The Internet and Society

Ten years ago, only a select few people had ever heard of the Internet. Fewer understood what the word "Internet" referred to. Today, however, that has all changed. The Internet is featured on nightly news programs (Dateline, NBC Nightly News, etc.), magazines are dedicated to it (Internet World), and thousands of new users are gaining access to the vast and nebulous body commonly referred to as just "The Net" everyday. This recent explosion of interest and usage of the Net has the potential for making the Net into one of the major societal shaping forces in the coming years.

A Brief History of the Net

As many great scientific ventures have, the Net began many years ago as a government funded research project. The idea was for the military to create a communications network that would be able to withstand a nuclear attack. What they ultimately created was the forerunner of today's Internet. ARPA (the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency) created a packet-switched[footnote] network, ARPAnet, that was able to operate under the extreme type of conditions that would result from a World War III. (Source: http://www.forthnet.gr/isoc/short.history.of.internet).

The genius behind their plan is the layered (and sometimes redundant) architecture they based the system upon. Nowadays, it is commonly referred to as TCP/IP Networking. TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) and IP (Internet Protocol) are the two protocols that distinguish the Internet from all other networks. They are sometimes referred to as simply the Internet protocols. (Comer citation)

Soon after their introduction, the Internet protocols gained wide acceptance among the scientific and research communities at major universities. They adapted the protocols slightly and began connecting their own mainframe computers to leased telephone lines so that they could communicate with each other's mainframes. Thus began a slow movement that networked the scientific community and, as a result, most large and mid-sized universities over the course of about ten years. Then a miracle occurred.

A number of significant things happened in a very short period of time that pushed the acceptance and use of the growing Internet to a critical mass. The government, through the National Science Foundation (NSF), upgraded one of the major (and most congested) backbone networks in the country, the NSFnet backbone. In addition, they began to plant smaller seed networks in geographically smaller and confined areas. These seed networks, like OARnet (to which Bowling Green State University is connected), began to offer connections to smaller, local institutions that could not afford connections directly onto the NSFnet or other backbones. Many, many universities, businesses, and organizations took advantage of these offerings and got themselves connected. The end result was a snowball effect that is still building today.

Why is the Net so appealing?

Speaking to someone who knows nothing about the Net other than the fact that a lot of people think it's cool, one discovers the big question: What can I do on the Internet? The answer to that, not surprisingly, is changing daily. Luckily, there are some services or features that have been around for quite some time to which new users are commonly drawn.

Electronic Mail

Almost half off all the traffic across the major backbone networks in the result of electronic mail (email) (Source: ????). Electronic mail provides an incredibly fast and affordable means for any two individuals to exchange information, letters, thoughts via the Internet. Email is probably the single largest service drawing new users to the Net. On a good day, an electronic mail message can go from a computer on the eastern coast of the United States to Japan in under five (5) seconds. The vast majority of electronic mail messages are transferred at incredibly high speeds, making even Federal Express look like a tortoise.

The Search for Information...

AT&T has recently aired commercials containing claims like, "Have you ever borrowed a book from around the world? ... You will ... It's coming from AT&T" (or something like that). To the surprise of many, that type of thing has been going on daily for years over the Internet. The Net houses vast databases of information, databases which, for the most part, are open to the public and just waiting to be tapped. Addresses, phone numbers, zip codes, GNPs, book lists, little known facts, and the largest shoe store in New Jersey are just a tiny sampling of the information available on the Net.

Files and Archives

In addition to massive amounts of "raw" information, there are literally thousands upon thousands of files, programs, and tools available on the Net. Before the Internet even took off, computer hobbyists called each other's computers over the phone to exchange the hottest game or latest operating system hack. Today, many of those same people can find those programs on the Net and get them in a fraction of the time. Not only can the programs be transferred faster, they are usually grouped with several thousand similar files. It's a computer geek's paradise. (so why do real people use it, then?)

Social Hangout

No attractive computer network is complete without some person-to-person contact once in a while. The Internet is no exception. Several public forums exist on which anyone can post their views. Issues as diverse as skating, pets, sex, movies, and government are all regular topics on these forums. In addition, there are several "places" on the Net which are like online bars. People from around the world come together to hang out, chat, and just waste time on the Net.

Recent Developments

The majority of what is drawing people to the Internet is technology that has been pioneered in the past few (3-5) years. Most of the services described here focus on making the Internet an easier place to navigate and search. In general, they make it a friendlier place to hang out and use.

