The Internet is a worldwide system of computers, a network of networks in which someone with one computer can potentially share information with any other computer. With the number of such linked computers in the billions, the Internet is viewed as one of the most significant technology advances of the 20th century.
Understanding the Internet is not simply a matter of describing how it works, however. It also requires looking at the consequences of using the World Wide Web. The amazing ability of the Internet to hide its complex technologies leads some to think it is easy to understand. Anyone can point and click and traverse the globe. Fewer can speak sensibly about the way modern culture has changed for better and worse in the Internet age.
II. Origins of the Internet
III. Building Blocks of the Internet
IV. A Physicist’s Dilemma
V. Going to the Cyber Mall
VI. Electronic Commerce
VII. Protecting Copyright
VIII. The Open Source Movement
IX. Impact on Education
X. Uses and Gratifications
Today the terms Internet and World Wide Web mean the same thing for most people. Strictly speaking, they are different. The World Wide Web is the collection of documents, files, and media people access through the Internet. The Internet is the network technology that transports World Wide Web content. Put another way, the Internet makes the World Wide Web possible; it is the World Wide Web that makes the Internet essential.
The two terms are a useful way to talk about “the Internet,” as most people call it. The first part of the story is the quiet building of the Internet among academics over 25 years. They had no idea of the eventual significance of their inventions. The second part of the story is the rise of the World Wide Web in popular culture, when it seemed everyone knew they had a revolution on their hands.
Origins of the Internet
Before either story began to emerge, one of the elements of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was the significance of science. A few years earlier, the United States had established its superiority in science with the development and detonation of the atomic bomb (1945). Each side knew that scientists could win wars, and the A-bomb seemed indisputable proof of this truth at the time. The Soviets raced to develop their own nuclear weapons and then surpassed the United States by launching the first satellite in 1957. Was Soviet science now better than American science? Did the advantage of space mean victory for the Soviets? A shocked U.S. military responded by forming the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA), bringing together the best minds in the nation to regain the technological lead. But how could they work together and communicate across the country? In particular, how could their computers talk to each other and share research? The Internet began simply as the answer to that question.
Dozens of innovations mark the way to the Internet wave of the 1990s, but three building blocks stand out, all beginning with the letter p: packets, protocols, and the PC (personal computer). None were created with today’s Internet in mind, but all three were used to build today’s World Wide Web.
“Packets” were designed for a time of war. Planners needed a way to ensure command and control in the event of a nuclear attack. Regular telephone connections would be useless in an attack, and radio broadcasts were too easily intercepted or jammed. ARPA scientists struck on a way to break up all information into packets, each carrying its destination address and enough instructions to reassemble thousands of packets like itself into original information at the end. Breaking down information into thousands of packets meant messages were hard to intercept and useless on their own. Because they were small, they were capable of traveling to their destination through any available route, even by many routes if one was blocked or busy.
Building Blocks of the Internet
The Internet still works this way. Packets transfer all information, whether that information is Web pages, e-mails, file downloads, or instant messages. Trillions of packets flood through any available network and are routed to their destination by powerful gateway computers. These computers do not examine, filter, or store the packets. They simply send them on to a destination computer that reassembles them perfectly. Imagine a trillion postcards sent out every hour to millions of addresses everywhere in the world and arriving accurately in under a second. This is how the Internet functions, and it works amazingly well. During the 9/11 attack on New York City, regular phone service broke down almost immediately. Cell phone networks were overwhelmed. But e-mails continued to get through because they relied on a method of communication intended to function during a nuclear war.
All elements considered, however, the Internet most certainly would not withstand a real nuclear attack. Although the network itself and the packet method of communication would not fail, the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) of a nuclear explosion would incapacitate 95 percent of the computer chips around the blast zone. The network might continue to work, but the computers hooked up to it would not.
Interestingly, the original military point packets also make it extraordinarily hard to block, filter, or censor Internet content. What was simply a design feature for a time of war has now defined the Internet for those who resist all attempts to censor or to control information. It is ironic that technology for command and control now inspires those refusing any command and control at all over the Internet.
