The Whole Wired World
- By Heather Harreld
- Mar 29, 1998
It's hard to overstate the impact of the Internet on American life. In the past four years, the Internet has become as significant a technology as the telephone, the TV or the personal computer.
Originally designed to help defend the country from foreign attack, this network of networks is so much a part of American life that it has become what Internet pioneer Richard Mandelbaum described as "the most fundamental infrastructure in the country.'' The Internet has touched almost every aspect of American life, from education to health care to business to emergency preparedness to weather forecasting— even dating. The Internet also quickly became a powerful economic engine, creating tens of thousands of jobs in the past year alone.
The Internet, once criticized as a tool of the computer elite, is quickly becoming more egalitarian. Consider the Chocktaw Nation, a Native American tribe of 8,000 located in the swamps of Mississippi. With the help of the Internet, the tribe's young people shared their carefully preserved history and culture with others around the world.
Last year the Bogue Chitto tribal school in Philadelphia, Miss., designed a World Wide Web site that described the traditional music and arts of the Chocktaw people. The entire school— from kindergarten through eighth grade— created the site as part of an international Web site contest called the CyberFair (www.gsn.org/cf/index.html), which has included among its participants more than 30,000 students from 37 countries.
Sixth-grader Kelona Branning said the school's Web site, which is no longer online, allowed students to display the cultural uniqueness of the Chocktaw tribe. People say all Native American tribes are alike, she said, but this Web site "was about our community, our music and our art forms.''
Nettie Moore, who was Kelona's fifth-grade teacher, said Kelona was the de facto student leader of the Web site construction, typing in data and scanning in photos to highlight the tribe's traditional snake dances, chanting and basket weaving.
"They've actually been able to pull down information that we could never afford them the opportunity of doing without the Internet,'' Moore said.
The Chocktaw students are just one example of a group of Americans who have benefited from the federal government's investment and leadership role in developing Internet-based technologies. People ranging from chief executive officers to sports enthusiasts to stay-at-home mothers rely on the Internet for information and communication.
The Birth of the Internet
The Internet was conceived in 1969 when the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) funded research into computer networking. The federal government— through various agencies— has funded and nurtured its development ever since. DOD's goal was a military one: Create a national communications system that would be insulated from physical attacks by other countries, primarily the Soviet Union.
In the system, called Arpanet, information moved randomly through many networks and systems rather than traveling over one line and through a central switching hub. After starting out with four hosts, Arpanet grew slowly as more DOD researchers began to use the system to send e-mail or transfer files to colleagues. By 1984 the number of hosts topped 1,000.
In 1986 the National Science Foundation, with help from NASA and the Energy Department, created its own backbone network to link supercomputing centers across the country. By 1987 the number of users increased by almost sixfold as universities nationwide connected to the backbone.
The original Arpanet grew into the Internet, which was based on the idea that there would be multiple independent networks, beginning with Arpanet as the pioneer network but soon including other networks, such as the NSF network. ARPA scientists designed the Internet around an open standards-based architecture to allow these networks to connect to each other.
Communities nationwide first began to be wired directly to the Internet in 1994— two years after the birth of the World Wide Web, which produced a graphical view of the information on the Internet.
Since then, the public has been flocking to the Internet. The number of worldwide Internet users tripled between 1993 and 1995, with 40 million to 60 million people now wired into the Internet. Experts estimate the Internet will have 250 million regular users by 2000.
Building Virtual Communities
The millions of Internet users are forming electronic communities, said Brett Thomas, a Dallas-based Internet author and consultant. Members of these communities are drawn to each other because of common interests or goals instead of geographic location, Thomas said.
"The Internet is the biggest symbol of this information revolution,'' said Thomas. "It's really changing largely how people work, what they perceive as their careers. It is also changing how we educate ourselves.''
Communities can be formed around almost any topic, as Joe Diamond, a Brooklyn, N.Y., resident learned. Diamond was robbed at gun point outside his home in 1992; as a result, he launched an electronic community for crime victims. He now is executive director of ParoleWatch (www.parolewatch.org), a Web site he launched last year in cooperation with the New York Department of Corrections.
Diamond's Web site alerts communities and victims when violent felons come up for parole. The site draws its information from a database provided by New York state officials that details the crimes and possible parole dates of 37,000 violent felons in the state.
ParoleWatch also includes a list of the 19 members of the New York State Board of Parole so that people know who is responsible for determining whether prisoners should be released.
The site is still under construction, and Diamond eventually plans to collect e-mailed comments on specific cases from people who visit the site and forward them to the parole board, which he said is heavily influenced by public opinion. Ultimately, he would like to include lists of convicted felons up for parole in all 50 states.
"If we can give the public a greater say in the process, it will have an effect on the system,'' Diamond said. "This is mainly for the victims of violent crimes and the potential victims. It is a way to empower them and make sure their voices are heard.''