Gopher

One of the most valuable resources on the net is called Gopher. Developed at the University of Minnesota (gopher://gopher.tc.umn.edu/), Gopher is basically a networked information retrieval system. If offers a menu driven interface to navigating the hundreds of megabytes on information available on the Net. Aside from Gopher itself, there are many assistants that Gopher relies on. Veronica (some funny explanation of what that stands for) is often used in performing searches of all Gopherspace.

The World Wide Web

Developed at CERN (http://www.cern.ch/), the European High Energy Physics Research Laboratory, the World Wide Web (www or just the Web) is the singe Internet resource that has gained the most publicity in the past year. The Web is a hypertext and hypermedia based system of accessing information that is available via the Internet. Instead of being a single service like WAIS, FTP, or Telnet, the Web offers a single, unifying interface to all of the following services: Gopher, archie, WAIS, Usenet News, FTP, Veronica, and even electronic mail. Most newcomers don't know what most of those acronyms mean. That's the whole idea; they shouldn't have to. The addition of more services is already being discussed.

Currently, the WWW is the fastest growing resource on the Internet (source: ISOC http://info.isoc.org/home.html). Not long after its introduction, it quickly surpassed Gopher and anonymous FTP usage. The traffic generated as a result of the Web is second only to electronic mail.

Internet Multicasting

One of the hopes for the Internet is that it will be a vehicle for sending real-time audio and video data around the world. That is being tested by a group of individuals who participate in the Multicast Backbone (MBone). The project grew out of "audiocast" experiments by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Their intention was to test the possibility of having real-time broadcasts of their conference proceedings. Since then, the initiate has been continued by a growing group of people. In fact, NASA regularly broadcasts Space Shuttle missions from launches right on through the landings.

Internet Talk Radio

For years, we have been able to tune into National Public Radio and other AM radio talk shows just by turning on a radio. If the technology progresses far enough, and it undoubtedly will, the same quality of programming will be available via the Internet. The Internet Talk Radio (info@radio.com) service broadcasts radio-style talk shows on the Internet in a limited geographic area. However, the shows are available to the entire network as prerecorded sound files. That means anyone can just download a 30 minute program and play it back on their computer.

Sociologically Speaking...

The massive numbers of the general population (at least of the U.S.) getting "on the Net" are having noticeable social effects. New forms of communication are being established, social norms are changing, and information is everywhere (and it's getting there quickly). The relationship between the Net and society is a constantly changing series of complex interactions.

New Neighbors

Networking allows huge amounts of data to move from any point on the globe to any other point on the globe faster than it ever has before. That means, for those who are connected, the world is shrinking in some very exciting way. Online forums and electronic mail are allowing people from distant places and cultures to communicate and do it easily in a non-threatening environment.

When O.J. Simpson was being chased down the highway by the an entourage of police cars and media helicopters, there was a massive on-line gathering of curious citizens. Through Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a couple hundred people gathered in the same virtual place to discuss and comment on what they were seeing from the TV networks. Also, a few people who were just miles from all the action were giving live reports to those gathered on the #oj channel.

People from all over the world were receiving real-time accounts of what was going on in California many hours before they could expect to see newspaper coverage of it. The more amazing fact is that common citizens were able to engage in a discussion about what was happening without leaving their seats. Such a discussion was just not possible a few years ago.

Net Behavior

Elizabeth Reid (emr@ariel.ucs.unimelb.edu.au) wrote her Honors Thesis about IRC. She is just one of a growing community of researchers who are taking an increasing interest in Computer Mediated Communication (CMC, http://www.rpi.edu/Internet/Guides/decemj/icmc/toc1.html). They are interested in finding out how people communicate via computers. More importantly, they are learning about how people behave through computer mediated communication. Do people tend to be more or less honest when communicating via email? Do they communicate more or less frequently? The answers to those types of questions will provide valuable insight into how society may be communicating in the future.

Not too long ago, teenagers gathered together on Friday and Saturday nights to go cruising. Now, with the widespread use of the Internet, many teens are beginning to spend their spare time surfing the Net. In fact, an entire guide has been written to assist new users in their surfing ventures. Jean Armour Polly's document, titled "Surfing the Internet" is available from (ftp://nysernet.org/pub/resources/guides/surfing.2.0.3.txt). It covers the whole range of what one can do on the Net in just a few hours time.