It is not surprising that the efficient method of letting computers talk together through packets caught the attention of university researchers in the 1960s. By the end of the decade, what might be recognizable as an Internet went online under the name ARPANET (Advanced Research Project Agency Network). It only linked a few computers used strictly for research. Private, personal, and commercial uses were not permitted. What was needed for the scientists was simply a way to yoke together multiple computers for solving complex problems. Packet communication was quickly adopted by universities as an excellent way to send large amounts of data through a single network.
The common protocol is the second building block of the Internet (a protocol is an agreed-upon way of doing things). Computer networks spoke the same way (packets); now they needed a common language in which to communicate. Because networks of the day were built for diverse purposes, many languages were invented. Imagine talking in the United Nations lobby. Vinton Cerf, an ARPA scientist, proposed in 1974 a common protocol for inter-network exchange of information. His invention, called TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), meant local computers always communicate with outside networks in a common language. The protocol did not achieve immediate adoption, but the benefit of using a common protocol spurred adoption. With it any computer network could access any other network anywhere in the world, and today TCP/IP is called the glue that holds the Internet together. It was at this time Cerf coined the word inter-net as a short form of inter-network.
The 1970s and 1980s saw steady growth in Internet connections, but things were still in the hands of researchers. Using the Internet required expensive equipment and mastery of arcane commands for each request. There was little popular awareness of the Internet, and few saw any particular use for it outside academic and military activity. A few small events, in hindsight, provided a catalyst for the eventual explosion of public Internet use in the 1990s.
One was the first e-mail, in 1972. Scientists needed a way to send instructions back and forth. Although this form of communication was officially frowned upon, messages soon involved birthday greetings, weekend plans, and jokes. Soon, the number of e-mails far exceeded the number of research files being exchanged. Another sign of things to come was the first online games played across the network. As early as 1972, administrators started noticing unusually high network traffic on Friday nights after someone uploaded a Star Trek game. People used the network to blast Klingons and compete with friends at other universities. These may have been the first computer nerds, and the significance of their gaming to the development of the Internet today should not be overlooked.
Another tool that in hindsight paved the way for the World Wide Web was USENET (this 1979 term is a contraction of user network). Large numbers of users “subscribed” to a special interest topic and were able to conduct two-way discussions. Soon the “news groups,” as they were called, went far beyond research and even news and became online communities. They were the precursors of today’s discussion forums, chat rooms, and RSS feeds. USENET groups were the watershed development for the shift to having users pull what they wanted personally from the network and then use the medium for the composition of popular content. The first Internet communities thus were born, giving a glimpse of how the World Wide Web would eventually work. USENET also introduced the first spam messages (unwanted communications), the first flame wars (often vicious online disputes), and the first online pornography.
Two more small events had important consequences for the Internet. One was the introduction of the Domain Name System (DNS) in 1984. In place of hard-to-remember numbers such as 184.108.40.206 for network addresses, simple names such as google.com were enough. Now the network was far easier to use, and a name on the network took on potential value. The smallest but most significant event was the lifting of the prohibition against commercial use of the Internet in 1987.
The third building block for today’s Internet was the PC (personal computer) introduced by Apple in 1976 and the widespread marketing of business versions by IBM in 1980. The key word here is personal. Until then computers were expensive tools for researchers or for the geeks who could build them. The personal computer was aimed at the general public. Soon companies developed graphical user interfaces (GUIs) to replace arcane command languages, and thus simple-to-use software was developed for the novice. The mouse, the icons, and the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) interface brought everyday computer use into mainstream society. Anyone could do it. By the end of the decade, personal computers numbered in the millions and were affordable and in the hands of people who played with them in addition to using them at work. With millions of computers in the hands of the utterly uninitiated, everything was ready for an Internet revolution 25 years in the making.
