Cover Story

Caught up in the Web

For good or for ill, the Internet is shaping our culture-end-running the gatekeepers, erasing the differences between PC and Mac, making the free market freer-and this digital revolution is just getting started

Issue: "Digital Revolution," Nov. 27, 1999

The Internet turned 30 this fall. In September, proud father Len Kleinrock celebrated the day the ideas he cooked up as an MIT grad student came to life. In his California research lab, two bulky computers were connected by a mere 15-foot cable. After some twiddling and fiddling, they started passing test data back to one another. Like Alexander Graham Bell talking to Watson, this exchange of bits gave birth to the Internet. The plans for such a system date back to 1957, when Defense Department officials worried about the Soviet Sputnik satellite launch. They needed a decentralized, fast, and efficient way for research computers around the world to talk about it. Mr. Kleinrock came on the stage in 1961 when he wrote a paper about his Internet plans. He became a professor at UCLA in 1963, and he flipped the magic switch on Sept. 2, 1969. A year later, 10 universities were online, using protocols similar to those used today by chatters, Web surfers, and downloaders. But this wasn't the Internet we know now. It was a cold, dark, user-unfriendly place, controlled by a high priesthood of research geeks. Access was permitted only to the few who could be trusted with a username and password. Soon members of that elite started talking to one another, passing around office jokes, software tips, and Star Trek trivia. That number grew and grew, and by the mid-1990s, the Internet was an overnight sensation that in reality had been decades in the making. By the time Netscape made the Web browser popular, the rush was on. As one observer noted, it was like a parade breaking out in a bomb shelter. People started directing their lives toward their email accounts. They began making more and more business deals, started love affairs, and even committed crimes with their mice and modems. Yet the digital conquest of society has only just begun. As a medium, it is just getting close to its I Love Lucy stage. Where is it going? Within just a few short years, 52 percent of the population has gone online. Now, checking email has become a major American pastime. People keep up correspondence with people they have never met. They are discussing issues, conducting debates, and pouring their hearts out. Many are also putting on a new identity with each screen name, taking advantage of the medium's anonymity to indulge their depravities. But the Internet is shaping our lives in positive ways. Adam Smith's dream of the free market is embodied on the Web, with products being sold at their true market value, through mass competitive bidding. Investors can have all the information they need about a company and can buy and sell instantaneously. Productivity is up, as workers can accomplish more with their time and work wherever they are. Businesses can be interconnected and more efficient than ever before. The Internet world is storming the gatekeepers. The established media could lose their grip on the news flow, since the Internet passes news, gossip, information, and opinions at the speed of light. And e-journalists don't need a publishing company or a TV network to be players. Everyone with a computer has the same access. At the same time, the toppling of the gatekeepers means that false information moves as quickly as the true, with urban legends, phony virus scares, and other disinformation zipping from email account to email account to fool the unwary. The Web becomes a mirror of contemporary culture, both for better and worse. As new applications of the technology keep proliferating and accelerating, the broadness of the Internet becomes ever broader. What was previously unthinkable is now being pulled online. Who would have thought someone would try to sell human body parts on the Web? Sure, books, CDs, even flowers and groceries, but a live kidney? Yet someone calling himself "hchero'' from Sunrise, Fla., jumped onto eBay's virtual trading floor late this summer and started the bidding at $25,000. In fact, bizarre auctions, while usually pranks, are becoming a common event. The unknown dealer posted his wares, saying: "Fully functional kidney for sale. You can choose either kidney. Buyer pays all transplant and medical costs. Of course only one for sale, as I need the other one to live. Serious bids only." This was probably a hoax, but real bids were placed. The bidding hit $5.7 million before eBay stopped the auction because it violates company policy against dealing body parts (and such a transaction is punishable by up to five years in prison or a $50,000 fine). Bizarre or not, it didn't shock eBay officials. "We get items we have to take down on a fairly frequent basis. From time to time, we'll get a kidney or a liver," said spokesman Kevin Pursglove. Such a strange phenomenon shows the Turkish-bazaar notion of cyberspace as a place where anything can be sold, traded, found, investigated, or