The Information Superhighway isn’t on a map, but Oh! What a trip!
Copyright © 1995 Rob Levandowski. All rights reserved.
No doubt, you’ve heard the term “Information Superhighway” by now. It’s a nickname for the Internet, a worldwide computer network. What you may not know is why you should be putting on your driving gloves and getting ready to explore the “I-way.”
In the next few issues of the Drummer, I’ll explain what the Internet is, why you should care about it, how you can use it, and what there is to find online.
What is the Internet?
The ironic thing is, there really isn’t an actual Internet–or, at least, there’s no one thing you can point to and say, “That’s the Internet.” The Internet is more of a concept than a product.
The concept started as part of the Department of Defense. The Advanced Research Projects Agency wanted to develop a way that the government could transfer data which would be able to survive a nuclear war. They ended up creating ARPAnet, a loose collection of several computers at various educational and military research sites. The unique thing about ARPAnet was that messages sent from point A to point B could take any of several routes. If one connection was destroyed–either due to a malfunction or Soviet bombs–the data could be instantly rerouted, and the message would still go through.
As time went on, ARPAnet began to link together not only computers, but entire computer networks at different sites. Imagine each company on the network as an island. You can walk from house to house on the island with no problem, but you have to build a bridge to go to another island. ARPAnet became the bridge system for the islands of college computer networks.
Eventually, the term Internet was coined, partially because the network was no longer truly part of the Department of Defense, but a cooperative effort between phone companies, governments, and schools all over the world. You could think of “Internet” as meaning “Interconnected networks,” because that’s what it is–a term for thousands of little computer networks that are connected to bigger networks that are connected to each other, like a big spiderweb blanketing the globe.
Tangled in the Web
Until very recently, the Internet was a piece of acadamia, a tool used primarily by educational institutions for electronic mail. It had a lot of potential, but it wasn’t easy to use. Most Internet sites were mainframes, running powerful but user-hostile operating systems like UNIX and VMS. The average user would have to learn quite a bit to find anything of interest.
In fact, I believe there have been two major advances in publishing in all of human history. Gutenberg’s printing press brought reading to the masses, because one could now print dozens of copies of a text in no time, rather than waiting for monks and scribes to hand-copy a work. The other major advance is the World Wide Web, which lets anyone cheaply and easily publish information so that it’s available to anyone in the world instantly.
The concept, developed at CERN, was simple, and consisted of two parts: devise a consistent way to refer to anything on the net by a simple address; and make the information easy to use by presenting it as hypertext–documents where you can click on certain terms of interest with a mouse, and more information will be displayed. By combining these two features, Web documents, or pages, could refer to other Web pages on completely different computers. A document about weather patterns in Boston on MIT‘s computer, for example, might have a “link” that leads to the current weather forecast from the National Weather Service in Washinton, D.C.
The Web began to gain steam when NCSA released the first popular “Web browser” program, NCSA Mosaic. With Mosaic, a user could easily call up information, with graphics, from computers all over the world. Today, the most popular Web browser is Netscape Navigator. Netscape recently made the headlines when its stock went public, earning one of its founders over $25 million in just one day. Over 75% of the people using the Web use Navigator. In fact, “Netscape” has almost become a synonym for “World Wide Web.”
It’s everywhere you look
In the last year, the Web has become a facet of American life. If you look in any newspaper, you’ll find Web addresses (called URLs, or Uniform Resource Locators) in most of the movie advertisements. You can access them to get information about the movies, including the theatrical preview trailers to watch on your computer screen. You may have noticed URLs on TV. Many television shows have Web pages; for example, you can get information about the Fox program “The X-Files” on the Web at http://www.delphi.com. They’re even starting to appear in TV ads! Many companies have Web pages, where you can get product information, assistance, even recepies and coupons! For example, if you look on the back of a recent jar of Ragú spaghetti sauce, you’ll see that you can send comments to email@example.com via e-mail. The Web has information of all sorts. Among the things I have found on the Web, waiting to be accessed, are:
- The complete Edmund’s car guides, listing the dealer’s invoice price for all of the new cars;
- Dozens of major newspapers, including portions of the Hartford Courant;
- E-mail addresses and information about local television stations and TV networks. All four major networks plus many cable channels have Web sites. WFSB Channel 3 in Hartford has an e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org;
- Transcripts of all of CNN’s current stories, updated every 15 minutes;
- Major comic strips like Jump Start, Doonesbury, Peanuts, Dilbert, Marmaduke, and others;
- The complete works of Shakespeare, and the entire King James Bible, in a form that can be easily searched and quoted;
- Updates for major computer programs, as well as thousands of free programs;
- Complete IRS tax forms and assistance, from the IRS’ own Web site;
- Card catalogs for major libraries worldwide, and instructions on having them loaned to your local library;
- The latest weather forecasts, including radar and satellite photos, from sources including the National Weather Serviceand the Weather Channel;
- The Roman Catholic Church even has their own Web site with inspirational materials, as do many other faiths.
There are also thousands of personal Web pages, reflecting interests as diverse as the Earth’s population.
What about the bad press?
Lately, the Internet has gotten some bad press. To get it out of the way: yes, you can find objectionable material, including pornography, on the Internet. No, it is not forced upon you; you must go searching for it. Much as you have to go into the back room at the video store to rent adult films, you must search the Net to find adult Web pages.
The media has sometimes made it seem like the Internet is seething with perverts and smut. This is not the case at all; the objectionable material is only a very tiny part of the overall content of the Web.
Should you be concerned about your children being corrupted by the Web? Probably not. You should take a few simple steps to protect your children, though:
- Just like in real life, tell your kids not to talk to strangers online! It’s very easy to be anonymous on the Internet. Kids should know that they shouldn’t give out personal information to people on the Internet, just as they shouldn’t give out their address to strangers on the street.
- Keep the computer out of the bedroom. The best way to keep an eye on what your children do with the Internet is to keep the computer in a public area of the house, like the family room. Make it a rule that doors need to be kept open when the computer is on. (Buy a set of headphones for the computer if it gets too noisy.)
- You can buy software to “lock out” objectionable Web sites, but if you follow the advice above, you probably don’t need this software. The other consideration is that most such software is only effective if you turn over the responsibility for determining what is offensive to the software company. You should carefully consider whether or not a corporation will keep your children’s best interests in mind when censoring their access: will they censor too much? Will they let things get through that you wouldn’t? And of course, keep in mind that kids are likely to understand the software–and how to override it–better than their parents.
Where’s the on-ramp?
Now you know why the Internet is a part of life from now on, and you’ve probably gotten some idea of how it could be useful to you. The next step is finding your local on-ramp to the Information Superhighway. I’ll discuss the various types of on-line service, and the best way to get online, next month.
This article was originally published in The Granby Drummer’s November 1995 issue.