Beyond the Triangle

Best Invention Of All Time

 

internet-multimedia-server-computer-doing-processing-sharing-calculating-actvity-47542046 I select the Internet and THE WORLD WIDE WEB as the greatest inventions of all time because it is quite simply the single most extraordinary learning and communication tool the world has ever known. And it was created in my lifetime. No longer do I have to spend hours sitting in a library, pouring over card catalogues trying to choose the best possible source for an article like this one. Now I simply walk into my comfortable living room, flip open my computer, type in the word, “internet” and, “Presto”  4-Billion-150-million sites await my command. I’m spoiled for choice. Never has learning been so easy, so thorough or so enjoyable…Oh, and so FREE !

For instance, when I first developed an interest in photography my husband searched around for a professional to teach me. The cost for one hour of his time was $500.00. We paid it once but I thought it was exorbitant. So I went online and found a course called Digital Photography School. It has hundreds of tutorials on everything from taking the perfect portrait to framing the finished product. It also has over 1.4-million subscribers who clearly felt the same way I did  and are now learning photography for free on line.

My wedding anniversary was November 11th, Remembrance Day, which was a holiday. Supermarkets were closed so I scoured the deep freeze to ferret out the makings of a romantic home cooked meal. A package of frozen minced lamb revealed itself . I jumped on the WEB and within seconds it had conjured up culinary possibilities that numbered in the hundreds. My favorite was for a minced lamb and potato bake, which came complete with photos, directions, plus a nutritional and calorie guide. With the web, who uses a cook book anymore?

In the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that my husband decided to actually cook the meal that anniversary night, but if he hadn’t I was secure in the knowledge that the web would have provided me with a “B” plan.

I use the web for everything it seems. Most of my Christmas presents- and I buy for 12 people- were all sourced on the web. I did not have to go to a crowded mall or even buy wrapping paper because the on line stores offered wrapping services.

I play SCRABBLE against the computer and it often comes up with words I have never heard of before, like ‘Shave tail’. So,  I highlighted the word and instantly had the definition. For your information, “Shave tail “ is a derogatory term used mostly in the military to describe a new recruit.

Even exercise is made better because of the internet. Our gym has no TV, so I always take my phone. While I’m on the treadmill I download TED Talks from the internet to listen to. TED, which stands for ‘ Technology, Entertainment and Design’ is a series of free talks given by experts in their fields concentrating on just about everything.  The latest one I listened to was given by a woman who felt that her personal literary itinerary was coming up short. She said she had only read books by English or North American authors and she wanted to expand her horizons. So she came up with a brilliant idea. She took her quest into cyber space. She used the Internet to ask foreigners from all around the world to send her books from their countries. Then as she only spoke English, she went one step further also asking these folks to translate the books for her. Sounds like an impossible request but what’s amazing is that it happened. Over the course of one year, on her computer, this woman connected with 196 people from 196 countries who found, translated and sent her over 196 books.  All because she asked a favor over the internet.

Which makes you think, what’s not possible with the web?

Marc Andreesen is an American millionaire, a software engineer and the founder of ‘Mosaic’, one of the first web browsers ever invented. And he describes this technology better than I ever could.

“The Internet,”  he says, “ has always been, and always will be, a magic box.”  

I see the development of the computer, the Internet and the World Wide Web as a gorgeous technological trinity. These are  terms which are many times used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing, although one does not exist without the other, and I honestly do not know how we ever lived without them.

With the exception of places like North Korea, where the Internet is only available to the government or by special permission of the government, we are all now globally connected.

Speaking of global issues, Although I am not fluent, a cheeky friend of mine once wrote me an email entirely in French. Not wanting to be outdone I wrote back to her, en francais aussi.  But before hitting the send button I pressed “translate” and ” voila ” the whole message was magically and perfectly converted into French. Clearly intimidated, she never wrote back.

Almost all discoveries are evolutionary in nature. Each advancement is built on the back of another’s work which forms the basis for the next invention. The history of computers, the Internet and the World Wide Web is no different.

The use of computers and the worlds they can open up for us are a relatively recent discovery but they have their roots deep in history.

Take the word computer, for instance, which is defined by the dictionary as “an electronic device for storing and processing data.” Prior to the turn of the century a “computer” was not a machine, but, a person,who calculated numbers. The term can also be found as far back as the 14th century when “ human computers” used an abacus to calculate figures.

The first “computer programmer” of sorts was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, mathematician, Ada Byron. In  1837 she worked with Charles Babbage, who was the first man in history to originate the concept of a programmable computer. It was called the “Difference Engine / Analytical Engine”.

