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.