Today the Internet is being used by all sorts of people and organizations—newspapers, publishers, TV stations, celebrities, teachers, librarians, hobbyists, and business people—for a variety of purposes, from communicating with one another to accessing valuable services and resources. You can hardly pick up a newspaper or magazine without reading about how the Internet is playing a part in someone's life or project or discovery.
To appreciate what the Internet has to offer you, imagine discovering a whole system of highways and high-speed connectors that cut hours off your commuting time. Or a library you can use any time of the night or day, with acres of books and resources, and unlimited browsing. Or an all-night, nonstop block party with a corner table of kindred souls who welcome your presence at any time. That's the Internet, and this chapter will tell you why you should know about it.
Most users describe the Internet (or the "Net") as a "network of networks"; it appears to stretch forever. It doesn't just connect you and another computer; it connects you and all other Internet-connected computers. Don't think of the Internet as just a bunch of computers, though. It is a perpetually expanding universe with its own geography, "weather," and dynamic cultures. In this cyber-sphere, people in geographically distant lands communicate across time zones without ever seeing each other, and information is available 24 hours a day from thousands of places.
The Internet is inhabited by millions of regular folks, "non-techies" who use it daily to communicate and search for information. When this book was first written in the spring of 1992, the Internet population was mostly researchers and academics, and there weren't many applications and interest groups of relevance to the "general public." Two years later, mainstream services dominate use of the Internet. As a result, the Internet is overflowing with useful resources—and with people climbing aboard.
Similarly, stand-alone computers are useful, but their potential is limited by isolated applications—word processors and spreadsheets, for example—and the amount of money you have to spend on disk drives and CD-ROMs. A mere direct (full-time) or dial-up connection to the worldwide Internet gives you access to more info-goods, services, and people than you'll ever find on your own isolated computer or local-area network. The Internet is already the largest computer network in the world and, in terms of connected networks, people, and resources, it's getting larger, and therefore more "valuable," literally by the minute.
How large is the Internet? According to the Internet Society (ISOC), a professional organization of Internet developers, influencers, and users, as of spring 1994, the Internet reached 69 countries directly and 146 via email gateways, and consisted of 23,659 networks and 2.217 million computers. (An email gateway is a special connection that allows only electronic mail to transfer between two or more networks.)
The bulk of Internet computers and networks still belongs to the research and education communities. This is not surprising, given that the Internet arose from the primordial research ooze. However, many universities are teaming up with businesses to develop online catalogs and archives. And, according to the ISOC journal, 31 percent of the networks belong to businesses. Of the number of registered—but not necessarily connected—networks, 51 percent were commercial. There's definitely a rising trend in commercial activity and connectivity; many businesses have realized that they can link their enterprise networks to the Internet and gain instant access to their customers. Some market research indicates that online services—in general—make up almost a billion-dollar industry, with an estimated 25 percent per year growth, so it stands to reason that providers of these services are migrating to the Internet, where the action is.
The types of resources accessible via the Internet are growing at an astounding rate. The term resource describes anything you can access on the Internet, no matter where it's physically located. Examples of some Internet resources are a database of regularly updated weather information in Michigan, an online magazine, a cartoon, and an archive of daily newspaper articles. A resource can also be a mailing list or a newsgroup that brings together people from all over the world to discuss shared interests such as soccer, cooking, and poetry. Suffice it to say that there are literally tens of thousands of servers, archive sites, mailing lists, newsgroups, and databases available on the Internet.
Although you may not think about it often, standards play a big part in your everyday life. Camera film always fits in your camera, and loose-leaf paper bought at the drugstore fits in your binder. Libraries catalog books according to a standard system, so that once you learn it, you can walk into any library and find the books you need. On the contrary, things that don't conform to standards can make your life miserable. Standards are just as important in the computer and networking world. Without open standards, only computers from the same vendor could talk to one another, creating an electronic Tower of Babel. Computers and networks that conform to the same communications standards are able to "interoperate," regardless of brand.
Cooperation is a major ingredient to interoperability. The Internet nervous system does not have a central brain, such as a powerful supercomputer that controls its operation by feeding it commands and directing its limbs to perform key functions. Rather, all the networks and computers act as peers in the exchange of information and communication. The technology that makes it happen is known as internetworking; it creates a universality among disparate systems, enabling the networks and computers to communicate.
Fundamentally, the Internet revolves around the concept of a packet, a basic building block or a digital brick. All information and communication transmitted on the Internet are broken into packets, each of which is considered an independent entity. The packets are then individually routed from network to network until they reach their destination, where they are reassembled and presented to the user or computer process.
This method of networking is very flexible and robust. It allows diverse computers and systems to communicate by means of networking software, not proprietary hardware. If a network goes "down"—meaning it isn't available to transfer information—the packets can be rerouted to other networks in many cases. This dynamic alternate routing of information creates a very "persistent" means of communication. Indeed, that was the intent of the network engineers developing this technology during the height of the Cold War. They wanted a network that would continue to function even if parts of it were destroyed during an enemy attack.
While most neophytes probably don't care about these standards and technical details, an understanding of the underlying infrastructure will help in learning to use the Internet properly and in taking full advantage of its powerful capabilities. It goes deeper than that though; understanding from the bottom up how separate computers and networks fit together will give you an appreciation for the net culture—the sharing, cooperative spirit that is inherent in the Internet. Chapter 2 further defines these concepts of interoperability and open standards, as well as explaining how the protocols and networks come together to make the Internet work.
The phrase "democratization of communication" often comes up in discussions about the Internet, which is, indeed, a truly democratic forum. The network doesn't care if you're president of a Fortune 500 company or a warehouse clerk, a potato farmer or a molecular biologist. Your tidings and opinions are handled the same way, and it's the worth and wit of what you have to say that determines who's willing to listen—not your title.
It's also never been so easy to be both a consumer and a producer of services. If you're ambitious enough and aspire to be an electronic entrepreneur who provides commercial services or Internet access, there's nothing to prevent you—no long lines, no paperwork, and no regulations. (Okay, it's not that easy; you do need to read this and a few other books first.) Once your network is directly hooked into the Internet, all the computers on that network are accessible from every other Internet-connected computer. (Chapter 7 explains of the different types of Internet connections.)
This environment empowers the individual; it encourages and stimulates participation, imagination, and innovation. There are numerous stories of how just one or two people have leveraged the Net to do great things, whether it's to publish a newsletter, make a name, or develop contacts. If you don't have access to a whiz-bang, high-speed Internet connection or to a large multi-user computer, that's not a problem. Already there are businesses offering rental space on their Internet-connected computers and disks. You can lease "office space" from "office parks" in cyberspace and set up shop. Your virtual storefront may be thousands of miles and two countries away, but it's probably a few seconds hyperdrive from every location. Convenience is a given on the Internet.
Copyright © 1994 by Tracy LaQuey and Editorial Inc.