According to published reports it actually anticipated virtually every aspect of contemporary computers, the first of which was developed in 1946 at the University of Pennsylvania. Although Colossus was the first “code breaking” computer, The ‘Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer’ or ENIAC is considered the grand daddy of computer engineering. Eniac weighed 30 tons and measured 50 by 30 feet. It contained 19-thousand vacuum tubes, 6-thousand switches and could add 5-thousand numbers in a second. Most notably, ENIAC was used to create the H-Bomb.

It is generally accepted that the invention of the Internet was a communal effort. In 1957 during the cold war, when the Russians sent the Sputnik satellite into space the US was stunned to learn that it had been beaten in the race to space. So the next year it created an agency to keep tabs on such things which then lead computer science pioneer J.C.R. Licklider to propose the foundation for the internet which was called the ‘Intergalactic Computer Network.”

That lead the military, in 1969 to create “The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network or ARPANET.”  American computer scientist Lawrence Roberts supervised its construction and is considered one of the founding fathers of what we now call the Internet.  As an aside, former Vice President Al Gore didn’t actually invent the Internet but he did expand government funding of ARPANET which boosted internet development. Applause please.

Connecting computers to one another is what the Internet is all about. As the first computers were huge and immoveable, researchers had to find a way for academics to electronically share their computer’s information with each other.  And on October 29th 1969, at 10:30 p.m, they did.  Leonard Kleinrock, a prominent computer scientist and ARPANET researcher, described what happened the first time scientists tried to make computers talk to each other by sending the word “log-in” in a communication between UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute.

He said, “We set up a telephone connection between us and the guys at SRI, We typed the letter “ L” and asked on the phone,

“Do you see the L?”

“Yes, we see the L,”?

We typed the O, and we asked, “Do you see the O?”

“Yes, we see the O.”

Then we typed the G, and the system crashed… Yet a revolution had begun.”

By the early 1990’s the Internet was moving beyond academia and the military into the public forum and so began the next layer in computer technology.

While the Internet is a massive network of connected computers the World Wide Web is a collection of information pages or web pages which you access on your computer with a web browser like FireFox.

The man credited with creating the World Wide Web was British computer scientist Sir Timothy Berners-Lee who worked at CERN, the huge research center in Switzerland.

Berners Lee was described by computer industry blogger, Lev Lafayette, like this: “Meeting Sir Tim Berners-Lee is a little like meeting Johannes Gutenberg in recognising an inventor who has fundamentally changed the way we communicate and provide information.”

Berners Lee believed all the basics for a new communication system were already in place. He just found a way to integrate them all so that the public rather than only a government or business could benefit.  The very first web page address on the very first web server was produced by Berners Lee. When you see WWW. at the start of a webpage, that’s Berners Lee. He designed a way to direct our computer to search out over the web for anything we asked it for.

The Internet and all it entails has its own language: There are Packet Switching technologies, servers, modems, Hyper Text and URL’s. The list goes on and on. And depending on which generation you hail from your computer can be a godsend or the bane of your existence. My mother has no idea what any of those terms mean while my 13- year old niece knows more about computers at her age than I ever will.  

But lack of knowledge doesn’t prevent usage. I mean a 747 jetliner has six million parts. Being unable to name any of them does not prevent me from confidently jumping on a flight whenever I want.

And minimal knowledge of all the things that went into production of the computers hasn’t stop their sales. Statistics show that half of the people on the planet- That’s 3.5 Billion, use the internet. To drive the point home, and with no pun intended, that means there are 3 times as many people using the internet than operating cars.

I am by nature and by profession a curious person. So it is not surprising that I would be seduced by the wonders of the web. Sadly, I was not a stellar student. But if I had had the web back then I bet you I might have been. The fundamental enticement to pick this subject was because of its educational value and independence of use. You don’t ever need to travel to a class with the Internet and it encourages learning, almost obsessively.

A girlfriend of mine said she was about to head off for a diving vacation in Sulawesi. “Where?” I asked her. She was shocked that I had not heard of it. So when I got home I looked it up. Sulawesi is an island in Indonesia-the 11th largest island in the world, east of Borneo and home to 17 million. A fact worth knowing.

The hallmark of a highly intelligent person is this: The more you know the more you realize there is to know. Only the truly ignorant and smug think they know it all. A beautiful companion on the road to intellectual superiority is our computer. You are better company because of it too.  Just the other day I was playing golf with a fella who was in the mining business. Copper mining. Two days later while I was reading the newspaper on my IPAD I spotted a story about the falling price of copper. It is a subject that I had previously no knowledge of or interest in but because of this man and the easy availability of computer generated facts and figures I now know that copper’s worth has slipped to its lowest levels in 6 years.

