Book Review: How the Internet Happened

Cover of "How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone" by Brian McCullough.

How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone (2018: Liveright) is the result of Brian McCullough’s researching and hosting the Internet History Podcast for the last few years.

The book’s subtitle tells you a little bit of what the book does and doesn’t cover: This is not about building the network and connecting the academics in the 1960s and 1970s. It is not a social history of the Internet, nor does it cover much of the open-source movement that underlies so much of what the internet is today.

What you will get in this book is a clear sense of how a military/academic network of mainframe computers and terminals familiar to very few became an essential part of most people’s lives. The narrative is often informed by the people at the center of the transformation. Among the topics covered:

  • The transition from proprietary commercial online services to the open World Wide Web
  • The browser wars of the 1990s
  • How the mainstream media botched online news in the early days
  • Amazon, eBay and the birth of online commerce
  • How we began to think of the internet as the “New Economy,” immune from business cycles, and how that bubble burst
  • The origins of online search
  • The birth of digital music and the copyright wars that ensued
  • The rise of blogging and social media after the bubble burst
  • A brief history of how Apple went from near-bankruptcy to being the wealthiest corporation on Earth

McCullough also tells us how Google managed to survive the dot-bomb crash of 2000-01 to become one of today’s dominant companies. This happened almost by accident.

The new version of AdWords had advertisers bid against competitors’ ads, but Google’s system was not simply pay-for-placement. Ever enamoured with math and the power of algorithms, Google ingtroduced an important new ranking factor for the ads it called a “Quality Score.” In essence, Google’s system took into account how often that ad was actually clicked on, in addition to how much an advertiser was willing to pay per click. … Over time, more money would come in from a 5-cent ad that was clicked on 25 times—than from a dollar ad that was only clicked on once.

Brian McCullough, How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone p.230

What this means is that Google discovered the importance of learning everything about its users (meaning: you and I), because they could make money from that knowledge. To fully understand, you should check out Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. I’m reading that now, and will probably have a lot to say about it when I finish. Right now, I can tell you it succeeds in altering one’s perception of what’s wrong with Big Tech.

McCullough is more interested in the businesses that built the web, you’ll get a lot of stock prices, investment numbers, and net worth of the founders. If you liked the National Geographic Channel series, “Valley of the Boom,” you will enjoy the more detailed stories. All the main subplots get at least a mention. If the docudrama elements turned you off, you’ll appreciate the research and storytelling that McCullough delivers.

What scares me most about this book is that, for better or worse, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg comes off the best of all the book’s founders, as the person who (accidentally) really had the purest vision. Once he figured that out, he refused to sell out. That worked out, didn’t it?

I’ve read a lot about the history of the internet, and How the Internet Happened is one of the better ones. I started listening to McCullough’s podcast, which continues on, as a result of this book, and learned a bit from both the source interviews and the collected text. You likely will too.