INTO AMERICAN SOCIETY
I. Introduction — Internet usage is rapidly increasing but serious barriers to widespread integration must be overcome before the Internet is fully integrated into the typical American lifestyle.
II. Brief history: ARPANET to Internet to WWW
III. Barriers to widespread Internet use remain to be overcome.
A. Internet Complexity
C. Security Issues
IV. Concerns and Hopes
Contrary to the marketing promises of Internet access providers and computer software and hardware companies, the Internet has not yet revolutionized the world. The spread of Internet usage among persons of different economic, educational, and cultural backgrounds is far from universal, and serious obstacles remain before computerized telecommunications will be as easy, carefree, and widespread as is portrayed in commercial advertisements. Today the Internet is used primarily by an elite minority of the world population. This minority is dominated by companies, organizations and individuals in the United States which have financial and educational advantages enabling them to decipher confusing and cryptic programs, protocols and networks, and to upgrade and replace computer hardware and software regularly as new innovations are developed. Even with these advantages, the Internet cannot become fully ingrained into American society until considerable improvements are made i!
n the usability and accessibility of the Internet in general. Until the Internet becomes simple to use and easy to access it will not become as integral a part of American culture as other innovations like the television, telephone, or microwave oven.
The Internet, as defined by Newtons Telecom Dictionary, is a computer network which joins many government and university and some private computers together over phone lines.While this may be an accurate definition, it is hardly one that most people will understand, and it is already outdated. The Internet (capitalized) is a series of telephone lines and connections that spans the globe, allowing people in different cities, counties, or nations to send and receive electronic files, documents, messages, and other information almost instantly to anyone who has a computer and a modem.
The modern usage of the Internet for entertainment and private messaging is a dramatic removal from its original intended use. In the late 1950s the United States Department of Defense grappled with the problem of making a decentralized computer network so that it wouldn’t have a single “point of failure”, a centralized network hub which could be targeted and disabled in the event of nuclear attack. This experiment, administered by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), became known as the ARPANET. Development of the ARPANET began during the 1960s and continued through the 1980s. As early as 1977 other networks were linking to the ARPANET to transmit and receive data. Then the 1980s brought rapid and important changes to the project. Advances in computers, networking, and other digital technologies allowed more and diverse groups join the growing assortment of connected networks. Transmission protocols were standardized, and European networks were created!
and implemented for electronic mail.
In 1983 the United States military broke away from this rapidly expanding internet. ARPANET was split into ARPANET and MILNET, and the latter became integrated with the Defense Data Network created the previous year.After this important change, the evolution of the Internet accelerated until ARPANET was no longer needed to maintain the network and was allowed to expire at the end of 1989.
Even with the rapid expansion of Internet usage, it was not without flaws, many of which remain today. It was originally designed for use by military and academic communities. Most of the interaction on the Internet was restricted to text based, or command line interfaces which many people find difficult to use. This led to the development of a graphic user interface (GUI) for the Internet: the World Wide Web (WWW). The WWW has revolutionized the Internet in much the same ways that the Macintosh revolutionized personal computers in the 1980s . The WWW uses pictures and hypertext links to allow for more intuitive navigation of documents and data. The non-linear nature of hypertext allows people jump from one document to another easily, even if the jump is to a document on a computer located halfway around the world.
But even with innovations like the WWW, there remain many obstacles to true integration of the Internet into the American lifestyle. The Internet is still complicated. Obscure commands and configurations are needed to do simple things like sending electronic mail, and more advanced functions of the Internet require advanced knowledge not only of the Internet, but of computers in general. Cutting edge developments make it possible to create three-dimensional virtual worlds, or allow people to transmit and receive live video feeds from friends just like a video telephone. New software is being developed at an accelerating rate to take advantage of improvements in computer hardware, and each new innovation introduces a new set of protocols and system requirements, adding to the existing complexity.
There is also a growing concern in many circles about information overload. Because there is so much information available to people through newspapers, television, radio, and now the Internet, people are experiencing increasing difficulty in processing all of that information. Instead of having a better understanding of current events and developments, they are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information.
Economics create additional barriers. A new computer system can cost up to $3,000 or more. According to the Department of Commerce, the median annual household income in the United States is $34,076 . This places the expense of a computer system at approximately 10% of the yearly income for a typical American family. Upgrades to the hardware and software of a computer system can increase that expense further, keeping new technologies out of reach for many less affluent Americans. Add the fact that a top of the line system today will be greatly reduced in price within 6 months to 1 year and can become inadequate to meet new requirements within that same time span and the economic factors become even more restrictive.
Security issues will continue to gain in importance as companies take advantage of the Internet. By using computers and network connections to handle the increasing load of information and transactions, manufacturer, financial institutions and governments are becoming more vulnerable to cyber-terrorism. Networks can be damaged or destroyed by people hacking into a system, gaining access to restricted information and then using it for illegal purposes. Other forms of attack include computer viruses which invade a computer system in much the same way that a biological virus invades the human body. Electro-magnetic pulse devices could partially or completely erase all data and fry the electronics in a computer system from outside of a building. A device like place outside of a bank would bring most financial operations to a halt and destroy valuable records beyond recovery.
These factors and others lead me to several concerns about the Internet and its future effects upon our way of life. First, the inherent complexity of the Internet acts as a filter, a glass ceiling if you will, that prevents less educated or knowledgeable people from using it. Further, the economic restrictions reinforce the development of a technological elite class within our society. Those with the resources to acquire computer hardware, software, and the training to use them will be able to take advantage of the increasing resources of the Internet to create opportunities for personal and professional development. The average citizen may not be able to keep pace with the constantly increasing demands of the information revolution and will be left behind unless government and commercial interests act to reduce the cost and increase the availability of Internet access.
Second, the risks of cyber-terrorism and fraud are already higher than most people realize. An electro-magnetic pulse bomb could be placed outside of the New York Stock Exchange tomorrow and effectively destroy the lives of millions of Americans in one stroke. Credit card numbers and Social Security information is similarly at risk. Protective measures against hackers are inconsistent and unreliable, and computer viruses invade corporate and government systems regularly. With more institutions connecting to the Internet, the hazards continue to increase. Private information about individuals and companies is frequently accessible without their knowledge or consent. That information could be used for all manner of illegal activities, from fraud to stalking and violent crimes, once in the hands of unscrupulous or unbalanced persons.
Yet, for all its troubles and difficulties, the Internet may be able to live up to its promise of a encouraging a true social and cultural revolution. Education could prosper from increased use of the Internet. On-line educational libraries, databases, and courses are becoming more common, making it possible to receive training and perform detailed research more easily than ever before in history. These resources could be used to increase educational levels and improve the depth of knowledge for many citizens.
Enhanced convenient communication between people with different beliefs and backgrounds could lead to greater understanding and tolerance of the rich diversity of our cultural components. In time it is possible that it could even lead to a true democracy where each individual could directly contribute to the decision making processes governing our nation and our world. Instead of electing representatives for cities, counties, and states, each citizen could represent him or her self.
The full impact of the Internet upon America cannot and will not be known for years, possible decades yet to come. It is a new technology with the potential to restructure American lifestyles in as dramatically as the Industrial Revolution did in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Based upon current trends, it is likely that the Technological Revolution will inspire as much pain, confusion and chaos as the Industrial Revolution did in its day. There is much work to be done and many problems to solve, yet I am willing to add my opinion to the host of others and say that within the next ten to twenty years most or all of the obstacles and barriers discussed above will be resolved, and the computer with its Internet connection will become as common a piece of Americana as the telephone, television, and microwave oven are today.