The Internet is the worlds’ biggest public library, except there’;s no card catalog. It’;s also the world’;s biggest gossip mill, bathroom wall, bulletin board, activist broadsheet, and, oh yes, open wallet.
Unlike the printing press (which presupposed literacy), radio (which needed electricity), or television (which cost a lot of money when it debuted), the Internet exploded into homes with no requirement beyond a telephone line, for those people who already owned computers. Unfortunately, its record penetration proved to be faster than society’;s ability to adapt to its unprecedented power. When radio started, there were only two networks; TV had four. But when the world went online, anybody and everybody could build a Web page. Abbott Joseph Liebling’;s famous comment that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one” became instantly outdated. And scary.
The U.S. Department of Defense created the Internet in 1969 as a way for colleges and government agencies to communicate should traditional lines ever be cut (meaning: nuclear attack). In the 1980s, its scope was broadened when the National Science Foundation devised equipment that could connect civilian computers to the system. The World Wide Web was created in 1989 by the European Particle Physics Lab in Geneva, Switzerland, and debuted in 1991. Within five years, some 50 million people worldwide were online.
What were they watching? Internet technology radiates legitimacy, but looks can be deceiving in a world where even the youngest hacker is more hip than a
The potential of the Internet as a tool for democracy even has its hypocritical side. In 1999 Time-Warner’;s CNN celebrated the way the Internet was being used by rebel forces in other countries to overcome their government’;s censorship, yet the same corporation threw a hissy fit when cyber-fans posted video downloads of a
Digital technology has made it possible for any enterprising hoaxer to fabricate an alternate reality. In a world where Web sites can be devoted to morphing the faces of TV and movie actors onto the bodies of porno stars, what’;s to stop the FBI from cleaning up that famous backyard photo of Lee Harvey Oswald holding his rifle. You know, the one the conspiracists insist is a fake because the shadows don’;t match? Well, with Photoshop, they can!
Online commerce is also changing the way the world does business. Figures produced by Forrester Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, show that Internet sales were $518 million in 1997; by 2001, they were projected to reach $6 billion. There were, of course, glitches. The 1999–2000 Christmas buying season was a watershed year for “e-tailers,” but, too often, either their Web sites crashed, they didn’;t have the inventory, or the carrier (FedEx, UPS, U.S. Postal Service) couldn’;t get the merchandise to the buyer on time. Customer reluctance to give out credit card numbers also limits online sales activity. And there is growing opposition, even anger, at Web sites that collect, store, share, and sell personal information about the people who browse their pages. Despite this, the government and the industry have been reluctant to resolve issues about privacy and personal safety.
Fortunately, this chapter deals only with the fun stuff. (Although, if you’;ve ever had your screen name captured from a chat room and then you got spammed,* you may not see the humor.)