The Internet certainly has people talking; everyone has an opinion, and all opinions seem to end up on the Internet. The Internet functions as an ongoing consumer report, with people continuously offering up views, experiences, recommendations, and warnings. You can use the Internet's communication applications (explained in Chapter 3) to ask for help from thousands of people, broadcast an announcement of an event or a new service, offer your analysis of a situation, or just muse in an interest group. The Internet is a perfect tool for alerting and assembling large numbers of people electronically. Information relating to a certain event can be transmitted immediately, making it a very effective rousing device. Plenty of forums exist for this very purpose—announcing late-breaking bulletins about an event or sparking a debate about the most recent controversies.
Now, this online free-for-all doesn't come without a few "netiquette" rules. As in any social situation, there is an accepted mode of behavior, and you will do well to make note of it before diving in and instantly distinguishing yourself as a barbarian. Chapter 3 contains a must-read guide to some well-known network conduct codes.
For example, a physician treating a patient with cerebral malaria in Zambia, Africa, where it remains a deadly malady, could better treat his patient by communicating with physicians and researchers in other African countries as well as with colleagues in other parts of the world. Through HealthNet News, he can receive abstracts, summaries, and full-text articles selected from a variety of leading medical journals throughout the world or an update from any of the leading malaria research centers in Africa. A leading medical journal may cost more than the annual salary of many physicians, and even communication by fax or telephone is beyond the reach of most health professionals in Africa. Using the HealthNet system, a physician like the one in Zambia can ask colleagues about recent developments in prevention, diagnosis, or treatment. He might use the system to query nearby hospitals about availability of medicine.
Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, SatelLife has received major corporate support for HealthSat I & II from NEC Corp. in Japan. There are now HealthNets in sixteen countries in Africa, and four countries in the Americas, and expansion into Asia will begin by 1994. All HealthNets connect to the Internet through a gateway maintained by the Telemedicine Center at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada.
There is an ever-growing number of valuable information resources being made available via the Internet. These include free and public archives, library catalogs, government services, and commercial databases. The Internet is liquid, changing every second; as news rains down, differing views, reports, and opinions irrigate archives and forums. Powerful search tools, with names like Gopher, WorldWideWeb, and WAIS (all explained in Chapter 4), can help you find and bring home these resources.
These digital devices give you the power to bypass the middle-man on your way to the source. It's not good enough anymore to turn on the 24-hour news service on your radio or TV and wait for the local weather forecast. On the Internet, you can check the latest weather and order goods and services online when you need them. For example, you can browse online real estate guides looking for properties thousands of miles away instead of first going to a realtor. You can form your own opinion based on the sources, not the summaries. The Internet can help you make intelligent choices. However, be aware that no network will show you the best path; it's up to you to compile and analyze what's available, and then make the intelligent decision.
The concept of digital colonies and online civilizations is fairly new, yet it is quickly becoming a way of life for many Internet travelers. In this hectic world of two-income households and work-study lifestyles, building communities of interest within a school, neighborhood, or city is difficult. The problems with "reality-space" communities include lack of local involvement, geography, and inflexible schedules. The Internet transcends these barriers. It's a lot easier to join an ongoing discussion with people who share a common interest when you are available, no matter where you are.
For example, a group of busy, young professionals and students in Seattle, Washington, take advantage of the Internet's flexibility by using an email list to alert everyone to volleyball games, ski trips, and nights out on the town. They also check ski and weather reports on the Internet, and participate in online volleyball and skiing interest groups. Several of them travel, but they keep up with local happenings by accessing the Internet and reading their email on the road. This group could not be as organized without the Internet; at least one dedicated friend would be needed to call everyone and coordinate activities. No one in this group has time to play cruise director. The Internet for them has become a necessary social tool.
Internet "netizens" have circled their computers around virtual campsites, communing and cultivating friendships. Because it's so simple to join or leave a group, your own virtual village may change on a daily or hourly basis. You are a native to your own web, your own cyber-sphere of influence, but it is easy to be a tourist, visiting and interacting in other communities. Beaming yourself around incognito is also possible; you can become a digital cyborg, assuming other personalities. As a well-known cartoon proclaimed in 1993, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog."
Not so with the Internet. Remember, it's a network of networks, a transport service, an information highway, not, as a whole, a commercial information service. It's a distributed, anarchic system, and much larger in terms of people and diversity of services than all the commercial information systems put together. Support, quality, and pricing for Internet connectivity and services are not regulated or defined throughout. The on-ramps are numerous; there are many ways to get access from local, national, and international Internet transport providers or from dial-up commercial access systems.
This flexibility has advantages and disadvantages. In most cases you're not limited to one solution. If you don't like one Internet provider's service, you can easily get access to the Internet another way. This can be frustrating, though, because there are so many choices in providers that sometimes it's difficult to make a decision.