A Physicist’s Dilemma
The unintentional revolutionary was Tim Berners-Lee, yet another researcher using the Internet in the late 1980s at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Switzerland. He relied on the network to collaborate with colleagues around the world. Although the network was fi ne, the documents and files were not in the same format or easily found. He thought it would be much easier if everybody asking him questions all the time could just read what they wanted to know in his database, and it would be so much nicer if he could find out what these guys were doing by jumping into their similar databases of information. He needed a simple way to format documents and describe their location and some common way to ask for them. It had to be decentralized so that anyone anywhere could get information without asking someone. Ideally the requests could come from inside the documents as links to other documents, so that a researcher did not need to use some other application. Most of all, it had to be easy.
Berners-Lee sat down in 1990 and penned the specifications for a global hypermedia system with now-universal acronyms: HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol), HTML (HyperText Mark-up Language), and URL (Uniform Resource Locator). Th ough originally designed for far-flung researchers to collaborate on projects without bothering each other, the resulting universal information space set in place the keystone of today’s Internet. For good measure Berners-Lee even gave his creation a name: the World Wide Web (WWW). He capped off these innovations with a small piece of software called a browser. He intended it only to make it easier for his peers to retrieve and read documents. He did not know it would touch off the modern Internet revolution.
Going to the Cyber Mall
For 25 years the word Internet was little known outside of academic circles. As the 1990s unfolded, however, everyone was talking about the Internet, also known as the Information Superhighway, Cyberspace, Infobahn, or simply the Web or the Net, as the technology took hold of popular culture. Everyone wanted to be on the Web, and users who hardly topped 100,000 at the beginning of the decade were on course to surpass 200 million by the end.
Why the sudden growth? In part the Internet was cheap and easy to use. Moreover, it was the effect on people’s imagination the first time they clicked around the new frontier. Old rules of geography, money, and behavior did not apply. No one was in charge of the Web. Everything was available in this new world for free. Founded in 1993, the magazine WIRED trumpeted a techno-utopianism where the Internet would transform the economy, society, and even humanity itself. The experimental layouts and bold use of fluorescent and metallic inks in WIRED sum up the personality of the Internet in those early years, and the magazine is still published today.
For example, Marc Andreessen, one 21-year-old innovator, took Tim Berners-Lee’s lowly browser made for research papers and added pictures, color, and graphic design. Others would soon add audio, video, animation, and interactive forms. His company (Netscape, formed in 1994) simply gave the browser away for six months and then went to the stock market with an IPO (initial public offering) worth $2.4 billion on the first day.
No wonder people began saying the Internet had started a “new economy.” The Web erased constraints of geography and time. Anything digital could be multiplied a million times and distributed worldwide for free. Entrepreneurs lined up for the new gold rush of the information age. Billions poured in to fund every imaginable innovation, the stock market soared, and for years it seemed true that there was more profit in clicks than in a bricks-and-mortar industry.
What is called the “dot-com bubble” burst in 2000, draining away these billions and delivering the sobering reminder that, even in the “new economy,” certain old economy values such as profitability, accountability, and customer service still mattered. Nevertheless, the Internet proved to be a seismic shock to business economics. Even the smallest business, no matter where located, could consider the world its marketplace. Companies that “got the Net” could outmaneuver large corporations. For the most part, traditional businesses did not disappear with the Internet; they adapted their old models to use it. Because most goods and services were physical, traditional business controlled means of production but used the Internet to improve supply management, ordering, and customer service.
