When television became popular in the 1950s, it provided a window to the world, but it also encouraged people to spend less time outside visiting with neighbors. The automobile furnished people with mobility, but it also created pollution and led to the creation of suburban sprawl. Today, the Internet allows people to access unlimited amounts of information and connect with people around the world, but some experts believe it has also led to social isolation and loss of privacy. As David Mennahum and a group of eleven other technology writers assert, “Technology is making life more convenient and enjoyable, and many of us healthier, wealthier and wiser. But it is also affecting work, family, and the economy in unpredictable ways, introducing new forms of tension and distraction, and posing new threats to the cohesion of our physical communities.” The Internet has already precipitated far-reaching social and economic changes, yet in its present form, the Net is just over ten years old.
The Internet seemed to appear suddenly in the early 1990s, but its development really began twenty years earlier. In 1969, the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was asked to create a communications network that would survive a nuclear attack. The research team linked four university computers in a network—called ARPAnet—so that if one of the computers in the network was destroyed, the other three could continue to exchange data. ARPAnet was utilized primarily by engineers and scientists.
ARPAnet continued to attract the interest of academicians, but—since it required complex commands to operate—it was difficult to use. In an effort to make a computer network that would be easier to operate, computer experts continued to explore different protocols—the computer standards that enable different computers to communicate with one another.
The protocol Unix—developed in 1978—made newsgroups possible for the first time. Newsgroups allow users to talk with one another about their favorite topics over a network. BITNET (Because It’s Time Network) connected IBM mainframe computers and was eventually linked with the burgeoning Internet, which allowed for the exchange of e-mail, now the most widely used part of the Net.
With the advent of new Internet protocols, networks became progressively easier to use. However, as more universities and organizations began to post information on the Internet, it became increasingly difficult to navigate. In response, tools to index Internet resources were developed. The first user-friendly Internet interface—Gopher—was developed in 1991 and is still used today. Gopher allows people using personal computers to download information from universal servers, the model for today’s Internet.
However, Gopher is a text-based interface that many users still find formidable. A more slowly developed, but ultimately more popular protocol was a graphics-based distribution standard proposed by the European Particle Physics Laboratory in 1989. This graphics-based protocol—based on hypertext, which allows users to follow links to other documents— eventually became the World Wide Web (WWW). In 1993, the Web browser Mosaic was introduced by Marc Andreessen, who later helped design the Netscape Navigator Web browser, which, along with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, helped popularize the Web. Browsers allow users with no knowledge of complex Internet protocols to use the Internet with ease. The popularity of the Web has also provided an incentive for commercial interests to create their own websites, which has led to an explosion in Internet commerce.
From its modest beginning as a network linking four university computers, the Internet has grown to an international network of more than forty thousand computer networks accommodating more than fifty million users. Indeed, Morgan Stanley Technology Research reports that the Internet is the world’s fastest-growing communications medium in history. It took thirty-eight years for radio to reach 50 million homes in the United States and thirteen years for television to do so. In contrast, many experts claim that the Internet has exceeded that level of penetration in just ten years. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 49 percent of U.S. residents were Internet users in 1999, a 30 percent increase from 1996. Average Internet users spend around seven hours per week surfing the Net, time they used to spend watching television, talking on the phone, and reading, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The rapid growth of the Internet has resulted in profound social and economic changes. Those who see the Internet as a positive technology claim that it has helped people become enlightened, enabled individuals to voice diverse opinions, built relationships between people, and bolstered the economy. Paul Gilster, author of Digital Literacy, claims that the Internet has “inherent power in creating connections between people and institutions where before there were none.” On the other hand, critics of the Internet claim that the technology has isolated people, provided an avenue for pornography pushers to ply their trade, fostered hate and terrorism, and become a tool of the elite. Internet critic Clifford Stoll, author of Silicon Snake Oil, writes, “What good does it do our society to take us away from a close, physical community and put us in touch with distant strangers? The things people yearn for most—a community, a relationship with commitment and trust—are exactly what you don’t have online.”
Technologies such as the automobile, the telephone, and the Internet often effect unforeseen changes. The Internet, because it has grown so quickly, especially exemplifies the paradoxical nature of technology. To be sure, technology is not neutral—it affects society, for good and for ill—and history eventually records both the negative and positive impacts of each new technology. The authors in The Internet: Opposing Viewpoints debate some of the most contentious issues concerning the Internet in the following chapters: How Does the Internet Affect Society? How Will the Internet Affect American Institutions? Should the Internet Be Regulated? What Will Be the Future of the Internet? As Internet technology evolves from a four-computer network to a wireless medium connecting millions of people worldwide, it will continue to shape society in the future.