Tales of Technology
The first time I noticed the Internet was in 1965 when I saw an MIT professor typing madly at an old teletype. "He's talking to someone in California!" someone whispered. At first I didn't see why it was better than a telephone; but I quickly learned it was a vitally important tool.
In the early days, this new thing was called the Arpanet after the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency. Its use was restricted to a small number of universities and research labs, and it was meant primarily to link up precious computers rather than people. But time has shown that computers are not so precious, while human communication is.
For me and my computer friends, the best time for the Internet was the 1980s, when it was the private preserve of scientists and engineers. If we encountered someone there we could expect that they understood computers, were generally intelligent and were not selling Viagra. We discovered how great e-mail was for communicating -- as fast as a telephone without requiring the receiver's immediate attention. It was as clear as a written letter. It also facilitated group communication since the Internet was happy to distribute a message to as many people as you could name.
Another little feature: the Internet was cheap because it used telephone lines far more efficiently. Instead of requiring a continuous path of copper between every two transcontinental communicants, it could use one line for many pairs by chopping up the sender's message, interspersing the pieces and reassembling them at the receiver's end. Guess how the telephone companies liked that.
As more people got hooked up, the Internet became much more important. In fact, an observation called Metcalfe's Law predicts that successful new communications systems constantly accelerate their growth. This is because the value to each subscriber is proportional to the total number of subscribers. The hundredth telephone purchaser got access to only 99 other people, while today's gets a billion.
In the early '90s, politicians noticed the Internet. Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn. at the time, pushed important Internet funding (mimicking his father who had spear-headed the Interstate Highway). Then as vice president he called for an "Information Highway."
Gore's interest provided air cover for the federal agencies to open the Internet up to the general public and commercial use, ignoring many business interests such as the telephone companies, AOL and Microsoft, which favored a more controlled and profitable approach to information distribution. Gore and company also made some little-noticed decisions that served to keep government from over-regulating or taxing the Internet.
So the government took the Internet away from the computer guys and turned it into an "information commons." Some of us didn't like our clubhouse being invaded, but the effect of creating a worldwide, open information space was exhilarating and worth the confusion. Groups all over the world found they could communicate and coordinate as never before.
Some physicists invented better software in the form of Web browsers, and the Internet boom was on. The Internet subscriber base kept accelerating, bringing big investments in such things as fiber-optic transmission lines.
Then the stock investors came to believe the Internet could enrich them beyond all the known wealth in the universe. Stock prices began to grow exponentially, we all went nuts and the bubble burst. The hangover is discouraging the needed, sensible investments in such things as high-speed access to homes.
Then Bush and Cheney beat Gore. Instead of having a nerd-in-chief leading the way to an Internet-based 21st century, we got oil men more comfortable with the gas-guzzling 1950s. They don't seem to be against the Internet, but it's not their thing. Then we got Osama bin Laden, who is more comfortable with 800 A.D. Now the Internet is another piece of open infrastructure to be used against its creators.
We hoped that the Internet would be like John Winthrop's "City Upon a Hill," but today it looks like Tijuana, Lagos or Beirut: full of slums and spies. Pornographers, penis enlargers, off-shore gamblers and Nigerian scamsters run wild.
ARPA and the FBI make plans to use advanced computer technology to read everyone's e-mail. We might look to the government for help in regulating the Internet, but the biggest legislative action so far has been the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed at the urging of The Walt Disney Co. and the Recording Industry Association of America. It protects them and not the consumer.
But take heart, Internet fans. Metcalfe's Law is still working its magic: Internet usage still climbs every month. The histories of canals and railroads show that great turmoil and investment bubbles precede the sustained, massive growth of vital infrastructure. The bubbles are gone, but the baby was not thrown out with them.