What makes you think the Internet is more significant than the invention of the typewriter?
If it’s a question that seems absurd today, it was far from absurd just 25 years ago. May 17, 1991 was when Tim Berners-Lee set up HTML (hypertext markup language) and HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol) on a machine at the CERN research laboratory in Switzerland, and presented the world’s first web server to the World Wide Web Consortium.
In retrospect, we recognize this as a momentous occasion, but at the time few people outside the tight-knit tech research community even knew it was happening. Perhaps that’s why, five full years after Berners-Lee got the web up and running, I found myself hearing the same question over and over: What makes you think the Internet is more significant than the invention of the typewriter?
I heard that question, in a variety of forms, as I tried to pitch my graduate advisors on an Internet-related dissertation. It was 1996, and I was a Ph.D. student in Political Science at Harvard. It was obvious to me that the Internet was a huge deal, so why didn’t my department get it? And now I wonder, if it was so hard for academics to recognize the significance of the Internet in 1996, what might we be missing today?
With the arrival of the web’s 25th birthday, I turned to JSTOR for answers. Reading mid-nineties articles explaining and extolling the newfound Internet—including some articles I remember reading when they were first published—is like looking at the Internet’s baby pictures. Read these early articles and one word springs to mind: adorable. I mean, what’s not to love about this 1994 description in American Scientist that constitutes one of the earliest explanations of the web in the JSTOR digital library?
There have long been protocols for transferring various kinds of information over the Internet, but the Web offers the first seamless interface to the entire network. You no longer need to think much about where things are, either physically (“The file I need is in Geneva, Switzerland”) or in terms of the syntax of domain names and addressing conventions (“That file is stored in the pub/ directory at info.cern.ch“). Geography disappears, and so does network topology. The Web promotes the illusion that all resources are at your fingertips; the universe of information is inside the little box that sits on your desk.
A year later in The Phi Delta Kappan, Royal Van Horn explained how exploring this “universe of information” actually felt:
Place becomes irrelevant on the Web….In all, it took only 13 single mouse clicks to complete the electronic journey [through a range of websites] described here, a journey that spanned four countries.
Wow! Only 13 mouse clicks! Just imagine what it would be like if there was something called a search engine. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Because as fascinating as it is to see people struggling to convey the essence of web browsing, it’s even more illuminating to see that experience pitched to academics as something they could and should learn how to use. A 1995 article aimed at political scientists was typical of the “how-to” guides that a wide range of journals published, orienting academics to online resources in their particular field:
World Wide Web has been labeled by some “the killer application” of the Internet….[A] WWW document is as different from a print document as an Apple Powerbook is from a slide rule. World Wide Web documents are fully multimedia- enabled….It has even become common to see interactive forms processing embedded into WWW documents where the user submits a request for information or products right on the WWW document itself.
The gee whiz! tone of these early websplanations reflects the astonishment and delight many academics felt as network technology spread outwards from the computer science community to other disciplines. I still remember the night I had a bunch of grad school friends over to my house to watch Melrose Place—yes, I’m dating myself—when the conversation turned to our childhood remembrances of Clifford The Big Red Dog. What was the name of the little girl who owned Clifford? Nobody could remember.
I ducked into my study, where I had a computer with a newly set-up high-speed connection; this was at a time when almost everyone still used dial-up. I returned to the living room with the answer: Clifford’s owner was Emily Elizabeth. My friends’ astonished reaction made me feel like a magician. How on earth had I found an answer? The idea of looking up information on the Internet, in real time, was still unheard of.
But in a few corners of academe, adventurous researchers and librarians were starting to consider the possibilities. Not surprisingly, however, many of those drawn to the Internet in its earlier years were those who were inspired by its potential, rather than its perils: “The creation of the internet in 1983 and particularly the advent of the World Wide Web with its graphic interface provides the basis for another revolution in communications, one that will rival if not exceed that spawned by Gutenberg,” read one breathless description in a 1996 article in The Journal of Politics.
Precisely because of that excitement, academics tended to be unduly sanguine about the prospects for overcoming some of the Internet’s nascent risks. Take this optimistic prediction for our ability to filter online information, which appeared in The Wilson Quarterly in 1994:
Communication is the only thing in society that risks self-destruction as it is multiplied. Imagine an Infotopia in which any person or organization could send a multimedia file of any size to anyone else, at almost no charge. Infotopia would collapse almost instantly. Many people already resent junk E-mail and incipient advertising on the Internet. Newsgroups, the discussion forums that are probably the best-known feature of the Net, are already dangerously unwieldy just because of the growing volume of traffic. That does not mean the Net itself is going to collapse, but only that selection and self-selection are going to grow.
Medical and scientific publication on the Internet raises some problems. There is anxiety that material can be freely distributed without being peer reviewed. This might be a problem for the naive reader, but it is usually quite clear whether electronically published information has been peer reviewed or not and implementation of electronic peer review is likely to overcome many of the deficiencies of current peer review practice.
In retrospect, that optimism seems unwarranted. Talk to any medical doctor and you’ll hear complaints about the patients who self-diagnose via Google, buy into unsubstantiated weight loss schemes, or—worse yet—opt out of vaccination because of something they read online. Medical doctors may still recognize the value of peer review, but medical readers now consist of anyone with an Internet connection and a weird-looking rash.
If academics were insufficiently attentive to the dangers that online information posed to the public they were just as complacent about the dangers it posed to their own intellectual property. Take this article in Social Science Quarterly:
Nor is there anything inherent about electronic publication which makes it more vulnerable to piracy. The principal barrier to plagiarism is not the presence or absence of a photocopy machine or of electronic text. The barrier one must count on is that created by professional ethics.
I’ll concede the point about ethics—professional or otherwise—as the only effective barrier to plagiarism. But electronic publication certainly has made both piracy and plagiarism a whole lot easier, now that anyone can cut-and-paste, republish articles or download (and upload) entire texts via bittorrent. Those who saw only the elite potential for self-publication easily missed the impact of broad participation in online content creation and dissemination.
At about the time these optimistic assessments were making their way into academic journals, I found myself at a gathering of e-government practitioners: faced with a still-skeptical department, I’d taken a three-year leave to pursue my research interests in the private sector. One of the folks at our gathering observed that we tend to underestimate the impact of tech innovations, but overestimate the speed with which that impact will arrive.
Look back at early assessments of the web, and it’s clear we face another kind of bias in grappling with the impact of technology. Precisely because tech innovation is most interesting to people who fundamentally like technology, research on technology may too often be driven by those of us who are inclined to focus on the upsides rather than the potential problems.
Faced with that bias, it’s important to challenge those of us who’d dive into the study of new technologies while they’re still infancy. Yes, it’s worth trusting tech junkies when we tell you the Internet is more important than the typewriter—but it’s also worth asking us which one is better.