downloaded. The doors are open and most everybody wants in. All this expansion has critics freting about what people get when they go online. Every major company does some online business somewhere. This caused a reality check for those who thought the new technology might bring in utopia. At one point a cadre of bohemians, self-promoters, and San Francisco freelance writers, who esteemed themselves "digerati," proclaimed that the Internet would cause a cultural shift like unto the French Revolution. This band, which included assorted misfits, Timothy Leary groupies, and Whole Earth Catalog types, helped teach people how to think about the Net. By introducing people to the Net, the digerati thought that "Netizens" would discard their middle-class ways and dance in the glow of the screen. They would find "virtual community" by sharing their most private thoughts with anonymous strangers. It would be a realm of pure freedom. All censorship would float away, leaving the masses swimming in a sea of erotica and pornography. (Regrettably, the latter part of that prophecy came true.) Some even taught that since "information wants to be free," the Internet would kill all copyright laws, making all creations available and downloadable for free. When it turned out that the Internet looked more like America Online than Greenwich Village, the cult of the @ symbol faced a spiritual crisis. Digerati Douglas Rushkoff openly laments his old claims in a book called Coercion, claiming that the Internet has become a tool of product-pitching big corporations that can use all sorts of high-tech ploys to track customers and suck their credit cards dry. Instead of becoming a Mardi Gras of collective individuals, the Internet is a jungle. People hunt for information and goods from office jokes to Bavinck's systematic theology to frozen pizza. Meanwhile, dealers ranging from guys with free Web pages to billion-dollar companies hunt for users of their goods. Mr. Rushkoff fears a world where people are fish to be fed to corporate sharks. What dealers on the Net want is to corner the market on something. You want free email, go to Hotmail.com. You want books, go to Amazon.com. You want theology, go to Reformed.org. Everyone wants to be a king (like General Motors) or a kingmaker (like Motor Trend). The way to become king is to amass as many demographic power blocs as possible. Slowly, companies are noticing that evangelicals make a nice population of customers. Traditionally, online gatekeepers have shunned Christian content. Portals like Yahoo tend to bury it in their indexes, forcing users to dig deeply to find it. A sign that this condition is changing may be coming from Amazon.com, which built a Christian bookstore addition to its megasite. "Amazon.com created this new store in response to customers' overwhelming feedback about how they prefer to shop for Christian merchandise," the company proclaimed when it opened the site in late August. Yet what Amazon built is a disaster that shows how little corporate marketers know about their religious customers. Since Amazon.com has nearly anything available, a Christian site only serves marketing purposes. Since users need only to type in a name and an author to buy a book, a site like this needs to be helpful; the book indexes, however, are eclectic to the max. The No. 1 book on the General Christian index on Sept. 3 was Why Christianity Must Change or Die by the heretical John Shelby Spong! Down the list is a motley crew including the mystic Simone Weil, the 19th-century "religious atheist" Ludwig Feuerbach, the New Age theologian Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, and the liberal Catholic Hans Küng-along with the more recognizably Christian Peter Kreeft, Hank Hanegraaff, and Francis Schaeffer. Other charts are like this, too diverse to be useful to anyone but dilettantes. Even worse is when Amazon tries to cook up bestseller lists by denomination. The choices seem to be picked by keyword searches, not by intelligent editors who understand the audience. Ergo "Presbyterian" and "Calvinist" received different charts. Many of the books in the latter are out of print but use "Calvinist" in the title. The Baptists get a classic mistake: Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America ranked as No. 3 on their chart. This comedy of errors does not prove some wacky agenda on Amazon's part. Its managers want to serve the customers, but don't understand them clearly. But the Christian store obscures Amazon's true value: By selling anything, Amazon makes available a wide variety of solid material that Christian bookstores can't or won't sell. Publishers like Concordia or P&R or Banner of Truth now have a fighting chance against the big boys, as do authors like Otto Scott, Douglas Wilson, or O. Palmer Robertson. E-commerce opens up an unprecedented distribution chain. For those who don't want to deal with shipping, electronic books are around the corner. Projects like Glassbooks, SoftBooks, and ClearType are already in the works and will one day give ink and paper some stiff competition. The online