The Internet and Monty Python turn 40 this year. An appreciation of both.
It's funny, really. How Monty Python and the Internet were both born in the same year, forty years ago.
It was 1969, the year Jimi Hendrix played 'The Star Spangled Banner' at Max Yasgur's farm, the year the Beatles broke up, the year man landed on the freakin' moon. It was the year Honduras and El Salvador went to war over a football game, the year the Boeing 747 first took to the skies, the year Led Zeppelin burst onto the scene and changed Rock n Roll forever.
In the midst of all this excitement, John Cleese thought it would be a good idea to invite Michael Palin to join Graham Chapman and himself to create a brand new television series for the BBC. Across the pond, US defense scientists used a cool new technology called 'packet-switching' to establish a network connection (They called it ARPANET. Scientists. You'd think they'd have come up with something cooler) between computers located at the UCLA, the Stanford Research Institute, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah.
As a result of these two seemingly unrelated events, today we watch episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus on YouTube, excitedly send the link to our friends over e-mail, Facebook and Twitter, and waste the rest of our working day LOLing at the antics of the greatest comedy team in history. It's a complete #WIN.
Today, forty years later, it's almost impossible to wrap our minds around the impact that the Internet has had on our lives. It's like trying to describe how our lives have been affected by the invention of the wheel, or language, or processed food. Today, most of us live in a dizzying swirl of instant, always-on connections that criss-cross so many aspects of our daily lives, it's hard to imagine what life was like before the Internet.
One way to try and define the impact of the Internet is to look at the situations that it has made extinct. When was the last time you spent days trying to remember the lyrics to a song on the tip of your tongue, or the author of a book, or the winner of a sporting event? When was the last time you pored over old newspapers to find the advertisement you suddenly want to respond to? When was the last time that getting information from a college meant writing a letter to them and hoping for the best?
Yes, we don't receive warm, personal greeting cards on our birthdays anymore. But we do get hundreds of wishes from friends we haven't seen for years, and that's pretty nice. Yes, the excitement of finally finding a rare music album or movie is a thing of the past. But we do get to watch or listen to anything we want to, whenever we choose, and that's pretty cool. Suddenly feel the urge to watch Monty Python's famous 'dead parrot' sketch? No need to scour video stores, wait hopefully for TV reruns, or badger relatives in the UK. You can't tell me that's a bad thing.
We find jobs without having to leave our homes, reach hundreds of people instantly when we need help during a medical emergency, quickly verify the truth in rumours and don't have to risk buying products without learning what the world thinks of them first.
If you have any sense of wonder at all, you can't help but marvel at the amazing sci-fi-ness of it all. Science fiction writers teased us with tales of vid-phones (skype), mass broadcasting of thought streams (twitter), virtual avatars engaging in gladiatoral combat (multiplayer games) and all-knowing computer oracles (the world wide web). But they didn't warn us that it would all happen in our lifetimes. Guess they didn't know.
And those of us born in the sixties and seventies, we caught the crest of the wave. We're the ones who are old enough to remember what it was like before, and are young enough to be in the thick of what it's like now. And I hazard that we're the ones having the most fun, grinning like idiots as we live out what were merely fantasies when we were kids.
Even as I write this column in my home office, in my immediate vicinity there are eight devices which are connected to the Internet (two computers, three videogame consoles, two handheld gaming units and a smartphone) – I can almost see a John Cleese sketch called 'the Needlessly Overconnected Man', in which Eric Idle smugly explains to an increasingly stressed-out Cleese how he uses one broadband connection merely to check if the other one is working properly. Cleese then downloads a pistol and shoots Idle in the head, saying “What a senseless waste of human life.” Sounds far-fetched? Wait another twenty years, mate.
Until then, Happy 40th Anniversay, Internet. It's nice to have you around. And you too, Pythons.
This piece first appeared in the 31st October edition of The Financial Express