Another difference to keep in mind is the diversity of services you get on the Internet. For example, to provide an information service through a commercial information provider, a person or organization most likely has to get permission and make special arrangements with the company that owns the service. The Internet, on the other hand, doesn't have a controlling organization that denies or approves involvement. As a result, individuals and companies are making new resources available every day. In fact, many of the commercial databases you might access through a commercial information service have already made (or are planning to make) direct connections to the Internet. The Internet is basically providing the highway connections for you to get to these services. (Be aware, though, that you may still need to set up an account with each commercial database provider to use them.)
On May 23, 1993, a historic moment occurred when a cult movie entitled Wax: Or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees was broadcast over the Internet to a small worldwide audience who watched and listened to it live on their computers. The video was fuzzy and in black and white, and the audio sputtered in and out, but this digital moonwalk marked another small, yet significant, step toward the much-heralded convergence of audio, video, and data. The movie was about a beekeeper who ends up being kept by the bees, and perhaps this is poetic justice, as today many Internauts are held captive by the digital bits buzzing through wires and telephone lines.
To understand what this convergence craze is all about, let's back up a bit and consider the different types of communication. Most televisions and telephones transmit information (your voice, the evening news, and so on) using an analog signal; that means the information is represented by a continuous signal of varying strength.
Computers, on the other hand, work with binary digits, or bits. A bit is simply a 1 or a 0. That's it. Computer, or digital, information is simply represented by patterns of these ones and zeros. By digitizing communication—representing everything in ones and zeros—computers can deal with multimedia and data in the same way. Furthermore, if computers are connected to a network of some kind, they can enable interactive digital audio and video communication between people. Your computer can become an all-purpose communications appliance that combines the functions of a telephone and TV, and also lets you use applications like a word processor or electronic mail program.
Digitizing multimedia technologies has the communications, broadcasting, and publishing industries all aflutter and ushers in the chaotic days of convergence mania. The traditional roles of the telephone, television network, and cable companies with which we're so familiar are rapidly ceasing to exist, and ultimately, all of these companies will be in the same business, either providing the contentent—entertainment, interactive communication, and information services—or access to these. The broadcast and entertainment industries have only just begun warming up by advertising possible new interactive services, while communication companies consider new alliances and mergers. The publishing industry is also repositioning itself.
And through it all, the Internet has been a testing ground, in a sense amalgamating everything in its path by bringing technologies together and letting them play in a digital sandbox. The Internet may not be providing 500 TV channels, but it is possible today to participate in interactive video and audio conferencing from your computer, and to share the same "whiteboard" for illustrations and notes. You can listen to Internet radio shows while simultaneously downloading software. You can read online articles or books with hyperhooks that "mind-bind" you on-demand to text, video clips, still images, and audio. All of these applications have only recently been made available, but they're rapidly becoming more popular, and are making up a significant percentage of the traffic and use on the Internet. Unfortunately, many of these applications demand powerful workstations and a high-speed connection to the Internet—requirements beyond what most people by themselves can meet. So if you want to see the future, go to a university or a research lab. But it's important to know that these things are possible, because it probably won't be long before you can participate.
"Our current information industries—cable, local telephone, long-distance telephone, television, film, computers, and others—seem headed for a Big Crunch/Big Bang of their own. The space between these diverse functions is rapidly shrinking—between computers and television, for example, or interactive communications and video."
Noting the convergence trends, the incredible success of the Internet, and the future of interactive multimedia communication, U.S. Vice President Al Gore has called for the formation of the National Information Infrastructure, the NII. The NII will connect more than just computers; it will also link televisions, telephones, and, most likely, "appliances" that combine all three technologies. Many countries' governments are starting to follow the lead of the United States.
Vice President Gore's involvement in the NII is not by chance; he has been an enthusiastic supporter of a national information highway for many years. Most notably, his High Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) legislation was passed into law in December 1991, while he was a senator representing the state of Tennessee. The HPCC Act defines several components, including providing all researchers with access to powerful supercomputer resources and valuable information services, and coordinating and combining several federal agencies' individual networking efforts into one high-capacity, high-speed network known as the National Research and Education Network (NREN). The NREN exists today as more of a concept or vision than a physical network; its purpose is to extend the Internet beyond universities to primary and secondary schools and to libraries. The NREN vision still exists, but has been adopted into the goals of the NII. Vice President Gore has challenged businesses and organizations to connect schools and libraries in order to provide access to information and interactive communication facilities by the year 2000.
While the Clinton/Gore administration further defines the national information highway and the role government should take, it's using the Internet to disseminate major initiatives and press releases, and to receive electronic mail comments. In many countries, governments are the largest producers and users of information, so it makes sense for them to review the latest information technologies. Many people believe that broad access to government information is a right—not a privilege—and that tax-supported projects that produce information should warrant its free electronic availability. In the United States, for example, an increasing number of agencies are beginning to make public archives accessible over the Internet. Today you can obtain the latest White House press releases, as well as the text of speeches made by the president and vice president. The White House has also made itself more accessible to government watchdogs by establishing a presidential email box (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Copyright © 1994 by Tracy LaQuey and Editorial Inc.