In the 1990s the personal computer revolution turned into the social computer revolution. The thrill of having sophisticated computer power on your desktop turned out to be just the beginning, once your machine could connect to everyone else’s via telephone lines. There is a global computer the size of humanity taking shape.
Now that everybody can publish their own interests to a world audience on the Net, we learn irreversibly that the world is far stranger and more interesting that we would ever guess from magazines, books and broadcast media. Our sense of the world is altered and, oddly enough, in an optimistic direction. Two simple-seeming devices — search engines and links — have made search-space on the Internet more exciting than outer space. It is more current and diverse than any encyclopedia, and it’s inhabited with real people.
However remote-seeming your query with a search service like Alta Vista, within minutes you find yourself on the home page of someone who has made that subject their life’s obsession. What he or she has to say raises questions you would never have thought to ask. And they provide links to even more astounding sources. Web surfers experience a giddy sensation of boundless variety and boundless possibility.
How the world talks to itself is permanently changed. In the jargon, it has shifted from one-to-one (telephone) and one-to-many (broadcast) to many-to-many (the Net). Power is taken from the editors and distributors in huge over-cautious corporations and handed to no-longer-passive, radical everyone. Individuals on the Net initiate and control content to suit themselves and those they can interest.
(This makes governments nervous.) The Net is an antidote to broadcast news. The news tells you about a shocking earthquake and you’re depressed. The Net gives you the people who are helping the earthquake victims and provides firsthand reports: “I was out in the garden when it hit, and I noticed that suddenly the ground was covered with earthworms.
” Some have described most activity on the Net as merely “vanity publishing” or “advertising.” Those are left-over broadcast terms whose meaning is changed in the Net environment. Grass-roots “advertising” is what assembles new communities of interest and whole new ecologies of knowledge. If we had any idea how wildly interesting “vanity publishing” could be when it is cheap and plentiful, we would never have condemned it.