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Nathaniel Borenstein discusses the past, present and future of the internet

Nathaniel outside

Monday, 02/20/2023

Innovation, Artificial Intelligence and the “deterioration of our politics.” 

If you ask internet pioneer Nathaniel Borenstein if his predictions about the future of the internet were correct, he’ll tell you he was “often dead wrong.” 

Now a lecturer at the University of Michigan School of Information, Borenstein was busy changing the world in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. From leading the MIME standard for multimedia data on the net, to co-founding the world’s first cyberbank, Borenstein was in the throes of helping create the innovative technologies we use today. 

Borenstein's infatuation with computers began in 1973, as a 16 year old on a teletype in his high school that could send and receive 18 characters per second to an IBM mainframe seven miles away. 

“The hardware was finicky, the connection was slow and the software was maddening,” he says. “But it was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life.” 

After graduating, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa and majored in mathematics before pursuing his PhD in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. He began learning how to program, a process which he describes as “intoxicating.” 

This was a period of innovation, Borenstein says, and the implications of these ideas were anyone’s guess. 

“People went on about how computers were going to be these amazing things and this was the center of artificial intelligence and they were going to speak and blah blah blah,” he says, laughing. “And the internet was just the infrastructure we were building to do this efficiently.” 

This was the 1990’s, when a new era of technological innovation was taking off. Previously, the internet was used to simply “pass and share programs back and forth.” But now, it could be used to buy and sell products, entertain and share information. 

Nathaniel Borenstein headshot
Nathaniel Borenstein

Pop culture, too, was catching wind of the rapidly advancing technology. Movies like Smart House and The Matrix emerged, and Furby, the first domestic pet robot, was introducing artificial intelligence to a generation of kids growing up in an age of technology. 

Now, billions of people use the internet, and 85% of Americans go online daily. ChatGPT is quickly becoming the next advancement to reckon with, social media companies are in the hot seat because of disinformation and questions about the ethical uses of AI are on everyone’s mind. 

“The deterioration of our politics — I didn’t see that coming,” he admits. “I was one of many who believed that the internet, like television at that time, would largely be a tool for education. I was dead wrong.” 

Moving towards a more ethical future 

Today, Borenstein looks toward the future of the internet with a sense of hope or despair, depending on the day you catch him. He’s acutely aware of the consequences of the internet: A rapid rise of fascism, algorithmic bias and an ongoing threat of violence as dangerous individuals, groups and ideologies emerge and gain recognition. 

“I think the technology and the consequences of the internet are only going to get more sophisticated,” Borenstein says. “Whether we can repurpose it to be as constructive as it is detrimental is the question now.” 

And on better days? Borenstein thinks about community, knowledge sharing and collaboration. 

“I think it’s a double edged sword,” he says. “Our ideals around freedom and democracy may not serve us well. And that’s a difficult truth for an ex-hippie to admit, but I think the internet has proven that a certain level of government restriction on speech beyond what was previously thought necessary is necessary.” 

The answer, he says, depends on our culture’s willingness to keep imagining and reimagining the future of the internet. 

“I guess what I’d stress is that things that seem fixed now, like they’re never going to change, change faster than you might think,” he says. “We need innovative thinkers to continue emerging and thinking about the ethics of technology and moving us towards a better future.” 

One way Borenstein is helping the next generation of changemakers is by launching a series of talks, titled “Looking back at the future: Reflections of the internet pioneers.”  

“We need to move backwards in order to move forward,” he says. “The people who I’m inviting are some of the biggest names who’ve helped shape the internet as we know it today.” 

So far, Borenstein has interviewed Doug Van Houweling, who was instrumental in building the NSFnet (the first national internet backbone), Merit Networks and Internet 2. Next is Dr. James H. Morris, professor emeritus of computer science and human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. 

As for Nathaniel, he’s currently working on a few books, including a memoir detailing his childhood as a “half-prodigy” and a book about the internet and spirituality. Through the years, he’s also started a few novels he’s excited to jump back into. 

He had previously semi-retired to prepare for life-threatening surgery after being diagnosed with  hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. He was able to avoid the surgery thanks to a clinical trial at Michigan Medicine.

“All my symptoms are gone and I’m in the best of my life, but relaxed enough to simply follow whatever projects get my attention,” he said. “I’m like a leaf blowing in the wind. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”


Keep up with Nathaniel Borenstein's talks with internet pioneers by visiting our events page

Learn more about Borenstein’s contributions, upcoming classes and research by visiting his faculty profile and his personal website.