The Internet

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The Internet

The term didn't appear in a major American newspaper until 1988, but the Internet has become the most powerful individual electronic communications network in the world's history. From high-pressure advertising to a brief message from a political prisoner, Internet e-mail and World Wide Web sites make it possible for anyone with a computer, software, and an appropriate connection to speak to the world at the speed of light with the touch of a keypad. In the process, the Internet has added a host of new phrases and words, such as information superhighway, spam, hyperlink, chat rooms, flames, and dotcom, into the English language and revolutionized the culture. It has also led to serious concerns about the ready access it provides to pornography, violence, and hate literature, the loss of personal privacy it has occasioned, the spread of mis-and dis-information, and the future of books, newspapers, and magazines. Yet, efforts were underway at the end of the twentieth century to increase the transmission speed of Internet connections still further, and to create a second Internet, both of which would provide computerized copies of entire feature films and books in seconds and make possible the first practical mix of moving images, sound, and the printed word.

The telegraph, or the Victorian Internet, as historian Tom Standage has called it, was the antecedent of the Internet. The earliest scheme for using electricity to send messages appeared in a British magazine in 1753, and two French brothers transmitted the first electronic message in 1791, but it was American inventor Samuel F.B. Morse who gave the United States Congress an opportunity to buy outright his patent to the telegraph technology in 1844. The government failed to see the advantage of a single, standardized electronic communications network, however, and thousands of privately owned telegraph companies resulted before they were gradually purchased or put out of business by the telegraph monopoly, Western Union. In turn, the monopoly provided everything from the first professional National League baseball scores in 1876 to breaking the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the sending of love messages, all at a low, nearly universal cost. The American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) system, developed in the wake of Alexander Graham Bell's patent of the telephone in 1876, became the standardized telephone monopoly, controlling long and most short distance communication for radio and television networks and interpersonal information consumers.

One factor common to the telegraph and telephone was that neither could work without interconnection. A telephone without someone to call is useless. Even the first cumbersome, room-sized electronic computer, however, developed by Iowa State University physicist John V. Atanasoff between 1939 and 1942, could function alone. As a result, it took longer for people to recognize the advantages of computer networks. In 1964, a group of scientists at the RAND Corporation conceived of a configuration of computers interconnected by pathways similar to telephone lines as a means for military personnel to communicate following a nuclear war. Such an occurrence would have disrupted standard military communication channels, preventing surviving military personnel from coordinating a response. Such a network would not have a central station and thus could continue operating even if major portions were destroyed.

In 1969, Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) was created as a system of 20 individual computer stations, or nodes, located at various distances from one another. Each node used a common language, or control protocol, that allowed it to communicate electronically, and a transmission protocol that made all nodes equal rather than a central station hierarchy. By using special connections between the nodes, messages could be sent from one place to another on a number of pathways. Even if several nodes were destroyed in an attack, messages could still be transmitted as long as there was at least one remaining pathway. Both AT&T and Western Union had developed multiple contingency plans for their systems, but they required block-long manual switchboards in central locations vulnerable to attack. ARPANET, however, could re-route critical messages between nodes and around interruptions instantaneously, without any human intervention.

Three years later, 46 university and research organization networks were added to the system and ARPANET began to grow, as the Internet would, by chance rather than design. Perhaps one of its strongest appeals was that no one could predict accurately its future. UNIX was developed as a common operating system language in 1972. Branches with names such as Bitnet and Usenet were developed, attracting new users. Rapid communication characteristics allowed the first computerized electronic mail—e-mail—as researchers corresponded with each other. Group e-mails could be sent simultaneously at the touch of a key, eliminating the age-old need for duplicate messages to be created. Discussion areas, called news groups, allowed users to meet with others interested in specifically designated topics. The decentralized Jeffersonian democracy of the Internet held appeal for Americans in the 1970s and 1980s, the decades of individualism and corporate downsizing. The decline of Western Union and the court-ordered breakup of AT&T in 1982 only added to the attraction of a communications system without a central station or control. There were 500 host computers on the Internet, as some people were calling it, by 1984.

