According to the Computer History Museum, today marks the date when the first host-to-host connection on ARPANET, from the University of California Los Angeles to the Stanford Research Institute, was made in 1969. This first connection effectively marks the the very beginning of what would later become a global network that would bring us knowledge, communication, and cat pictures.
Birthdays and anniversaries for technological advancements are tricky things, of course. Do you, for instance, celebrate the birth of the telephone based on Alexander Graham Bell's conception of the idea somewhere in the early 1870s within his work on the "harmonic telegraph," or do you peg the big day on March 10, 1876, when Bell famously called out to his assistant Thomas Watson to bring him some latte?
Even the birthday of Linux has some fuzziness. While many people place the date on August 25, 1991, when a certain Linus Torvalds made his understated announcement on the comp.os.minux newsgroup, Torvalds himself expressed to me that he wonders if the real anniversary should be on the date the first public release of Linux (0.02), which was on October 5 that same year. Or perhaps the first (non-public) 0.01 release, on September 17, counts?
So while some would argue that today is the 46th birthday of the network that would become the modern Internet, there will also be other dates that will be regarded as the beginning of That Which Brought Us Much Wow, Such Fun.
Choosing a date that marks the beginning of the Internet is perhaps less important than considering the ramifications of what this internetwork has brought about. A recent video series from the Linux Foundation laments that a world without Linux could be a world without an Internet or GPS devices. There's a bit of revisionism in these animated shorts… given Torvalds' announcement location, of course there was an Internet before Linux.
But it could be fairly argued that the Internet in its present form would have been a much different landscape without the presence of a free operating system like Linux serving as the platform for so many web, file, and mail servers. The choice of Linux made the communication of information and the dissemination of so many servers a lot easier.
As did the embrace of open standards. I watched the browser wars way too closely in the mid 90s. If Microsoft and Netscape and all the other browser developers had not finally settled on a more standards-based model of rendering information, then a world where AOL- and CompuServe-like services could have been the dominant model, not the predominantly open model that we have today.
Throughout the history of technology, the idea of collaboration through standards (and now code) has always seemed to prevail. Beyond the altruism that pervades project communities, it also makes good business sense: you can reach more users/customers when you compete on the same playing field as everyone else.
The Internet has certainly helped countless software and hardware projects come into being and fostered many of them to success. It is the clearest and more pervasive example of how open works better than closed.
So if this is indeed the birthday of the Internet, let's take a bit of time to recognize the ways in which the Internet has changed the world.
Plus, you know, get some cake.