New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco also used the Internet to wage a campaign against the early release of a convicted felon. Through his Web site (www.oag.
state.ny.us), Vacco urged New Yorkers to send e-mail messages opposing the parole of Joel Steinberg, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the 1987 beating death of his illegally adopted 6-year-old daughter.
Vacco received more than 4,000 e-mail messages— with only a handful supporting Steinberg's early release— which were forwarded to the parole board. The board denied parole for Steinberg in January.
The Internet also has empowered individuals when it comes to their own health care. Jean Hoffman-Anuta, a Millersville, Md., clinical pharmacist, had a son but suffered six first-trimester miscarriages while trying to have a second child.
Unable to get answers from doctors, she and her husband were about to give up on having another child when they turned to the Internet and found the National Library of Medicine's Medline (www.nlm.nih.gov), which is the world's largest collection of medical information. She found articles on an immune disorder that matched her symptoms and located a physician who treated the disorder and ultimately saved Hoffman-Anuta from miscarrying in the sixth week of her pregnancy.
In her 20th week, Hoffman-Anuta learned that she had a weakened cervix, which had been caused by the previous miscarriages. Again, she tapped into Medline to find a physician who had published details about cervical surgery during pregnancy, and she underwent the procedure successfully. Today Hoffman-Anuta has Sam, her 2-and-a-half-year-old son she calls her "Medline baby.''
"Information is power,'' Hoffman-Anuta said. "I wouldn't have my second son if I didn't have access to Medline.''
Beyond medical data, the Internet is the source of huge volumes of government information ranging from warfighting to weather. For example, the city of San Marcos, Texas, last spring used government-gathered, Internet-posted data to track flooding conditions on the nearby Blanco River that threatened the city's 60,000 residents.
Heavy rains battered central Texas, and the river was close to overflowing its banks. But unlike other years, when emergency management officials stood on the river banks and watched the rising waters to determine if they needed to begin evacuating residents, Dan O'Leary logged onto the Internet.
O'Leary, the emergency management coordinator and fire chief in San Marcos, checked out the U.S. Geological Survey's real-time water data Web page (water.
usgs.gov) to monitor river gauges for a portion of the Blanco River 10 miles upstream from San Marcos.
"We were able to look at what the river was doing 10 miles upstream from us and...predict what it was going to do here,'' O'Leary said. "It got right up to a couple of houses, but we knew it wasn't going to go any higher.''
USGS' Water Resources Division has more than 4,000 telemetry gauges that measure the amount of water flowing through rivers nationwide. These gauges record data that is posted to USGS' Web page within minutes during flood situations.
One of the biggest effects the Internet has had on the way people live in the 1990s is on what they do for a living. The Internet is "really the underpinning of a lot of applications of information technology,'' said Robert Kahn, president of Reston, Va.-based Corporation for National Research Initiatives and one of the co-inventors of the first messaging standard protocol upon which the Internet is based. "It will be the economic engine of the 21st century.''
Or as Internet author Thomas put it, the economy is no longer based on "atoms or molecules'' but on "information and bytes.''
Indeed, the Internet contributed more than $200 billion to the gross national product in 1996 and accounted for half of all new jobs created in the United States that year, according to a report from the Global Internet Project, a cooperative effort of 16 software and telecommunications company senior executives. Forrester Research in July 1997 forecasted that business-to-business commerce over the Internet would top $8 billion by the end of 1997 and increase to $327 billion by 2002.
One company that has tapped into the vast potential of the Internet is HAHT Software (www.haht.com), which in September was rated by Red Herring magazine as one of the top 50 Internet companies. The mission of the Raleigh, N.C.-based software concern, whose founders' roots are steeped in information technology, is to provide businesses with an application development environment in which to build electronic applications over the Web.
Rowland Archer, the chief operating officer and co-founder of HAHT, compared today's Internet-based environment and the "universal access'' he said it offers to the client/server arena of only a few years ago.
"The speed with which you've been able to build those Internet applications is one-tenth the time it took to build with client/server environments,'' Archer said. The Internet "extends the reach of existing systems to virtually everybody these days because virtually everybody has a browser."
Archer estimated that transactions formerly done by hand at a cost of $35 per transaction now can be done with the aid of a browser for as little as 50 cents.
For example, Georgia Pacific built an internal human resources application using a HAHT product that saved the company $3.5 million alone in the first year, Archer said. Another potential customer, an aerospace contractor that he declined to name, has put out a solicitation for an online business application to eliminate 2,000 paper forms, which will save $410 million in the first 18 months and $100 million each month after that. "It's a conjunction of a small number of technologies...but it's very, very powerful," Archer said.
From the classroom to the boardroom, the initial investment of the federal government in the Internet has produced a rate of return that Sen. John Rockefeller (D-N.Y.) described recently as "something any investment banker would love to achieve.''
ParoleWatch's Diamond provided perhaps the best description of the Internet's impact on the lives of the American public. "This is the most amazing thing since Marconi invented the radio,'' he said.