Histories of technology usually go one of two ways. Some focus on the science; others emphasise personalities and culture at the expense of technological detail. But engineering professor-cum-Observer columnist John Naughton has written a book that does both. A Brief History of the Future weaves together scientific account and personal anecdote, and the result is a mesmerising account of the origins of the Internet.
The Internet, argues Naughton, is one of the 20th century's greatest inventions ("a force of unimaginable power"), but the individuals who built it have been overlooked. Truly great programmers "are like great poets or great mathematicians" and should be treated accordingly. In a volume sprinkled with literary references, Naughton redresses that oversight, starting at MIT in the 1930s, where the seeds of the Net were planted by three fascinating personalities, Vannavar Bush, Norbert Weiner and J.C.R. Licklider.
Later chapters explore the work-sharing ethos and Open Source movement that grew up among the programmers who worked on the Internet, and the World Wide Web, the system invented by Tim Berners-Lee that has been largely responsible for the popularisation of the Internet. Always the professor, Naughton has included a glossary of terms and an associated Web site with up-to-date reference material. He never shies away from explaining important technical innovations like packet switching and TCP/IP, but does so using metaphors that are accessible to non-scientists.
But the heart of the book is Naughton's account of his own fascination with the Internet. Growing up in remote rural Ireland he loved the radio, which made "links to other places, other cultures, other worlds". The Web allows communication on an even larger scale, and he heralds the democratic promise of this fundamentally open, communal and evolving system. Clearly Naughton is enraptured with the Net, and that passion comes across on every page of this intelligent, compelling book. --Tamsin Todd