Fifty years ago, on October 29, the Internet was born. Computer Scientists at UCLA, the University of California-Santa Barbara, the Stanford Research Institute, and the University of Utah established the first computer-to-computer link. This connection was called ARPANet after the program within the United States Department of Defense that funded it, the Advanced Research Projects Agency. The goal of ARPANet was to provide a high-speed communications link between universities and research labs to collaborate on research. Like today’s Internet, ARPANet used a technology called packet switching to move data between two locations, which amounts to breaking a data transmission up into smaller chunks (called packets) and using devices along the way to decide the best route for each packet to take to get to its destination. Unlike today’s Internet, ARPANet crashed after sending just two letters – an “L” and an “O” – as the sender tried in vain to log in. It was a simple technology that seemed so limited in utility.
But so began a revolution. This was an inauspicious start to be sure, though the researches probably took some serious solace in their successful log in an hour later when the system finally rebooted. Did any of them know that, fifty years later, the extension of their invention would be used by over half the world’s population? If so, that must have been some serious ego.
You never know when something you’re working on will cause tremendous disruption. Disruption is usually a word used to describe something with negative consequences, but technologists often use it to describe something – an idea, a product, a system, an app – that fundamentally transforms the way we live. We celebrate as disruptive those innovations specifically that transform our lives for the better. Arguably, despite the complications and complexity of modern life, the Internet has, in total, expanded the horizons of what we know, what we can know, what we can ask, and what we can do together as a species. The occasion of four research groups trying in vain to send a login message over hundreds of miles has, remarkably and quite unexpectedly, reverberated across the globe billions of times over. It has caused changes as disruptive as any other man-made event in the history of the planet. It has forever altered the nature and scope of human experience.
Could you make such an impact? Don’t be so humble. At the risk of writing the caption for the next cat poster: Keep your eyes open. Keep acting on what you see. Keep asking questions. Stay interested and engaged. That’s how you become disruptive.