials (aged 23–38) own a smartphone, followed by 90% of Gen Xers (aged 39–54), 68% of Baby Boomers (aged 55–73), and just 40% of the Silent Generation (aged 74–91). In addition to age, other factors for lack of Internet use are related to income and geographical location. Specifically, 14% of Americans making less than $30,000 a year and 10% of Americans living in rural parts of the country report not using the Internet, indicating that economic status and rural location remain barriers to Internet access, also known as the digital divide.

2.3.2 The Internet and Everyday Life

Ray Oldenburg has described how people use “third places” such as coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars, and other hangouts to help them get through the day (Oldenburg, 1991). These places are distinct from home and work. As scholars began to look at typical uses of the Internet, many adopted an analytical frame that the Internet was like one of these third places. For most people, the Internet is now part of everyday life. The Internet has had an enormous impact on education, government, shopping, healthcare, and almost everything we do in our daily lives. It has become an indispensable tool for information, communication, and entertainment. This is confirmed by the fact that the average daily time spent with the Internet per capita increases every year. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey reported by Perrin and Atske (2021b), 85% of Americans say they go online daily; of those, 31% report going online almost constantly, and 48% say they go online several times a day.

The Internet has become embedded in every aspect of our day-to-day lives. It provides many services and a voluminous amount of information and has rapidly penetrated everyday life. Through the Internet, individuals can communicate with friends, purchase products, and search for information that makes their work more efficient and improves their life quality. For example, after e-mail first appeared on the ARPANET in the 1960s, e-mail use began increasing in the United States in the 1970s and quickly spread and exploded with the rapid growth of personal computers and the Internet in the 1980s (Anderson et al., 2001).

Search engines have the capability of bringing a vast amount of information into the homes of web users. Web users needed effective and efficient search engines for retrieving relevant results, with access to up-to-date and unbiased information and adaptive queries. However, as the web grew ever more extensive, the upkeep of human-generated indexes became unsustainable. By 2004, PageRank algorithms for search engines had proved their success, with Google leading the way (Higham and Taylor, 2003). Today, Google holds over 86% of the search market share (Davies, 2021) and “just Google it” has become a household phrase (Toff and Nielsen, 2018).

As the mobile Internet has become increasingly widespread and popular over the past few years, mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, are more readily available and affordable. Internet users are gradually switching to mobile devices to browse the web on the go. According to a Pew Research Center survey, around 85% of Americans own a smartphone. Some 15% of US adults are “smartphone-only” Internet users—that is, they have a smartphone but do not have a home broadband connection (Perrin, 2021).

Today, social media and mobile devices offer many ways to communicate and interact on the web. In fact, 86% of Millennials report using social media (Vogels, 2020), 95% of US teens have access to a smartphone, and 45% of teens report being “almost constantly” on the Internet (Schaeffer, 2019). This has raised concerns about the effect of excessive screen time on young people’s behavior and brain development. Takeuchi et al. (2018) conducted a longitudinal analysis to examine the relationship between Internet use and brain development in a large sample of Japanese children aged 5.7 to 18.4. They concluded that frequent Internet use was either directly or indirectly related to decreased verbal intelligence and the development of a smaller volume of gray matter in the later stages of the study. These results are concerning in terms of how this may impact teens’ emotional well-being and communication skills in the long run. In fact, a Pew Research Center report (Anderson, 2019) found that 65% of parents were concerned about their teen’s amount of screen time and 62% were concerned about their teen’s social skills due to screen time. Online behavior was another concern, including cyberbullying, the sending and receiving of explicit messages, and the types of websites that teens were visiting. In response, 58% of parents reported checking the websites their teen visited, and 57% reported either taking away their teen’s Internet privileges as punishment or limiting the amount of time their teen could spend online.

As the Pew Research Center surveys indicate (Anderson, 2019; Schaeffer, 2019), the Internet has become a ubiquitous part of the everyday life of most US teens, yet their older generation of parents remain concerned about the effects of excessive Internet use. On the contrary, today’s younger generation of parents appears to have fewer concerns about the Internet. This is evidenced by the increasing number of Internet technologies geared to this demographic, from pregnancy apps to “baby selfies” (i.e., sharing ultrasound images on social media) to baby biosensors and smart babysitter systems. Mascheroni (2018) referred to this as a “datafied childhood,” reflecting the growing market of the Internet of Things (IoT) and its intrusion into everyday life. For example, one in five Americans reports the use of a fitness wearable or smartwatch. Women (25%) report using these devices more than men (18%), as well as suburban (24%) dwellers more than urban (20%) or rural (18%) dwellers. Most importantly, income plays a significant role in adopting wearables, with 31% of Americans earning $75,000 or more a year reporting that they own a smartwatch, while only 12% of Americans earning less than $30,000 a year reporting the same. This likely reflects the persisting digital divide and shows that gaps remain in Internet access and use across the country.

2.3.3 The Digital Divide

Larry Irving, the former head of the National Telecommunications Infrastructure Administration, is credited with popularizing the term “digital divide” in the mid-1990s (Yu et al., 2018). Digital divide refers to “the perceived gap between those who have access to the latest information technologies and those who do not” (Compaine, 2001). It initially referred to unequal access to computers and later included unequal access to the Internet. Although the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” narrowed in some areas around 2000, other areas of the digital divide have grown larger and wider since then (Walsh et al., 2001).