Berners Lee, along with Apple’s Steve Jobs, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates and many others have become part of our living history. They are the Einsteins of our generation. Visionaries. They have created vast wealth for themselves and contributed untold possibilities for us. Tech writer Courtney Myers writes that “The Web gives lifelong learners the tools to join the ranks of other self-taught great thinkers in history such as Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Paul Allen and Ernest Hemingway.’

But the upside of this technology is ironically its downside.

It is mind boggling the amount of time people spend on the web.  According to one source “the total hours spent online via PCs, laptops, mobiles and tablets has grown to 6 hours 15 minutes per day. Take time out for working and sleeping and there is very little time left for human interaction. And it is that “ cyber addiction” that has some psychologists worried.

TONY SCHWARTZ writes in the New York Times, “Addiction is the relentless pull to a substance or an activity that becomes so compulsive it ultimately interferes with everyday life. By that definition, nearly everyone I know is addicted in some measure to the Internet. It has arguably replaced work itself as our most socially sanctioned addiction.”

Schwartz had observed that he was no longer reading his beloved books because he spent so much time “surfing” the web. So he tried to go cold turkey while on vacation. His brainy 30 year old daughter aided his mission by disconnecting his email, which he was then powerless to fix.

“But with each passing day offline,” he said,  “I felt more relaxed, less anxious, more able to focus and less hungry for the next shot of instant but short-lived stimulation. What happened to my brain is exactly what I hoped would happen: It began to quiet down.”

But a disturbingly poignant moment came at the end of his vacation when he was at the airport feeling pretty good about his success over his internet compulsions.

“ I was sitting in a restaurant with my family when a man in his early 40s came in and sat down with his daughter, perhaps 4 or 5 years old and adorable.

Almost immediately, the man turned his attention to his phone. Meanwhile, his daughter was a whirlwind of energy and restlessness, standing up on her seat, walking around the table, waving and making faces to get her father’s attention. Except for brief moments, she didn’t succeed and after a while, she glumly gave up. The silence felt deafening,” Schwartz recalled.

Clearly, social media sites have changed our social habits. You see people sitting, right next to each other, but completely disconnected to one another as they play with their phones or IPADS.

Aside from the erosion of interpersonal skills this technology has unleashed, there are other worries as well.

Elon University Professor Janna Anderson conducted a study and asked people how they felt about the Internet. The results were extraordinary.  “ For the first time, she said, “most of the people surveyed described as many potential negatives as positives.” “They worry about interpersonal ethics, surveillance, terror and crime and the inevitable backlash as governments and industry try to adjust,”

Speaking of the government, Berners-Lee has his own issues with the net.  “When I invented the web,” said Berners Lee recently, “I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission”. “(And) Now, hundreds of millions of people are using it freely. I am worried that that is going to end.”

He could be right. The FCC and the courts have been haggling with Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner Cable or whoever provides your Internet connection over Net neutrality and who will basically control the airwaves in the future.

The BEAST  publication says “ the silver lining, is that the FCC still has the power and ability to turn this all around.”

Fingers crossed there.

Another concern: Runaway Artificial Intelligence. Computers are getting so smart that they are actually teaching themselves. When you get a message from a social site like Facebook or Linked-In asking if you know certain people, that is an example of a computer having taught itself how to correlate all the information it has gleaned about you from the web and then translating it into bulk usefulness. In other words if your site says you reside in Bermuda, enjoy books and work in the hospitality field the computer swamps through thousands of web pages and culls like-minded individuals you very well might know and reports on them to you. Stunning. But what if science fiction catches up with reality and some day smart computers outsmart us. Think Hal in 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Consider also the threat computers pose for the economy. With the development of faster and better programmed machines that can do in 15 minutes what it takes humans 7 hours to accomplish we may find the machines replacing us.

But if that is the price of progress I will gladly pay it. I love my magic box and all the wonders it brings me.

The Internet tickles the brain buttons. It is like Lays potato chips. You can’t just have one. It compels you to learn more. I could look up things all day. It’s like a little, constant friend.

Because of the Internet I am able to see and talk to my mother via FACETIME and do it for free. The telephone companies are surely not happy about this technology but for mother and daughter who live in two different countries it is a gift to actually visit with each other, share a cup of coffee, hear each other’s voices and see the delight on each other’s faces as we laugh long distance and enjoy a virtual visit every day. 

 

(Orally presented to the 19th Century Club January 2016)

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