Let's put this whole human communication thing in context. It's been about 5,500 years since writing was invented. Man no longer had to be content with telling war stories around the campfire. He could scribble those tales down and share them with the world.
It's been about 550 years since Johannes Gutenberg made the printing press practical. Man could then print pages rapidly instead of having to copy each one, oh so painstakingly. Books became plentiful enough to share with the world.
It's been 10 years since the World Wide Web was created. Now everyone can share everything with the world.
That's pretty heady, historic company for the Web to be in. But David Abrahamson, associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University, said the impact of the Web could be that big.
"It's really too early to say what the long-term effect will be," Abrahamson said. "But if one thinks about the orality/scribal boundary 5,000 years ago, or the scribal/print boundary in the mid-15th century, it's starting to look like the effects of this transformation may be just as profound."
What the Web had done, he said, is change "the whole model of our top-down social organization. We've always had a hierarchical organization. But by definition, the Web is not hierarchical. Theoretically, when everyone has access to everything, no one controls access to the information. Then we have to find completely new models for society."
A little history:
What came to be called the Internet actually got its start 30 years ago. Some people say the birth was on Sept. 2, 1969, in a lab at UCLA. Then, a few bits of information flowed between two not-so-personal computers along a 15-foot cable.
Others say it began six weeks later when information was sent from that UCLA lab to one a few hundred miles away at Stanford University. An interesting note is that scientists attempted to send the word "login" over the phone lines. But the system crashed after the "o."
The network that sprang from those first transmission was called the Arpanet because it was sponsored by the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as ARPA.
Applications such as e-mail and file transfer utilities came along in the next decade, but it was not until 1989 that the World Wide Web debuted. For those who don't understand the difference, the Web is part of the Internet. The Internet is the entire network of personal pages, commercial sites, e-mail, bulletin boards and everything else.
The Web is all those sites and pages, those personal pages and dot-coms. It's the places where you can find the entire script for Pulp Fiction or buy Beanie Babies, where anyone with a video camera can show the world live video of their fish tank or their bedroom.
It's sites as big as Ebay, which, at one point last week, had 3.36 million items registered for sale in 2,568 categories. At least 350,000 new items are listed every day.
It's Priceline.com, selling 40,000 airline tickets a week online.
Commercial sites and online shopping, of course, have become a huge part of the Internet. In a National Retail Federation survey, 10 percent of respondents expected to use online services for holiday shopping this year, up from 5 percent last year.
But the Web is also made up of sites as small as the one George Korbe set up to help his Arlington neighbors with their lawn and gardens. Korbe, a Navy machinist, is a certified master gardener and had been doing a newsletter with monthly gardening tips for other residents of New Mill Cove East.
But that got to be expensive, printing and copying all those newsletters. Even though Korbe had been online less than a year at the time, he set up a Web site called Korbegardens. Now, when he notices lawns getting a little seedy, he puts up a little more information on the care of St. Augustine grass.
He said 16 of the 30 homes in the subdivision are online. He got 50 hits the first month alone.
That's nothing like EBay, of course, but the key is that both sites are available to everyone with an online connection.
Korbe, the machinist, sees the importance of that availability in much the same way Abrahamson, the professor, does.
"With print, radio and television, it was one-way communication," he said. "We were fed information from a source. Now, we pick and choose where we get our information. We can go to any source. I can interact with anyone, anywhere."
Millions of people around the world have those small personal Web pages like Korbe's.
Angel Fire and Tripod are two vehicles owned by Lycos that offer free home pages. About 9.5 million people around the world have pages there.
Margaret Gould Stewart, general manager of Angel Fire, said there are several primary reasons that people have personal pages.
"Some simply have sites that they want other people to see," she said. "They'll say 'I'm John, these are my interests.' They want to put their face on the Web.
"And then there's a huge phenomenon of fan culture, where people take the TV show, celebrity or musician they're most interested in and essentially create a shrine.
"Then consumers aren't just consumers, they put out the publicity for that celebrity. They produce their own content. They listen to a CD and tell the world what they think of it. It's much more of a conversation, instead of just being fed messages."
Again, there's that two-way, everyone-has-an-opinion concept of which Abrahamson and Korbe spoke. Rather than relying on a handful of published critics and critiques, Internet users can find out what the real world thinks of something before they buy.
Amazon.com pioneered this trend of online amateur reviews in 1995; it now has 2.5 million amateur reviews posted on books, CDs and toys. Epinions, a California start-up that opened in August, drew 331,000 visitors in October seeking commentary on everything from toys to cruises.
Of course, anything as big as the Web brings criticism that it will take on a life of its own, full of unregulated rage or misinformation, so electronically consuming that it will drown out human interaction.
"New technologies don't always replace other media," Stewart said. "People probably don't use the phone that much less. Instead of calling your sister once a month, you may email her 10 times a month and call her once a month.
"We heard the same thing with video conferencing in the late '70s. You weren't going to travel to work anymore. Companies were going to save all that money. Of course, it didn't happen. It just allowed more interaction. It didn't replace faceto-face meetings, nothing ever will."
Abrahamson couldn't answer the basic 'Is it good or bad?' question either.
"The only answer is that it simply is," Abrahamson said. "All of these kinds of changes produced winners and losers. People of Homer's time thought the invention of writing was a great loss for human culture because no one memorized epic poems around the campfire, or so we're told.
"The great illuminated manuscripts disappeared with the coming of the printing press."
And when asked what the end result of this change will be, Abrahamson goes back to the arrival of the press.
"If you were to pick one thing that come from that transformation," he said, "you might say it was the Enlightenment. That was in the 18th century, several hundred years later. This one won't take a couple hundred of years."
Information from news services is contained in this report. HITTING HOME
In a survey this year by Scarborough Research, Jacksonville ranked 26th among 64 major cities in Internet use. A total of 43.1 percent of Jacksonville's adults are online. That's up from 34 percent in 1998.
Washington topped the list with 59.9 percent of adults online. Pittsburgh was last of the 64 cities with 30.8 percent.
Another survey by Odyssey, a market research firm, recently estimated that home PC usage in the United States has surpassed 1 billion hours per week and that 53 percent of that time is being spent online.
According to Scarborough, here are the most common uses in Jacksonville of the Internet:
E-mail -- used by 49 percent of those online.
Research/education -- 29 percent.
News access -- 25 percent
Games -- 20 percent.
Financial services/information -- 19 percent.
Sports information -- 16 percent.
Read a newspaper -- 13 percent.
Chat forums -- 12 percent.
Shopping -- 9 percent.
Ryan J. Sparrow Art: (c) Internet…