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  • What is the internet good for?



    Other than, obviously, it keeps me employed. It does seem like a bit of an odd question when you realize that in the last decade, we have all gone from sitting at the PC once a day to check emails to a near-constant addiction to our phones. The internet, it would seem, is not only good for almost everything, it's practically indispensible. Living more than a few days without the internet seems practically impossible, or at least impossibly impractical.

    Yet, take away the political diatribes from friends, the funny cartoons and pictures of food, and what do you have?

    The internet itself was designed as a distributed network which would preserve knowledge and communication in case of an infrastructure failure. Put it another way, it's 1969 and people are worried about nuclear weapons. The internet, among other things, keeps everything together because you don't have all the scientists in one place.

    By the 1980s the internet was a robust way for schools, banks, and large businesses to communicate. It is still that today, of course. For almost a generation, the financial industry has relied completely on the internet. If you still write checks or deposit cash, it goes no further than your local branch where the amounts are recorded, checks are scanned, and information transferred over the internet. It's not a check at all really, it's just another step in the chain of electronic money transfer.

    By the 1990s regular folks got involved. You might remember being on AOL or Earthlink in those days, spending 20 minutes getting connected, 30 minutes exploring primitive web pages, and 10 minutes looking through the three emails you got that day.

    Suddenly, the internet in the 2000s brought us together. We became aware of terms like "social network" to describe the way that we could connect with the people from our past and present. E-mail became overwhelming, and texting took over as the preferred form of instant communication.

    In the 2010s... the internet overtook us. Faced with an almost constant stream of content, we became overwhelmed with fake news, obsessed with fads that came and went in a day, and sought to insulate ourselves by watching videos ... on the internet. And today there seems to be a legitimate movement to limit "screen time," to focus on the reality of life as it stands in front of you. Paying too much attention to those little slabs of glass and metal is legitimately dangerous, especially if you should be driving, walking, or working.

    So what is the internet good for?

    The internet itself is clearly one of the greatest single inventions of human history, right there with the wheel and fire. It is an utterly transformative force that as pervaded the way we do every single thing. It allows us to decide how we eat, when we sleep, how we work, and with whom we connect. I have said that thirty years ago the most important tool we had was the dime... because it allowed us to communicate with the people we needed. Today the most important tool is unquestionably the cell phone and the internet that it runs.

    I don't necessarily need to stand here and defend the internet to a bunch of people who are reading my articles on the internet, I get that. But still, it is worth it once in a while to think of the immense work that goes into making sure that you can argue politics in real time with someone 5,000 miles away, post pictures of the view out your window to the whole world, or learn in 2 minutes or less how to change your own headlight. It doesn't just happen, it takes billions of dollars of technology, millions of miles of cable, and a whole industry. And while I'm at it, I should point out that you can get a lot of the things that run the internet at Solid Signal, because they make this blog possible and I really ought to plug them now and again.

    The internet is good for an awful lot of things but at the heart of it, I have to say the thing it's best for is actually being invisible. You don't even think about the internet, do you? You act as if the entire sum of the world's knowledge, and all the people you care about, are all in the palm of your hand. The internet is good for getting you what you need, easily, silently, and quickly. And that, in itself, is just plain amazing.

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    Comments 1 Comment
    1. dsiebert's Avatar
      dsiebert -
      Until the early 90s, the internet (then known as the NSFNET and MILNET in the US) did not allow commercial traffic. So while there were some big corporations and maybe a few banks connected, they could only use it for stuff like research communications with universities. The electric communication between banks back in the 80s took place over private networks - X.25 based, not IP. A decade ago they switched to SWIFTNet 2 which was finally using IP, but over private networks and AFAIK it still isn't permitted to be passed over the public internet.