Technology has the power to transform society. The most famous example of this is German craftsman Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson sums up the vast changes that occurred as a result of the invention of printing: “Gutenberg’s press led to mass literacy, fostered the Protestant Reformation (by undermining the clergy’s theological monopoly) and, through the easy exchange of information, enabled the scientific revolution.” Subsequent technological advances are also often evaluated in terms of the effect they had on society. James Watt’s steam engine, for example, is often credited with starting the Industrial Revolution in England. Today, the Internet and associated information technologies are said to be behind an information revolution that is transforming the way people live and work.
Unlike the printing press or the steam engine, no single person invented the Internet. Instead it was the culmination of advances in computer technology, reductions in the cost of manufacturing personal computers and the resulting increase in their popularity, and the evolution of networking technology.
The Internet is essentially a vast network of computers. Importantly, it is a decentralized network; it does not depend on a central mainframe computer as networks did in the 1950s and 1960s. The idea for a vast, decentralized computer network originated with the Cold War and the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). ARPA scientists and engineers wanted to create a computer network in which any computer could exchange information with any other computer. The destruction of one or more parts of the network—perhaps from a Soviet attack—would not disrupt communication between other computers in the system.
Computers were first linked to form ARPANET, as this early network was called, in 1969. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as computers became more common, academic researchers and engineers began linking their computers to ARPANET. As the network grew—branching haphazardly and quite beyond the control of its original creators—it came to be known as the “Internet.”
Many people associate the Internet with e-mail. E-mail is only one of the many ways that information can be shared over the Internet, but e-mail was one of the most popular uses for the Internet in its early years. Researchers welcomed e-mail as a fast, easy, and free way to communicate with colleagues. Researchers also experimented with different ways of transporting files across the Internet.
In order to share computer files across the Internet, the computers on the network need to share a common protocol, or standard, for how the data will be transported electronically. The most famous such protocol—and the one that propelled the Internet to nationwide popularity—is Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML. HTML was invented by Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer programmer who developed the protocol as a convenient way of sharing documents over the Internet. In 1991 HTML became the basis for the World Wide Web, a subset of the Internet in which HTML documents are grouped to form websites that are linked to one another.
The World Wide Web made the Internet more easily accessible and for many people, fun to use. Instead of just text, Internet users could now access still pictures, animation, and sound. As a result, the Internet experienced an enormous surge in popularity throughout the 1990s. Whereas in 1993 there were less than 90,000 people using the Internet on a regular basis, in 1999 there were approximately 171 million, and in 2000 there were over 300 million. Estimates in 2001 indicate that 58 percent of the U.S. population, or 165.18 million people, have access to the Internet at home. Government and independent market research indicates that the number of Internet users could reach 1 billion by 2005.
The phenomenal growth of the Internet is a major component of the information revolution, but it is not the only part. The Internet has spurred a wave of innovation in communications technology. Not just computers, but also cell phones, personal digital assistants, and even automobiles can now link to the Internet. And software companies have developed countless applications to harness the Internet’s potential.
Many of these applications are business-oriented. The instantaneous access to information that the Internet offers has revolutionized the way many companies do business. It has also given rise to a new type of business: e-commerce. Eretailers like Amazon.com essentially offer customers a convenient, interactive, customizable, and constantly updated mail-order catalog, while others, such as the auction site eBay, offer services that would not be possible without the World Wide Web. E-commerce generated almost $47.6 billion in revenue in 2001.
Investors will continue to monitor the Internet’s effect on the economy, but the social aspects of the Information Revolution—its effects on everything from entertainment to education to government—are harder to quantify. Many commentators question just how sweeping the changes wrought by information technology have been. Others wonder whether those changes are on par with the societal transformations brought on by past technologies such as the printing press and the steam engine. Robert J. Samuelson believes it may be too soon to judge the impact of new information technologies: “Technologies acquire historical weight by reshaping the human condition,” he writes. “As yet the Internet isn’t in the same league with [past] developments.” Frances Cairncross, the author of The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Is Changing Our Lives, makes a bolder prediction:
Think of [the information revolution] as one of the three great revolutions in the cost of transport. The nineteenth century, dominated by the steamship and the railway, saw a transformation in the cost of transporting goods; the twentieth century, with first the motor car and then the aeroplane, in the cost of transporting people. The new century will be dominated by the transformation in the cost of transporting knowledge and ideas.
The authors in Current Controversies: The Information Age explore the issues raised by information technology in the following chapters: How Has the Information Age Affected Society? Has the Information Age Created a New Economy? How Should Governments Respond to the Information Age? What Is the Future of the Information Age? The authors in this volume seek to provide insight into the impact of information technology on society. This is a formidable task, since the Information Age is itself characterized by constant change. As Cairncross notes, “That these technologies will change the world is beyond a doubt. The way that they will do so is more mysterious.”