By the late 1990s, the Internet was a communication medium for the industrialized world. Almost 99% of all Internet connections were in North America, Western Europe, and Japan, with the remaining 1% representing the 4 billion people who lived in the rest of the world (Slevin, 2000). Although the growth rate of users in other areas is very fast, a digital divide remains between developed countries and developing countries. Compared to countries like Iceland or Denmark, which have Internet penetration rates approaching 100%, a number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa’s online penetration rate is still relatively low at less than 25% (Johnson, 2021b).

From historical perspective, many argue that the digital divide in the United States is broadening based on surveys and data collection. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) 1998 survey, Falling Through the Net II: Defining the Digital Divide, reveals that disparities and gaps do exist; their survey report found that while computer penetration has increased nationwide, there is still a significant “digital divide” based on race, income, and other demographic characteristics. The report further claims, “the digital divide has widened as the information haves outpace the have-nots in gaining access to electronic resources” (NTIA, 1999). Similarly, in Europe, it was found that the likelihood of Internet use was influenced by gender, education, family size, household income, and Internet access cost (Demoussis and Giannakopoulos, 2006).

A 2004 report published by the NTIA titled A Nation Online: Entering the Broadband Age suggested that the digital divide was rapidly shrinking (Watson et al., 2004). However, many researchers disagreed with this. Although having access to the technology is essential, having access to a broadband connection; possessing the knowledge and skills to use the Internet and its various applications effectively; and being literate enough to read, understand, and evaluate the information presented on the Internet are all aspects of the digital divide (Warschauer, 2002).

A recent report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that the situation is not improving. According to the report, rural Americans have made considerable gains in adopting digital technology over the past decade and have narrowed some digital gaps. However, rural adults remain less likely than suburban adults to have home broadband and less likely than urban adults to own a smartphone, tablet computer, or traditional computer (Vogels, 2021b).

The digital divide gained special attention during the COVID pandemic as much of daily life moved online. The Pew Research Center reported that more than half of lower income parents whose children participated in remote learning due to the pandemic said their children would likely face at least one of three digital obstacles to their schooling, such as a lack of reliable Internet at home, no computer at home, or needing to use a smartphone to complete schoolwork (Vogels, 2021a). This implies that access to computers and the Internet are now critical to children’s ability to access education and underscores the urgent need for a national effort to close the digital divide gaps.

Policymakers believe that the digital divide disappears when a country’s Internet connection rate reaches saturation, though this only addresses the first-level digital divide of physical Internet access. van Deursen and van Dijk (2019) described a second-level digital divide concerning Internet skills and types of use. Scheerder et al. (2017) divided Internet skills into four categories: general, medium, content, and safety and security. General Internet skills broadly encompass digital literacy, while medium-related skills refer to specific software operational competencies. Content-related Internet skills comprise information literacy and the creative, critical, and social skills needed to use the Internet. Safety and security skills cover ethics, acceptable use, and Internet safety. Determinants of the second-level digital divide include financial (i.e., income), material (i.e., devices), cognitive (i.e., literacy), educational (i.e., training), and psychological (i.e., beliefs) resources (Yu et al., 2018).

Scheerder et al. (2017) found that social and cultural factors, such as political participation and cultural capital, also play a role in determining the digital divide. As a result, they propose a third level that addresses the tangible outcomes of Internet use and the consequences of having Internet access. Mihelj et al. (2019) suggested that social media outreach from cultural institutions may be instrumental in increasing cultural access and digital participation and closing the third-level digital divide. Ramsetty and Adams (2020) documented the impact of the digital divide during the COVID-19 pandemic. They found that cultural views of digital devices impacted patients’ use of telemedicine (third level), as did digital literacy (second level), and the lack of broadband Internet availability (first level). Thus, today’s digital divide is a multilayered issue that reflects inequalities in physical, material, cognitive, and sociocultural access at the macro-, meso-, and micro-systems levels.

2.4 Conclusion

In this chapter, we traced the history of the Internet, including the networks that merged to create it, and the rise of the global Internet and Internet technologies. The early development and evolution of the Internet were closely tied to federal support for research. However, the globalization of the Internet was closely linked to the increasing role of commercial providers that built on Internet technologies and their applications.

As examined in this chapter, the creation of the Internet was not intentional, but rather a series of events. Since its creation, the Internet has become one of the most fundamental and vital infrastructures worldwide. It has changed the way everyday tasks are carried out. Despite its growth, Internet access and use are not equally distributed, and this remains an inadequately addressed issue.


Discussion Questions

  • What is the difference between the Internet and the WWW?
  • How does the Internet impact the way information is generated and shared?
  • What is HTML and what role does it play in the transformation of the Internet?
  • Discuss the difference between HTML and extensible markup language (XML).
  • What is the difference between HTTP and TCP/IP?
  • Discuss at least one problem caused by the digital divide.
  • What is the impact of the digital divide on access to information on the knowledge profession?
  • To what extent can mobile devices and the Internet help with bridging the digital divide?
  • How has the Internet changed everyday life?


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1 The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) gained a “D” when it was renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1972.


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