In spite of its wider advantages, the growth of the Internet was tightly controlled by the military during its first years. The Department of Defense did permit university nodes to share supercomputing resources, reducing the need for physical travel. That allowed researchers to perform complicated computerized research at a fraction of the otherwise expensive cost of main-frame computing machines. However, the news groups and university research-oriented networks such as CSNET (Computer Science Network) and NSFNET (National Science Foundation Network) soon began to overtax the system in the 1980s, dictating a new addressing system that allowed users to distinguish between government or educationally-endorsed content and content generated by individuals or groups without sanction or authority. The new addressing system allowed the Internet to evolve from a medium for simple back-and-forth messages such as the telegraph and telephone to one capable of providing a more complex mass audience content, similar to small-scale publishing or broadcasting. The glut of the new network traffic inspired the military to develop a new network for itself and the use of the ARPANET declined until it ceased to exist in June 1990. But the military left a deep impression on the Internet before it left. Beyond the Internet's decentralized structure and the teaching of three generations of computer scientists in the difficult art of computer networking, the military helped spawn startup computer network companies such as 3Com and the manufacturer of Ethernet.

Meanwhile, major developments were taking place in computer hardware and software that would broaden the appeal of the Internet. Marcian Hoff, Jr. of Intel Corporation combined several integrated electronic circuits into a tiny piece of electronics called a microprocessor in 1972. The new chips performed arithmetic and logic functions and could be programmed just like traditional, more expensive wired circuits. The availability of the new Intel microprocessor attracted the attention of computer hobbyists and home experimenters such as Stephen Wozniak and Steven Jobs, who began marketing the Apple I in Wozniak's garage in 1976 and created the Apple Macintosh in 1980. Mainframe computer manufacturer IBM unveiled its own "micro" computer in 1981, employing an operating system provided by Harvard University dropout Bill Gates. Within a few years, Apple and IBM had created a market for a previously unknown product, the personal computer. Other manufacturers, including Dell, Hyundai, and Gateway, joined the fad, selling inexpensive "clones" of the IBM PC, and software writers developed thousands of programs to use on the new machines, from computerized spreadsheets and word processors to a wide variety of mind-boggling games. But until the Internet, one of the greatest strengths of personal computers, communication, remained largely untapped. In fact, software baron Gates actively opposed the Internet until 1995.

As the military backed away from the Internet in the 1980s, the content evolved from serious, often computer-related topics to material more representative of popular American culture. Not surprisingly, the first three alternative news groups, known as alt. groups, were, alt.drugs, and alt.rock and roll. The High Performance Computing Act of 1991, sponsored by then U.S. Senator Albert Gore, opened the Internet to elementary and high schools and community colleges. The telephonic backbone of the Internet enabled it to spread from the United States to other countries that had existing systems coupled with political systems that allowed at least a limited form of free speech, and the Internet became truly global by the late 1980s. The growing Internet audience attracted new application developers, people whose aspirations went beyond data processing to providing uses such as education, reference, and entertainment. Businesses also began logging onto the Net, as it was being called, to conduct research and share information. The National Science Foundation accepted the task of managing the Net's backbone in 1987, but its task was just that—to manage, rather than control, the growth. The speed at which the quantity and variety of information became available was so dramatic that published directories could not keep up with it. Computerized organizational systems such as Archie, named not after the comic-book character but as a version of the word "archive," Wide Area Information Servers or WAIS, and Gopher, named after its creator University of Minnesota's mascot, became the first "search engines," providing databases of various Internet resources broken down by categories, subjects, and locations.