Many point to Amazon and eBay, both launched in 1995, as examples of the “new economy.” Amazon at first simply sold the old commodity of books. They built success on the frictionless character of Internet access. Books were the same anywhere; the real problem was finding them in a local bookstore. Amazon saw that they could let people find a book easily, review what others thought of it, make payments with a single click, and never have to leave the house. It worked, and today every online seller works on the same principle as Amazon. The Internet enables better selection, cheaper prices, and faster delivery. Nevertheless, although Amazon is 100 percent online, this is still the old economy made better using new technology. To this success should be added industries such as banking, travel, and insurance, all transformed by the Internet within a few years. They migrated online with great success but used Internet technology to enhance existing business rather than to fundamentally change it.
eBay introduced an online version of an economic model as old as society itself: person-to-person trading. The now $50-billion company produced nothing. It simply put buyer and seller together using the Internet. By providing a listing service and payment system and taking a commission, eBay makes a good case for being a “new economy” business. Millions of sellers, not just buyers, were now networked. The stroke of genius in eBay was their rating system for buyers and sellers to keep score on the reputation of each user. Anyone could see another’s reputation and make a choice about whether or not to do business with a complete stranger. On the seemingly endless anonymity of the Web, eBay found a way establish old-fashioned reputation as a key economic currency.
It is important to emphasize that the new economy uses information and ease of communication as its currencies. Up to this point, economies were built on the relative scarcity of goods and services. Resources needed to be acquired, marketed, and sold, but they were always finite. The Internet turned this old economic model upside down. Instead of scarcity, it was built on an endless supply. Digital multiplication of information and distribution through the Internet were essentially without limit. What astonished users in the early days of the Web was that people were giving away everything free. Who was paying for this? Who could make money this way? In talking about the “new economy,” it may be best to say that the Internet did not create it; rather, the Internet required a new economy.
Google (started in 1997) was an instant and spectacular success in the new economy. It did not enhance an old business; it created an entirely new one, though few saw it at first. The need for powerful search engines on the Web was apparent quite early. Once the problem of access to information on the network was solved, the next problem was finding it. With the growth of the Web, finding a page was like finding a needle in a million haystacks. But even with a search engine, the results could number in the tens of thousands. How could someone find good information?
When Google appeared, it looked like simply a better search engine, but the young graduate students who built it also designed human intelligence into the tool. Instead of only words and titles, Google also analyzed the number and quality of links to each page. Millions of humans chose what pages they visited and what pages they built links to. Google tracked this. The more links to a Web page, the more likely it was that that Web page had good information. It was a surprisingly simple way to judge relevance. Google offered not only an index of the World Wide Web, but also a snapshot of what the world was thinking about it. eBay built a way to track the reputation of users; Google discovered ways to track the reputation of information.
What makes Google worthy of being included in the new economy is that it traffics wholly in information and the power to make sense of it. How can searches be given away free and the company be worth $100 billion? By giving away information and in some cases paying people to take their information, Google gathers intelligence about what is on the Web, what people think about it, and most of all what people are looking for. It is a marketer’s dream. Put people and their interests together with products they are looking for, and there is business. The bulk of Google’s revenue comes from advertising, which is systematically targeted by demographic, habit, and personal interest. Google does not want only to index the Web; it intends to analyze its users. The larger the Web, the greater the use of it, and the more profitable Google’s share of the new economy.
Far different is the situation where an old-style business does battle with the new economy principles of the Internet. The prime example is media. If the Internet means that anything digital can be reproduced instantly across the whole system, is it possible to copy-protect music, movies, and books? Is it even desirable? The only thing that keeps this book from being copied a million times on the Web is the minor inconvenience of transferring the paper-based text to a digital format. If all digital media become potentially free, how will media conglomerates ever make a profit? How will artists earn a living? Software sales are another example. Copying software and posting it for others to use for free is a time-honored use of Internet technology.
One response to unauthorized copying is increasingly sophisticated Digital Right Management (DRM) software, which makes media impossible to use without payment. In turn, clever coders have always found a way to crack the protection and post the media anyway. Various surveys have discovered that up to 50 percent of Internet users believe there is nothing wrong with taking illegal copies of software and music. It is likely that illegal downloads will never go away and that people will pay for media simply for the convenience of downloading from one place and having access to support for their downloads if there are problems. Neither honesty nor technology will have much to do with it. People will pay for not having to root around Warez sites (collections of illegal software) or locate P2P (peer to peer) repositories willing to share.
