Intertitle: Describe your contributions to Internet evolution.
Alan Emtage: Back in 1989 when I was a student at McGill University I developed what became the first Internet search engine. So the predecessor to Google and Bing and all of those things.
Intertitle: What were the biggest challenges; was there an “aha” moment?
Emtage: It sort of happened organically. So there really wasn’t sort of you know a goal that I had to struggle and you know, ford rivers and climb mountains and that kind of stuff to get to. I guess the most difficult thing very early on was the fact that the powers that be didn’t realize what we were doing. So we had to do it sort of under cover of darkness and not let them realize that we’re utilizing all these resources and shut us down. Because they didn’t really understand what was going on. So it wasn’t as if we could have gone to them and said, “Hey you know, we have this great new idea and give us all these computing resources,” which were a lot more expensive at the time; we’re talking almost thirty years ago. And so we were in danger of being shut down.
Intertitle: Who or what was most crucial in your success.
Emtage: Peter Deutsch was…Peter J. Deutsch—there are several of them—was as I said my boss. And he and I then ended up forming a company to sort of market this. And so I guess he would have been one of the major players.
And another guy called bill Heelan who was one of my coworkers who helped me work on the second version of this after I had made one for myself, and we made it public. We worked together.
And then there was support from the university. There were some people… Alan Greenberg was the head of the computing science facility, and he saw the value in that.
Intertitle: What are your hopes and fears for the future?
Emtage: One of the Internet’s greatest strengths is one of its greatest weaknesses, in that it allows communities to be built that would otherwise would never exist, yeah? People with very specific needs or interests can find one another in the world in a way that they would never have been able to before. If you are a teenager in Hong Kong and you have a particular interest in one star in the galaxy that you find really fascinating, you can actually find other people who have that fascination with that one star. And it may only be twenty of you across the seven billion people on the face of the Earth, but it allows you to build that community.
Those communities are not always for good, right. Those communities can be used for—and as we learn over and over again, not just the hackers but the trolls, you know. The people who are just…who are basically sociopaths who enjoy hurting other people. And they can build their own communities as well. And that’s not exactly a great thing. So you know, as with most technologies, it’s a double-edged sword. You don’t get the good without the bad, and our challenge is to encourage the good and discourage the bad wherever possible.
Intertitle: What is your advice for the next generation?
Emtage: Don’t be complacent. Don’t take it for granted. What you may have grown up with over the last five or ten years may not continue if you don’t work to ensure that it remains open—if you ever experienced it as open in the first place. Yeah, don’t don’t expect it to just be as it is without active work on your part.
Intertitle: What has surprised you the most about the Internet as it has developed?
Emtage: Just how big an impact it has had. I don’t think any of us who were working in the late 80s and early 90s— So a lot of the people that you will meet here worked on the technical infrastructure, in the sense of making sure that computers could talk to one another, easily, quickly, that kind of stuff. They’re what we would call the lower layers of the system.
When I started to come into it in ’89 and ’90, we started to work on user services. The things that the average user would use, as opposed to the technical layers. Or the more technical layers. And I think we all had a sense that we were working on something that was going to change the world to an extent, but I don’t think any of us really conceived of just how pervasive it would become, just how deeply embedded into society. How something like the smartphone would come along and you would just walk down the street and all that people were doing would be staring into their phones.
And the only reason they’re staring into their phones is because it’s connected to the Internet, right. If the phones weren’t connect to the Internet yeah, you’d be playing your little games and stuff but most of the time you wouldn’t be staring into your phone. It’s because of that community, that connectivity that those phones provide. And I don’t think that anybody back then had any idea as to just how far-reaching this was going to be.
Intertitle: What are the most positive and worrisome Internet trends emerging today?
Emtage: I mean, the ability to find connection in…for example, genetics, right. You do a genetic test nowadays and they can start putting you in contact with you know, your fifth cousin from a branch of the family that you’d never heard of. I have any number of stories of people discovering siblings that they weren’t aware of, or finding out that… You know, some of these things are not always positive. It can be very disruptive to existing structures. But I think… I mean, the common element of the Internet has been disruption. Many of those cases that disruption is positive. It breaks existing monopolies. It allows flow of information that otherwise you wouldn’t have had. Those are positive things. And so I think on balance the disruption, and the ongoing disruption, has been positive. Not always, but…mostly
Well I mean, I think this last election is a great example of that. It’s strong evidence that foreign powers influenced, significantly influenced, a democracy, one of the largest democracies in the world in ways that we were just not even aware of. And in subtle ways that very few people have defenses against. It’s a level of psychological manipulation that we are just not prepared for. And I think that’s a very worrying trend.
Intertitle: How do you hope to see the Internet evolve?
Emtage: Faster. I mean, that’s sort of flippant. The Internet’s pretty darn fast as it is right now.
No I mean, I think of greater accessibility, both in terms of income levels, in terms of geography. I mean I was recently— I just arrived in from Prince Edward Island in Canada. And in sort of rural Prince Edward Island—I mean, most of Prince Edward Island is rural to start off with but this is fairly far-flung. And the Internet speeds were atrocious. And you think, you know, it’s a large place. I mean, Canada’s a large place. But it’s a fairly well-populated place and you would think that in this day and age it would be better-connected, you know.
That’s a first world problem. There are still hundreds of millions of people around the world that have no reliable Internet access. And a lot of governments that are trying to make sure that that remains the case, or that a lot of— Even on a local level, if you go into rural India, it is widely believed that women for example don’t have the capacity to be online. Same is true in the Middle East, that they don’t have the mental ability to navigate the Internet. So the ways that the…to use a phrase, the patriarchy, that the existing power structures that oppress minorities and women will continue to use, or will use restrictions of access to the Internet as a tool to prevent their ability to communicate and to resist that oppression.