It's 30 million people from literally every continent, separated by distance, by culture, but a nation unto itself of "cybertribes" in a synthetic world. And it's information, a seemingly endless supply, perhaps greater than ever imagined in a single place before construction began on the "Information Superhighway."
What once may have taken days or weeks of diligent library research now can be accomplished in just a few hours of Net surfing. Letters that languished for days in mail bags just to reach another state now traverse the globe in seconds. Forums on even the most bizarre of subjects convene at random, and the Byzantine workings of government and commerce are illuminated as never before.
But where did this labyrinth of networks, more than a million strong, come from? And how did it escape public notice for so long?
Believing that a "missile gap" existed, the Defense Department created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to develop military technology. It took another 12 years before the Defense Department commissioned ARPANET, meant to guarantee the nation would retain some computing capability after a nuclear exchange. The system proved so popular with researchers that the network split into two parts, one for civilian science and one for military research.
With the advent of personal computers in the late '70s, the networked world was set to expand beyond the confines of government and academia. By 1986, both the Defense Department and ARPA were out of the picture and the National Science Foundation took over management of the Net.
"When ARPA got out of the business of doing the network, the NSF picked it up because the research community had come to depend on it so much," says Michael Mealling, a Georgia Tech research scientist who is investigating the next generation of Internet services. Within a year, some 10,000 servers were connected; that number increased tenfold in two more years and hit 1 million in 1992.
"It just kind of accreted over time," Mealling says "Everybody started sticking themselves on this network. And they kept upgrading the backbone network until basically it's just a big conglomeration of smaller networks all attached together.
"Now, a packet of information can make it across the United States or across the world just by routing itself in and among all those different smaller networks."
In 1993, a new force appeared, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications' Mosaic interface: The World-Wide Web was born. Proliferating at a rate of 341,634 percent a year, according to Enterprise Integration Technologies' Kevin Hughes, traffic on the Web surpassed that on older Internet devices in less than 10 months.
The Web changed all that.
"The Web and a lot of the tools that have been written over the past couple of years have done a phenomenal job of hiding a lot of what we used to call the savage interface from the user," Mealling says.
Although many users freely interchange the terms, the World- Wide Web and the Internet are not the same thing. Internet refers to the countless computers and networks, and the cables connecting them: It's hardware. The Web refers to what EIT's Hughes calls "a body of information - an abstract space of knowledge."
The arcane systems of the early Net continue to serve throughout (you can still telnet to different computers or transfer files with ftp), but the infinitely friendlier interface of the Web- browsing programs such as Mosaic and now Netscape hide the old utilities' machinations quite well.
The Web is simple to navigate, even for the least versed of "newbies." That's because of a development known as the Uniform Resource Locator, or URL, which assigns a unique "address" to every document available on the Web.
"The browsers are very usable," says James Foley, director of Tech's Graphics, Visualization and Usability Center, which studies computer-human interfaces. "Because of the URL, they can link to huge amounts of information very easily, in ways that are far easier than the Gophers and the Veronicas and the ftp, all those things that require you to do too much computer hacking.
"This is the first non-computer-hacker tool for accessing widely available assets of information in the Internet."
Browser pages, as the images that appear on the computer monitor are called, contain specially highlighted words or phrases known as hypertext. These are the "buttons" that activate hyperlinks, which when selected, take the user automatically to the URL address of the desired document or information. The links may also include an assortment of other media such as pictures, sound, even brief digital movies, which are called hypermedia. The browsers are able to quickly locate huge amounts of information because self-directing programs are constantly prowling the Net, amassing huge directories of documents.
"There are things called Web-walkers or spiders that go around and pick up files off of other people's servers and index the information so that you can search on them," Mealling says. "You can go to such a special server and ask it about certain key words and things like that, and it will build a list of links to pages that may have something interesting to you."
"They're extremely easy to get set up. They've got good user support," Mealling says. "They've done a lot of predigesting of a lot of the information to make it a lot easier to get to, as opposed to having to learn all the intricacies of the Internet."
The major services offer several connection packages, which can get to be pretty expensive if you sign up for all the bells and whistles. For instance, Prodigy offers basic service for $9.95 a month, but that's for only a limited amount of time on-line. Extra hours cost more, and many of Prodigy's services, such as the ZiffNet software download service, add to the monthly cost.
Of course, there are many smaller services offering full Internet access, and with the advent of the Web interface, they can be just as easy to use as the big three. Mindspring Enterprises, which currently serves about 2,200 users from the Advanced Technology Development Center on the Tech campus, offers access to the casual surfer for about a dollar an hour plus a hookup fee, and that includes the software. Unlimited service is available for $35 a month, according to Susan Nicholson, EE '82, director of marketing for Mindspring. Also, a number of large firms such as Microsoft and AT&T are staking a claim to the on-line gold mine.
"Now that companies are getting involved, and they've got 50 or 60 programmers that they can throw at a job for a year, you get a much better product," Mealling says.
In terms of hardware, a computer with a modem is essentially all that's needed to start surfing with a connection service. For best results, more advanced systems such as the 486 IBM clone with a speedy 14.4 baud modem are recommended, especially for users who want to take full advantage of hypermedia.
Once on-line, users will be able to access any computer network connected to the Net; electronic mail services; Usenet news groups, which offer news, information and interactive discussions of virtually any subject; public and private information services such as the National Weather Service; and a rapidly expanding variety of other connections.
"One of the problems you have now, as far as trying to find some piece of information, is that you have to spend hours browsing around the Net and the Web looking for the information you want," he says. "What we want is something where you can just ask it about what you want, the price of Christmas trees in Hawaii, for instance, and it runs off and finds the information for you and brings it back."
Sougata Mukherjea, a graduate student in the GVU, has been working for nearly three years on a system to provide what Foley calls a "road map of the Web."
"You can't drive across the country without a road map, without a graphical, pictorial depiction of what's going on, so how does it make sense to navigate the Information Superhighway without visual road maps?" Foley says. Mukherjea's program can display a three-dimensional "tree" of any part of the Web with customized colors and symbols to tell the user at a glance what kind of information is stored at each site and how it interconnects with other related sites. It also can filter out unrelated links in the Web, making it even easier to tell what's down the road.
Mark Guzdial, a professor in the College of Computing, and several other Tech researchers are looking at ways to use the Internet in education - not just as a way to broadcast information, but to allow thoughtful interaction as well. The Collaborative and Multimedia Interactive Learning Environment (CaMILE), which is being tested in a mechanical engineering class this year, lets students discuss projects and share ideas in a virtual classroom. It also offers suggestions for the students on how to communicate their ideas more effectively and work better with others.
"We want to help them learn to work in teams," Guzdial says. "For us as teachers, we want to learn how to help students learn better. The point of this project is education."
There are many other projects under way at Tech aimed at fulfilling the dream of an Information Superhighway: electronic news distribution (there are already 60 newspapers on-line), advertising for the 21st century, virtual reality. And they will significantly affect the Internet and, therefore, the world in the future. Just as the telephone and the automobile went from being conveniences to essentials, so will the computer and its connection to the wide world.
Just what the Net will look like after the millennium is hard to tell. There's talk of a Giganet with billion-bit-per-second performance and a National Information Infrastructure with universal connection. Whatever its future course, the electronic frontier, like its Wild West counterpart, goes beyond the horizon. Reaching it will be an adventure.