In her document, Jean sums up the power of a network connection quite well:

A net connection in a school is like having multiple foreign exchange students in the classroom all the time. It promotes active, participatory learning. Participating in a discussion group is like being at an ongoing library conference. All the experts are Out There, waiting to be asked.

Having so many people just bumping into each other on the Net has some interesting implications. Suddenly, cultural differences among Net surfers are not readily obvious. Someone on the Net is not Black, White, Asian, rich, or poor unless they choose to reveal that information. Even if they do, there is not a way to (easily) verify it. The Internet is culturally, gender, economically, and religiously neutral. That's not to say those topics never come up; they certainly do. However, interactions on the Net are far less biased by the visual and typically distinguishing features of people which are easily verified in person. (Source: ???)

Information at Your Fingertips

Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft Corporation, has always pushed for "Information at your fingertips". (Source: Hard Drive) By that, he means people should be able to find any information they could possible want by simply walking over to one of the computers in their house, work, etc. and asking for it. They should receive a virtually instant reply which contains pointers to all the information they are seeking. When (not if) that happens, it could revolutionize the way our society operates.

Right now, via Gopher and the World Wide Web, an incomprehensible amount of information is already available for the browsing. The Clinton Administration has setup an information server on the Internet so that the public can get information like what type of food Socks (the First Cat) likes to eat, where the president is on any given day, what Al Gore wants to do about the National Information Infrastructure (NII), and so on. This is only the beginning.

In the Future

Internetworking on a global scale is just starting to pick up momentum. Before long, we can expect every country in the world to be connected to the Internet. The number of people using the Internet will surely double once, double again, and continue to grow at an astounding rate. As the number of users increases, the supporting technology and innovation will, too.

Internet in every home?

A few cable television providers in southern California are already testing the idea of a direct Internet connection in the home. Standard television cable provides the access along with their basic TV services. In addition to their basic services, some companies are testing a "video on demand" system. (Source: InfoWorld?) The system allows any home to order a movie to be played for them at a specific time. If this becomes a standard part of networked cable television, there may no longer be a need for video stores.

Will the post office exist?

Electronic mail could conceivably replace the U. S. Postal Service. If we'll all have Internet access in our homes someday, who would think of putting a letter to grandma on paper and sending it though a system that could take a week to get it to her. Everyone knows that email is a heck of a lot faster than that (except on BGNet). It is not uncommon to find people shipping pictures, sounds, and supplemental files along with the standard text-based electronic mail messages. Who knows, maybe one day we'll even be able to send money via email.

The online media

The Internet Multicasting of today will probably become commonplace. People will very likely sit down at their PCs to call one another instead of doing it via the telephone. After all, a telephone can only make phone calls. PCs could be computers, phones, VCRs, and televisions all at the same time. Throw global networking on top of all that, and the possibilities are incredible.

Information overload (a whole new industry?)

All of this networking and information everywhere sounds wonderful, but it comes at a price. One of the major concerns is that we will become simply overwhelmed by the amount and scope of information that will be at our fingertips. This phenomenon has already show its face in other high tech areas. Fighter pilots, for example, had trouble in the wave of high speed jets that were introduced in the early '70s. Some of the jets had so many controls, dials, and readouts in front of the pilot's face, the he ended up ignoring much of them. The pilots simply couldn't process that amount of information quickly enough for it to be useful. (Source: NOVA)

The same thing has already happened to a lesser degree on the Internet. The World Wide Web, for example, can lead an unsuspecting user through a huge wild goose chase while hunting for a fairly trivial piece of information. If this type of problem continues to go unchecked, it may be impossible to find the information you need in the future. Obviously something needs to be done about that. Fortunately, work is already underway.

A whole new industry may rise out of the need for managing the vast amount of information on the Internet. Instead of going and searching for information, in the future we may (online) go to an information specialist who has the resources to locate the information we desire, at a fee of course. This new industry could easily grow to be as large as AT&T or even the entire telecommunications industry.

Closing Thoughts

The Internet has the potential for changing our world as much as the introduction and wide acceptance of the telephone did many years ago. The telephone revolutionized the way people communicate, freed people from geographical boundaries, and increased the pace of everyday life. (Source: Sterling, the Hacker Crackdown). The Net may take all of that even farther, providing a way for people from anywhere to communicate and share information at the touch of a button. The possibilities are limitless, and the next few years will be crucial in determining where the technology will ultimately go.

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November 1994
Copyright 1997 by Jeremy D. Zawodny, <jzawodn@wcnet.org>