By the end of the 1980s, the Internet had most of the hardware technology it needed, but it lacked visual appeal or any demonstrable superiority other than speed over print. Screens were limited to two colors, crude illustrations often created by alphabetic letters, and unattractive computer-style typeface. One solution was the introduction of the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1989, in which vast amounts of information, including graphics and print-style type faces, could be delivered. Another was the advent of hypertext markup languages (HTML) in 1991. The term "hypertext" was coined by Theodor A. Nelson in 1972 and meant information referencing. For centuries, print authors had used internal text references or footnotes to direct readers to related or supportive information, but the process of finding those materials could take days, months, or even years. Clicking with a mouse on a hyperlink, a highlighted or underlined passage in a Web text, could speed a reader to related information instantaneously. The process was manipulative in that the links were chosen by an author, and often confusing since there was no predictable, logical basis for the order of documents consulted. Nonetheless, readers had never before been able to check the veracity or gain a more detailed explanation of information presented to them so quickly and effortlessly. The process of hyper-linking between all of the files and directories of the Internet, as if it were one large computer, was simplified in 1992 when the National Center for Supercomputing at the University of Illinois wrote and released the first Web "browser" Mosaic, software that allowed Web users to switch between Web sites more easily. The Illinois program evolved into the Netscape Corporation in 1994.

The proliferation of personal computers and modems, electronic devices that allowed differing types of computers to communicate with each other over telephone lines, accelerated the growth of the Internet. The number of host computers on the Net rose from 80,000 in 1989 to 1.3 million in 1993, 2.2 million in 1994, 10 million in 1996, and perhaps 50 million by the end of the century. The first movie, Wax: Or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees, was "Netcast" in May 1992. Presidents had complained about a lack of access to the American electorate since George Washington, but Bill Clinton became the first to provide a daily perspective on his administration on a mass basis via a White House Web site in 1993. Congress followed suit a year later along with thousands of federal, state, and local agencies, and politicians. The first "Wanted" poster was posted on June 24, 1994, the same year the first computer radio station went on-line, and the first music concert (the Rolling Stones from Dallas' Cotton Bowl) was shown live. Libraries began offering Web versions of books, and newspapers and magazines, the last bastion of print culture, began putting their contents on line for free. The latter practice helped stimulate advertising on the Internet, first made possible in 1991. Internet ads were an anathema to traditionalists but the only practical means of supporting expensive commercial ventures such as news-gathering organizations. Even by the end of the twentieth century, subscription fees for services other than expensive, large-scale databases were few and far between on the Web. The Wall Street Journal was the only major newspaper or magazine to be profitable, charging an up-front subscription fee for its Web site. The growing commercial character of the Internet was acknowledged in 1995 when the National Science Foundation backbone became commercially supported. An Internet Activities Board (IAB) guides the evolution of the Internet, the Internet Address Network Authority (IANA) assigns network numbers, and a hired private company, Network Solutions, Inc., registers Web site names.

Like the personal computer and software industries, the Internet created new dynasties of American wealth. When tax preparation firm H & R Block purchased CompuServe in 1980, no one expected that the unknown computer time-sharing company would one day account for one-third of its parent company's profits. CompuServe was joined in the national on-line computer bulletin board industry, made possible by improvements in personal computer modems, by a specialized bulletin board service for Commodore users, an early PC competitor of the Apple, that had developed a graphical rather than letterset user interface in 1985. The firm evolved into an Apple and Windows bulletin board server known as America Online (AOL) by 1993. Both CompuServe and AOL began offering Web access and by 1996, AOL accounted for 55 percent of all household usage of the Web or proprietary consumer services. AOL bought CompuServe in 1998 and purchased Netscape the following year, generating tremendous proceeds each time. The profit turnaround was even quicker for the founder of Netscape, Jim Clark, who became an instant billionaire in 1995 when his company went public. Two Stanford University students, Jerry Yang and David Filo, made $65 million dollars each in one day when their Internet search engine company, Yahoo! went public in April 1996. The stock of online auction house eBay, one of a growing number of Internet companies known as dotcoms, increased 2,000 percent in value in less than a year when it went public in 1998, and the stock of other new Internet companies frequently doubled or trebled in price overnight upon going public. Not to be outdone altogether, the public jumped on the Internet financial bandwagon at the turn of the century by buying and selling securities through economical on-line brokerage firms offering margin loans. Unfortunately, trades still had to be transacted by human brokers, raising concerns among the Securities and Exchange Commission that orders were not being acted upon as quickly as they could or that traders would inadvertently plunge themselves into debt. And new Internet companies such as promised, but have not always delivered, massive profits in the brave new world of e-commerce.