Another response has been high-profile lawsuits against people and companies with unauthorized media. The purpose is to frighten others into paying for valid copies. Although this works well against business and corporations, it has made barely a dent in the downloading of music and videos by individuals, especially the young. Today sales of CD music are down even as the number of people listening to songs increases, proving the point that the old-style business of media companies is under serious pressure from the “new economy” principles of the Internet.
A third response recognizes that the Internet may have changed the rules. It says that copying is not only allowed but encouraged. It turns the old media economy of control and distribution upside down. Now the artist or programmer wants the widest possible distribution of the media and gives it all away for free. The goal is exposure, increased sales of related items, or simply the desire to create and see others enjoy the creation. Opponents claim the practice will undermine the ability to control and profit from intellectual property. Others point out that art is in good health on today’s Internet and that software development has never known such vitality.
The debate over what kind of “new economy” the Internet has helped to spawn leads to no consensus, but there is general agreement that the impact of the Internet on the worldwide economy, whether new or old, cannot be measured. It is somewhere in the trillions of dollars.
The Open Source Movement
There is another dimension of “the new economy” that relates to the economy of ideas on the Web. Here information and ease of communication are the currencies. The slogan “Knowledge wants to be free” is part ideology and part recognition that in digital knowledge, there is no cost of delivery. What is called the Open Source movement in the software industry insists that free distribution, work on projects by unlimited developers, and complete access to source codes will produce the best product. The Web makes it possible. Another vivid example of the new economy of ideas is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia where anyone can improve articles written by anyone else. Its popularity now rivals that of the famed Encyclopedia Britannica.
Discussions of a “new society” built through the Internet follow the same pattern as those on the new economy. Enthusiasts claim that the Internet will inaugurate a golden age of global community. No distance, no border, and no restriction on information will improve education, stimulate communication, spread democracy, benefit rich and poor alike, and level the playing field in a new Internet age. Much of the language about the Internet, from the early years onward, is strongly utopian and uses the word revolutionary more often than is wise!
Critics of the so-called Internet revolution fear that the Internet will only take people away from real-world problems and genuine human interaction. Government and corporations will use the technology to snoop on and manipulate citizens. Criminals will invent new high-tech crimes, and at best the world will be no better and at worst much worse.
Neither the dreams nor the nightmares of the Internet age have arrived, but both the enthusiast and the critic have seen hopes and fears realized on the Web.
Impact on Education
For example, education, as old as society itself, finds itself a beneficiary of the Web and an area of major concern. It is true that students now have access to many times the learning content of a few years ago. Books, images, research tools, multimedia, and simulations have been mainstreamed in Western education. Internet literacy is an accepted competency for the educated person. Web-based learning has opened up higher education to greater numbers. The Internet removes many of the physical and time restrictions to learning.
But is the learning available on the Internet good? Where once a teacher could ensure the quality of resources, now the words “found on the Web” can apply to the latest research or to complete nonsense. How will students fulfill the social dimensions of their experience on the Web? Although content-oriented subjects do well in Web-based learning, how can hands-on skills ever be put on the Web? Students find an abundance of information on the Web, but they can also copy and paste it, claiming it as their own. Completion rates for Web-based learning are less than half of those in face-to-face learning, however.
Uses and Gratifications
As it was with the new economy, the new society has turned out to be mainly a version of the old society operating at Web speed. Few things are actually new on the Web. People use the Internet to chat, visit, flirt, and play. Dating, cybersex, marriage, and funerals are all on the Web. Birth still poses a challenge, but in every case there is some version on the Web of what people have been doing for thousands of years. The Web is more of a reflection of society than a force shaping society.