bookstore Fatbrain.com offers a service called eMatter, where independent authors can publish their works online in various formats and still collect royalties. While such a system will naturally increase the amount of bad books and unreadable writing, it also allows quality works to live that would not exist otherwise. Len Kleinrock says the Internet will eventually become invisible, directing information to the user instead of making the user the servant of his computer. "The Internet will become transparent to us," he said. "It will be everywhere, always available and not in our face-just like electricity." What we have today is halfway between the old difficult days and the new fast, friendly days ahead. The goal is making the conventional headaches vanish. "A user does not understand what is happening behind the computer screen," said George Vradenburg III, senior VP of America Online. "The future is in the art of making it disappear." Mr. Kleinrock says the Internet is just now coming out of the Stone Age. The Internet connection used by most is either a 28.8 or 56Kbps modem that does the job of downloading email and Web surfing, but not very quickly. The trouble for most is still that connection. The top for most people is that 56K modem (which doesn't really connect at 56K thanks to the FCC), and that has led to an arms race between cable and phone companies to wire up America with high-speed access. The cable companies deal in cable modems, while the phone companies have DSL, or Digital Subscriber Line, service available in scattershot areas in America. Such broadband services could soon kaboom. According to the Strategis Group, combined DSL and cable modem penetration will reach 10 percent to 30 percent of homes in some cities by 2003. Companies are racing to get service ready and sign up customers. An ever-growing service provider called Covad Communications, for example, announced plans in early September to make its DSL-based services available to 40 percent of the homes and businesses in the country. Like similar services, it sends high-speed data over standard phone lines, promising speeds up to 50 times faster than traditional 28.8K modems. Unlike modems, DSL splits a single line into two parts-the digital part, which provides the Internet access, and the analog part, which allows users to place or receive phone calls or faxes. Customers usually pay according to how much speed they want, usually ranging from 256 Kbps to 1.5 Mbps. Cable modems usually come in one-speed-fits-all packages, and data travels alongside TV signals through the company's networks. Soon, phone services will run through those same lines, giving customers a triple whammy through one jack in the wall. This convergence was a catalyst in AT&T's purchase of TCI (WORLD, Sept. 11, 1999). When users hook into broadband, what they see on their screens has more of the responsiveness they have in their TV remotes. They can surf the Web faster than before, giving up the World Wide Wait that has become an American cliché. They can also download audio and videos. This has media companies worried, since mountains of music and even full-length movies like Phantom Menace and The Matrix are floating around the Net as bootlegs. The Internet doesn't care what computer you use, as long as data can run back and forth. That's why Microsoft married its Internet Explorer into Windows 98; the Internet is another platform that doesn't require the usual rules set by the operating system. Eventually faraway computers will take over many functions performed by PCs-and few users will even notice the difference. Sun Microsystems is about to launch a system that lets users do their word processing, spreadsheet operations, and business presentations over the Net-for free. The company bought a small office software company, Star Division, intending to give its products a complete overhaul. Instead of running a word processor or spreadsheet that mainly resides on a computer, the new Star software will be Web-based. That means that users of any machine-a PC, a Mac, or even an Amiga or a Linux box-can run the same software. Soon, more devices like cell phones, car computers, or personal digital assistants will be able to access Web-based documents. The trouble is that users on those slow modems will have trouble maneuvering the bulky software. Thus they will want those super-fast broadband hookups-and perhaps even buy a high-end computer that Sun will be happy to sell. Eventually, some developers would like to get more of the Net off the desktop. Intelligent devices like game machines, stock tickers, electronic checkbooks, and digital shopping carts would perform one task without requiring computer literacy. Some tasks are as unnecessary to a home PC's main tasks as a clock radio is to a stereo system; so why not spin them off? That's the sort of invisibility that people like Mr. Kleinrock are talking about. The technology of 2029 will be as different from 1999 as today's is from that first lab experiment. What we do with it is our challenge.

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