Afterward: The revolution is just beginning.
New communications systems and digital technologies have already
meant dramatic changes in the way we live. Think of what is already
routine that would have been considered impossible just ten years ago.
You can browse through the holdings of your local library -- or of
libraries halfway around the world -- do your banking and see if your
neighbor has gone bankrupt, all through a computer and modem.
Imploding costs coupled with exploding power are bringing ever more
powerful computer and digital systems to ever growing numbers of people.
The Net, with its rapidly expanding collection of databases and other
information sources, is no longer limited to the industrialized nations
of the West; today the web extends into once remote areas from Siberia to
Zimbabwe. The cost of computers and modems used to plug into the Net,
meanwhile, continue to plummet, making them ever more affordable.
Cyberspace has become a vital part of millions of people's daily
lives. People form relationships online, they fall in love, they get
married, all because of initial contacts in cyberspace, that ephemeral
``place'' that transcends national and state boundaries. Business deals
are transacted entirely in ASCII. Political and social movements begin
online, coordinated by people who could be thousands of miles apart.
Yet this is only the beginning.
We live in an age of communication, yet, the various media we use to
talk to one another remain largely separate systems. One day, however,
your telephone, TV, fax machine and personal computer will be replaced by
a single ``information processor'' linked to the worldwide Net by strands
of optical fiber.
Beyond databases and file libraries, power will be at your
fingertips. Linked to thousands, even millions of like-minded people,
you'll be able to participate in social and political movements across
the country and around the world.
How does this happen? In part, it will come about through new
technologies. High-definition television will require the development of
inexpensive computers that can process as much information as today's
work stations. Telephone and cable companies will compete to see who can
bring those fiber-optic cables into your home first. High- speed data
networks, such as the Internet, will be replaced by even more powerful
Vice President Albert Gore, who successfully fought for a landmark
funding bill for a new high-speed national computer network in 1990,
talks of creating "information superhighways.''
Right now, we are in the network equivalent of the early 1950s, just
before the creation of the Interstate highway system. Sure, there are
plenty of interesting things out there, but you have to meander along
two-lane roads, and have a good map, to get to them.
Creation of this new Net will also require a new communications
paradigm: the Net as information utility. The Net remains a somewhat
complicated and mysterious place. To get something out of the Net today,
you have to spend a fair amount of time with a Net veteran or a manual
like this. You have to learn such arcana as the vagaries of the Unix cd
Contrast this with the telephone, which now also provides access to
large amounts of information through push buttons, or a computer network
such as Prodigy, which one navigates through simple commands and mouse
Internet system administrators have begun to realize that not all
people want to learn the intricacies of Unix, and that that fact does not
make them bad people. Coming years will see the development of simpler
interfaces that will put the Net's power to use by millions of people,
just as the number of host systems offering public access to the Net will
Gophers and Wide-Area Information Servers have become two of the
fastest growing applications on the Net. They are relatively simple to
use and yet offer access to vast amounts of information. Mail programs
and text editors such as Pico and Pine promise much of the power of older
programs such as emacs at a fraction of the complexity.
Some software engineers are looking at taking this even further, by
creating graphical interfaces that will let somebody navigate the
Internet just by clicking on the screen with a mouse or by calling up an
easy text editor, sort of the way one can now navigate a Macintosh
computer -- or a commercial online service such as Prodigy.
Then there are the Internet services themselves.
For every database now available through the Internet, there are
probably three or four that are not. Government agencies are only
slowing beginning to connect their storehouses of information to the Net.
Several commercial vendors, from database services to booksellers, have
made their services available through the Net.
Few people now use one of the Net's more interesting applications.
A standard known as MIME lets one send audio and graphics files in a
message. Imagine opening your e-mail one day to hear your
granddaughter's first words, or a "photo" of your friend's new house.
Eventually, this standard could allow for distribution of even small
video displays over the Net.
All of this will require vast new amounts of Net power, to handle
both the millions of new people who will jump onto the Net and the new
applications they want. Replicating a moving image on a computer screen
alone takes a phenomenal amount of computer bits, and computing power to
The legislation pushed by Gore in 1991 will eventually replace the
existing Internet in the U.S. with the National Research and Education
At the center of NREN will be a backbone that, in one second, will
be able to move as much as 3 billion bits of information from coast to
coast -- the equivalent of shipping the contents of a large encyclopedia
from New York to Los Angeles electronically. That seems like a silly
thing to do. But that kind of speed allows for widespread distribution
of complex files, such as video loops, without bogging down the entire
Net. Its capacity will let millions more people onto the Net.
As these "superhighways" grow, so will the "on ramps," for a high-
speed road does you little good if you can't get to it. The costs of
modems seem to fall as fast as those of computers. High-speed modems
(9600 baud and up) are becoming increasingly affordable. At 9600 baud,
you can download a satellite weather image of North America in less
than two minutes, a file that, with a slower modem could take up to 20
minutes to download. Eventually, homes could be connected directly to a
national digital network. Most long-distance phone traffic is already
carried in digital form, through high-volume optical fibers. Phone
companies are ever so slowly working to extend these fibers the "final
mile" to the home. The @" Electronic Frontier Foundation " link EFF} is working to
ensure these links are affordable.
Beyond the technical questions are increasingly thorny social,
political and economic issues. Who is to have access to these services,
and at what cost? If we live in an information age, are we laying the
seeds for a new information under class, unable to compete with those
fortunate enough to have the money and skills needed to manipulate new
communications channels? Who, in fact, decides who has access to what?
As more companies realize the potential profits to be made in the new
information infrastructure, what happens to such systems as Usenet ,
possibly the world's first successful anarchistic system, where everybody
can say whatever they want?
What are the laws of the electronic frontier? When national and
state boundaries lose their meaning in cyberspace, the question might
even be: WHO is the law? What if a practice that is legal in one country
is "committed" in another country where it is illegal, over a computer
network that crosses through a third country? Who goes after computer
What role will you play in the revolution?
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