More often than not, quite unforeseen consequences have emerged from the Internet. For example, could the early adopters of e-mail have predicted that more than half the eventual traffic would be spam (unwanted email)? For years visionaries have promised the paperless office, but each year paper use goes up. Office productivity was meant to increase dramatically once everyone was wired into the network. Instead, the Web became the number one source for wasting office time. Dreamers announced whole armies of knowledge workers who would commute via the Internet. Little did they foresee that those knowledge workers would come from halfway around the world, outsourcing or displacing the jobs of local workers.
What should be regarded as “new” in the wired world is the speed with which things happen and the vast increase in the number of people who can be involved. Technology does not change the way people live on the Internet as much as it multiplies its effects. An embarrassing video once circulated among friends and family now can be found by millions of strangers and can never be taken back. A pickpocket could steal a few wallets in a day. A good hacker now can steal a million credit cards in a minute. A rumor or a piece of false information falls into a database or search engine, and suddenly it competes on equal footing with the truth.
A new and dangerously ignored consequence of the Web is the persistence of information. Internet technology not only retrieves data but also keeps it around, perhaps forever. Until now people could trust that their words and written notes simply disappeared or at least could be controlled. This is not so on the Web. Information is kept, and it may be found by anyone in the world.
Privacy, or the lack of it, is certainly an old issue taking a new form on the Web. In the early days, people reveled in the seeming anonymity of their Web browsing. They could hide behind a billion packets and the complex communications of TCP/IP; but not anymore. Online companies track browsing habits. Local Web servers log every request made from a browser. Chat rooms archive information. Governments routinely listen in on the chatter moving across the networks. Unsuspecting users routinely let tracking programs be installed on their computers and give away personal information in exchange for Web-based baubles. Worse, people publish all manner of personal detail on the Web, not grasping that Google and other search engines make this information permanent and findable by anyone. Already employers are searching the history of potential employees on social networking sites. Many people have lost jobs because of some frivolous post made years before. It will not be long before some political candidate for high office will be undone by the record of some indiscreet posting in a forum or visit to an unsavory Web site.
Internet addiction disorder, a distraction causing emotional attachment to and obsessive behavior associated with one’s online reputation, is a new wrinkle in the connectivity excitement. Among first-graders in China, A 2010 study revealed that nearly 11 percent showed a preoccupation with surfing the Internet. Documenting the addiction tendency is a new area of psychological research resulting from the “information age.” In particular, it has become increasingly relevant for forensic psychiatry because a person’s Internet presence can help support or refute a diagnosis presented as part of a court case. For example, the choice of screen name, amount of self-disclosure, and provocative behavior in social media forums can be used to describe a person’s credibility and quality of insight or supportable judgment. In this way, the Internet is shaping societies around the globe like a virus. A school of thought about the viral qualities of the Internet is the basis for memetics, a branch of cultural anthropology that considers how culture replicates.
It is certain that the World Wide Web has not created the new society some of its cheerleaders proposed. It is also doubtful that society itself has changed that much as a result of the introduction of the Internet to mainstream culture. The idea that technology by itself will determine the character of human life is naive. It is fair to say, however, that society has not kept up with the consequences of Internet technology. In part this is because the technology is young and people are too close to it. The next wave of the Internet is likely to be the widespread linking not just of personal computers but of things. Phones, media players, and gaming are already widespread online. Someday it could be vehicles, appliances, tools, and parts of the human body linked into a global interactive network.
How then can the significance of the Internet be understood today? First and foremost, it should not be regarded as something entirely new, nor should one listen too closely to either its fans or its cynics. It is one of many innovations dubbed a revolution by some and a threat to society by others. Compare the Internet to electricity, the telegraph, transatlantic cable, telephone, radio, television, satellites, or computers. All struck awe into their first users but were adopted by the next generation as simply the way things are done. None was revolutionary by itself. The social changes that have come with these technologies have as much to do with how people envisioned them, reacted to them, and applied them as they do with the inventions themselves.
Human imagination has a remarkable capacity to adapt technology in ways its inventors did not consider. Therefore society is less likely to be transformed by the Internet than to transform the Internet into areas not yet conceived.
Michael H. Farris
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