The following is an article written in 1996, for what was going to be ‘John Knox’s Guide to the Internet’, before the project to produce became overtaken by events (largely on cloning issues which burst upon us at this point and took up a great deal of our time for the next several years). But 10 years on we think quite a lot of it is still relevant and we’ve even added a bit about information overload and authoritative information.
What makes the Internet so special?
At one level, it might be argued that the Internet new simply makes more readily available the vast range of human written and graphical information that is already there. But the way it does this raises some new questions and gives a new focus to some familiar ones. In particular, four features mark out the Internet, in all its forms - speed, access, indiscriminacy and anonymity.
Speed is perhaps the most obvious feature. If I wish to send a lot of complex recorded information across the country or the world, it is unrivalled. It has the advantage over a fax that far more data can be sent, and it arrives already inside the recipient’s computer, ready to be used, without having to be retyped, scanned or transcribed. It has the potential to transform the writing and editing of committee and working group reports, saving a lot of paper, photocopying and postage. It is also extraordinarily flexible. By using a simple common format for all of the information, transmission is generally able to transcend the multiplicity of computer systems and software. There are plenty of technical hiccups, and annoying “traffic jams” at peak times in the most frequently used parts of the Net, but it still works remarkably well much of the time. And with the increase of speed more information can be handled, more often.
The second feature is ease of access. Potentially, the Internet opens up to my own office or home as much of the world’s information as it is prepared to put on display, and as I am prepared to go “out” and look for. Previously I was limited to the books I owned, the libraries I had access to, and what could be easily mailed, faxed or communicated by phone or spoken face to face. Now a large number of the world’s libraries, databases and other sources of information are accessible. Searching for information abroad was especially difficult and slow. Now I can type in a few key words into the computer and wait a short time while a “search engine” roves electronically around the world’s computers, and tells me where I can find something on the subject anywhere on the globe. Many sites have order forms where I can obtain a copy, either by conventional post (known on the Internet as “snail mail”) or increasingly often across the Internet itself. To find out the times of trains from, say, Amsterdam airport to a small town in central Netherlands, you can dial up a German Web site in Karlsruhe, type in your email address, the station names, the required date and rough time of travel, and within an hour an email message will arrive on your computer with a choice of trains (in English), changes of train, prices, supplements, etc.
This “access revolution” of the Internet is not only in the amount and the different locations of material, but equally in the breadth of different subject matter that is available at the click of a button. On any given subject, you can find a wider array of information, but especially by browsing through the list of the 10,000 Internet newsgroups find and explore subjects which had never occurred to me. This has both its advantages and its disadvantages. You might be a doctor with a patient suffering from a rare disease of which you had no prior experience, and yet be able to find via the Internet a doctor in a hospital thousands of miles away with recent experience of treating it. Or anyone could find a host of new forms of sexual perversion. The sheer ease of access creates its own problems and accentuates others, as well as finding a host of solutions and possibilities.
It also extends the range of people potentially able to access any material. Much information has always been theoretically available, but in practice was unknown outside a relatively narrow slice of the population who were especially interested in that area and knew where to find it. All this can now be found readily enough by anyone who cares to explore - in the excruciating jargon that has inevitably built up around the Internet, to “surf the Net” - imaginatively enough to find out. This includes children, who are not only naturally more curious to know “what happens if…?” , but are often far more au fait with the Internet, its techniques and tricks than their parents.