As recently as 10 years ago, the computer Internet was mostly the domain of scientists and computer fanatics called "geeks" or "nerds." Since then, it has become a part of everyday life in many parts of the world. Many experts believe the Internet rivals the invention of the printing press in its impact on civilization.
Can this be a wild exaggeration? After all, the printing press ushered in an entire era of intellectual advancement called the Enlightenment.
If you ask John Perry Barlow, the Internet is even MORE revolutionary. John Perry Barlow is a former Wyoming cowboy and lyricist for the Grateful Dead, of all things. But he also founded an important cyber-rights organization called the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And he calls the Internet "the most transforming event since the capture of fire!"
He made that statement eight years ago in 1995, when an estimated 16 million people around the world were using the Internet every day.
By 2002 the number of Internet users was estimated to have grown 31 times. That's half a billion Internet users worldwide, including a lot of you who write us here at VOA. If the Internet could somehow grow at the same rate over the next eight years, every person on earth would have an e-mail address!!
Already in the United States, 60 percent of the population has Internet access at home, at work, or at a neighborhood library or Internet cafe.
Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, has written that daily use of the Internet is now the NORM, not the exception, in the United States. He says we give no more thought to jumping on the Internet than we do to brushing our teeth, driving a car, turning on a television set, or fixing a meal.
This "cyberlife" has many implications - and they're not all good. One negative that has people worried, for instance, is the growing digital divide between those who comfortably tool around the Internet and those who don't even have access to the Net. And the divide between those who fluently use English - the language of nine-tenths of Internet web sites - and those whose English is poor or nonexistent.
There are also many other profound issues associated with this everyday Internet tool: the differences in how men and women use it; the information overload many feel it has created; computer users' seemingly insatiable need for instant gratification through more and faster information; and the Internet's effect on family and community life. Senior Research Specialist John Horrigan at the Pew Internet and American Life Project says Americans as a rule don't even bother writing government agencies or health care providers any more when they want information. They don't call or visit, either, because just about everything they want is available in a flash on the Net. So is less critical information about our hobbies or casual interests. In short, John Horrigan says, the Internet has become "America's go-to tool."
"If you took away their Internet, there would be loud cries of protest," he said.
Mr. Horrigan notes that the Internet is both a mass medium - dispensing everything from newspaper articles to radio programs to specialized information - and a personal, one-to-one medium.
"In an overarching sense, we find two principal assets to the Internet. One is the many-to-many communications. People can e-mail with one another or e-mail many people. The other is the Internet as an information utility," he said. "The Internet in some cases has supplanted the telephone or other kinds of information tools. And that's where search engines come in. People love to go online to scratch a little informational itch. 'Googling' for information or googling other people is quite popular."
"Google" - the name of just one of the Internet search engines, has become a verb.
"Yeah, certainly among highly wired Internet users: 'Let's google that when we get back to the office,' " he added.
There's a humorous e-mail going around VOA that says "You Know You're Living in the Year 2003 when . . ." and it lists some of the technological realities of everyday life in America. For instance, you know you're living in 2003 when "you get up in the morning and go online before getting your coffee." Indeed, it's been said e-mail ranks with the telephone in the profound ways it has changed daily communication.
Blackwell Publishing has a new book out called The Internet in Everyday Life. It includes studies of everything from online shopping to "telecommuting" from home on the Internet. Caroline Haythornthwaite, who runs an information technology program at the University of Illinois, edited the book along with a colleague from Toronto. She says the average American Internet user is on the Net 11 hours a week - experienced users, 16 hours a week. That's two full workdays' worth of time - time that was once spent on other things.
So what's lost? Human contact, perhaps. "To me, that's how I connect to people," she said. "If you think we've gone away from the telephone to e-mail, have you lost anything there? Some of the real changes that seem to show up in the statistics are less TV and less sleep. The sleep business could be the fact that the people who are using the Internet are also the same kind of people who are wired into being active and ambitious. It's their time of life for getting a lot of work done, not their time for doing a lot of work or watching TV."
Ms. Haythornthwaite says studies have detected a difference in the ways that men and women tend to use the Intenet. "The young, white males were the first ones on there," said Ms. Haythornthwaite. "The culture of young, white males became some of the early culture, some of the early ways of talking on the Internet and ways of behaving through e-mail. A lot of programming stuff. When the women started getting on, the tone is slightly different - more of the family communication. So they're talking about different things. There are other studies that show women have always been the ones looking for medical information. They're the caregivers in the family, and they're doing that."
For many Americans, the computer Internet is now the principal tool to search out specialized as well as basic information. But it's also used to find romantic partners, get divorced, make hotel and airplane reservations, copy songs, shop for gifts, form clubs with unseen cyberfriends . . . and even to listen to broadcasters like the Voice of America.