With the advantages of the Internet have come numerous societal concerns. The FBI and police added computer specialists to their ranks to deal with on-line paedophiles and stalkers and established special centers to handle Internet fraud cases. Historically, pornography has often been one of the first areas to be exploited by a new mass communication technology and the Internet has been no exception. The pervasiveness of sexually explicit images induced Congress and President Clinton to approve the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which prohibited indecency on the Internet to persons under 18. The Supreme Court declared most of the law unconstitutional the following year. Ironically, the House of Representatives was considering a replacement act in September 1998, at the same time that the explicit Kenneth Starr Report on President Clinton's sexual indiscretions was released to the general public on the Internet by Congress. The shooting deaths of 12 Colorado high school students in 1999 took on an additionally tragic aspect when it was discovered that one of the student murderers had an AOL Web site critical of athletes and African Americans and laden with information on anarchism and bomb construction.

From their first widespread instance in 1988, viruses became a scourge to computer users as they were spread exponentially via the Internet. Virus-protection software became a necessity that fueled a new industry as professionals sought to keep up with amateur virus creators. Chat rooms and other forms of "cyber"-conversation renewed concerns about how people were spending their time. More than 50 million people sent e-mails in 1996, but the seductive genie of computer messaging has encouraged stream-of-consciousness bursts that often involved inadvertent shedding of inhibitions. Software billionaire Bill Gates saw a series of blunt e-mails between his executives become a smoking gun in an anti-trust case against Microsoft. All of these concerns were made more difficult to regulate or censor due to the decentralized nature of the Internet. Efforts by the Federal government and microprocessor manufacturer Intel to provide discrete identification of Internet users met with resistance from privacy advocates.

With the Internet still a relatively new medium of communication at the dawn of the twenty-first century, there were many grandiose predictions for its future. Part of the American economic expansion of the 1990s was based on the prospects of Internet-related companies such as Yahoo!, Netscape, AOL,, and eBay, but critics warned of an Internet bubble that could lead to a general economic downturn much like earlier technology booms such as electricity and defense spending. Cable and telephone companies positioned themselves to provide so-called broadband and DSL Internet service, persistent 24-hour lines that allow instant Internet access without the necessity of individual modem connections, at speeds fast enough to allow downloading of full-length movies, books, and other large files. WebTV and other new companies were banking on an Internet-television hybrid. An initiative started by 34 universities in 1996, Internet2 will be a high-bandwidth computer network allowing real-time video streaming and 24-hour user access. The Internet is a story of luck and hard work by many, but it recognizes and plugs into a basic human need: as an unknown e-mailer paraphrased French philosopher Rene Descartes, "I post, therefore I am."

—Richard Digby-Junger

Further Reading:

Kiesler, Sara. Culture of the Internet. Mahwah, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.

Oslin, George P. The Story of Telecommunications. Macon, Georgia, Mercer University Press, 1992.

Porter, David, editor. Internet Culture. New York, Routledge, 1997.

Randall, Neil. The Soul of the Internet. London, International Thompson Computer Press, 1997.

Rensberger, Boyce. "Networks Are Conduits for the 'Infection': 50,000 Terminals Affected by Outbreak." Washington Post. November 4, 1988, A4.

Segaller, Stephen. Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet. New York, Harper-Collins, 1998.

Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet. New York, Walker and Co., 1998.

Surratt, Carla G. Netlife: Internet Citizens and Their Communities. Commack, New York, Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Swartz, Jon. "Boys' Web Site Illustrates How Hate Is Finding a Voice Online." San Francisco Chronicle. April 23, 1999, A7.

Wright, Robert. "Journey Through Cyberspace: As a Place to Eavesdrop, the Internet Is Without Peer in Human History." Ottawa Citizen, September 18, 1993, p. B4.

Zimmerman, Andrew B. "The Evolution of the Internet; Internet/Web/Online Service Information." Telecommunications. June, 1997, 39-44.

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