Maybe you missed it amid the noisy merriment of the New Year, but Jan. 1 marked a birthday worth observing. Twenty years ago on New Year’s Day, the Internet as we know it was born, ushering in the era of the World Wide Web — the closest humanity may ever get to a version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythic global fellowship: “One ring to rule them all, One ring to find them./ One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” Minus the dark overtones, that’s not bad at all for a thumbnail description of the contemporary Internet in practice.

Before you protest that the Internet simply has to be more than 20 years old — who can even remember what life felt like B.I., “before the Internet”? — let us concede that this birthday is indeed debatable. As far as some people are concerned, the network turned 33 last September, not 20 this month. As with the abortion debate, it’s all a matter of defining when life begins.

Here are the facts. The seed of the idea that became the Internet actually was sown in the 1960s, when the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency developed a small network known as the ARPANET, which facilitated the sharing of supercomputers among U.S. researchers. On Sept. 2, 1969, two computers at the University of California at Los Angeles, linked by a 5-meter cable, sent data back and forth, the first fragile node of the net or web to come. Strictly speaking, that electric moment marked the true birth of the Internet.

Except that the system was still embryonic. Sure, it grew rapidly. By 1971, the ARPANET had grown to include 23 hosts linking universities and government research centers around the United States. By 1973, it had established connections in Britain and Norway. Over the next decade, it gradually moved away from its military and research roots and a commercial version went online. The term “Internet” was coined in 1982, by which time there were some 213 hosts.

But it wasn’t until Jan. 1, 1983 that the loose collection of networks that made up the ARPANET switched to a single language: the so-called Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP for short. That transition signaled the beginning of the Internet in its modern, decentralized form: a global network in which every computer can exchange information with any other computer. If the system had proceeded on the basis of multiple incompatible protocols, the World Wide Web — which is all about communication rather than calculation — might never have been possible. That is why Mr. Vinton Cerf, a co-inventor of the TCP/IP, said recently that he considers the January 1983 date “to be the real rollout of the Internet” and why so many agree with him.

Not that it matters, in a way, except for those who like to know exactly what they are celebrating. Whatever its origins, here’s the Internet’s present reality. Remember those 213 hosts (or Internet-attached devices) of 1982? A scant two decades later, according to a January 2001 survey, there were more than 100 million hosts, meaning some 350 million actual users, worldwide. And that’s last year figure, which represented a 45 percent increase over the previous year. Assuming a similar rate of increase since, there could be as many as 600 million users busy surfing and e-mailing today.

The implications are obviously profound, in two ways. On the one hand, for the growing number of people who have access to it, the Internet has plainly transformed everyday life. More and more people in developed countries telecommute, or work from home via the Internet, and many traffic-clogged and polluted cities hope an expansion of that practice will help remedy the ills spawned by urban growth. Retrieval of information has been made magically easier, faster and more thorough. And the previously undreamed-of capacity for exchanging information has already transformed commerce and science and promises to do the same for health care and education. Just 20 years after the network really got going, the world is unrecognizably different because of it.

On the other hand, even 600 million users is still just 10 percent of the world’s total population of 6 billion-plus. The Internet reinforces the existence of a global elite and threatens to widen alarmingly the gap between national haves and have-nots, prosperous and poor, that opened with the Industrial Revolution. Closing that gap is one of the biggest challenges facing the world’s rich, wired countries. Is that even possible? There is no knowing. Technological developments, unfortunately, don’t come packaged with a crystal ball. Twenty years ago, those few Internet pioneers could hardly have imagined today’s interconnected world. But here’s a safe guess: Twenty years from now, 2003 will look as much like the Stone Age as 1983 does, in so many ways, today.

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