Our Collective Digital Nervous System

Monday, April 14 2014


We live in an age when celebrity status is granted in an instant, as we flick between a never ending flurry of TV talent shows or send the SMS that elevates the anonymous to prime tabloid real estate. Toil and the pursuit of admirable, unique or awe inspiring achievement no longer guarantee the recognition they deserve.

It was therefore refreshing to hear the roll-call of the not-immediately-obvious but paradigm shifting achievements at this year’s Internet Hall of Fame, a celebration of those who have given us the Internet and enriched our connected lives.

The founding fathers of the .mp3, web browser and email client were rightly honoured this year, as were some less well-known but equally compelling achievements, often made in difficult conditions, under circumstances fraught with financial uncertainty and at times personal risk.

Many of the inductees at this year’s event emphasised that successful innovation is the result of strong team work. They also allude to the fact that the Internet is itself instrumental for the proliferation of information and ideas that fuel successful development in the first place. Simply put, connectivity drives innovation and vice versa. They are interdependent.

In the industrialised, Anywhereized world, we tend to take a fast internet connection for granted and the Internet Hall of Fame is a poignant reminder that most of the planet is still in fact offline, to the tune of approximately 5 billion people. A number of this year’s inductees have therefore been acknowledged as pioneers in the truest sense of the word for taking the Internet to China, Sri Lanka, India and even remote areas of Nepal.

Returning from postgraduate studies in the US, Mahabir Pun saw an acute need to provide improved educational opportunities for children in the remote foothills of the Himalayas. He started with a project to connect the school in his own village in early 2000. With the help of undergraduates from the US and Europe (who smuggled in the necessary hardware, which was prohibited at the time), he modified an indoor WiFi router to create a wireless link with an incredible 40km range. Having achieved his goal he went on to bring another 13 mountain communities online by 2006 and eventually convinced his government to permit the use of 2.4 and 5.8Ghz WiFi technology, in turn bringing a multitude of ‘e-benefits’ to the region. Today, thanks to Mahabir’s work, many previously offline communities are now connected to our ‘collective digital nervous system’, as Paul Vixie, another 2014 inductee calls it.

As the 24 new inductees share their stories, a common theme is the critical importance of a free and open Internet and the ways many ways in which connectivity can create liberty and deliver positive social change. At the same time it is increasingly apparent how social needs themselves are driving Internet evolution. Inductee Dorcas Muthoni, an entrepreneur and computer scientist from Kenya is not only the founder of OPENWORLD, a software company that is driving IT development in Africa but also AfChix. AfChix is a regional organization that encourages and mentors African women to pursue careers in technology throughout the continent.

At the end of the day, it is all about connecting people and the ideas that will shape our future. To quote Eric Huizer in his speech at the ceremony, ‘My parents inspired me to think independently, and I think that is the most important thing you can teach your children’.

Kathy Brown, CEO of INternet Society

Kathy Brown, CEO of INternet Society

Paul Vixie, DNS pioneer

Paul Vixie, DNS pioneer