Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Internet Impact

A friend emailed me today, mentioning how profoundly communications have changed, even in her lifetime. And that got the ponder going…

I suspect that a few decades from now, historians will look back at the phenomenon we call “the Internet” and note that its biggest impact was on the ways that people communicate with each other. Sure, all that other stuff like online shopping, information at hand, etc. is really cool — but just think about how much we’ve changed the way we talk with each other!

It wasn’t all that long ago — about 150 years ago — that the only way (other than face-to-face) people could communicate was via a letter in the mail, or through a printed publication of some kind. These things took days at their very fastest, months or even years (for a large book, for example) at their slowest. Conversations with someone far away were long drawn-out affairs. I have a good example of this in my family: my uncle saved the letters he exchanged with his mother (my grandmother) in World War II; hundreds of them in all. I’ve read them, and it’s fascinating to see how a conversation evolves over a period of months — dealing with letters gone missing, letters arriving out-of-sequence, and censors blacking or cutting out sections. One particular conversation (about managing apple trees) went on for 8 months. On a telephone call or email exchange, that would have taken maybe two minutes. That sloooooowness gives these conversations an entirely different “feel” from what we’re used to today…

I have a little exposure to the “letter” modality myself. As a child (about 10, I think) I had a “pen pal” for a while. Do you remember pen pals? Talk about an obsolete concept! But back then, they were rather a big deal. My pen pal was a little boy in Perth, Australia, by the name of Perry. That’s just about all I remember about him — but I do remember how awkward it was to keep up a conversation when the medium took so long to deliver messages (a few weeks each way). Today, of course, we’d just send email back and forth, or use one of the instant messenger applications — or even Skype an Internet phone call. Wait for a letter? I don’t think so!

Think about all the ways that the Internet has given us to communicate: email, instant messenger, voice-over-IP (phone calls), web sites, blogs (like this one!), podcasts, Internet radio, and…I’m sure I missed a few others. And more ways will pop up, because that’s what people really seem to want on the Internet. It’s instructive, I think, to see how explosively sites like YouTube (video sharing), Flickr (photo sharing), and MySpace (sharing…anything) have grown. There’s a common theme, of course — they are all ways for us to communicate, using this enabling technology called the Internet.

My crystal ball long ago bit the dust. I’ve been spectacularly bad at predicting future technology trends. But one prediction I think is pretty safe: the Internet will continue to become more and more available, more and more ubiquitous. For example, the FAA is on the verge of allowing cell phones to be used in-flight. There are very good Internet connections available via cell phones these days — so I’m sure a lot of people will use this new privilege to remain connected to the Internet while in flight (which is, of course, one of the few places where today you can’t easily connect). WiFi is getting more and more widespread. Broadband technologies are reaching into even very remote places — where I live, for example, satellite Internet access just recently became available at an attractive price. I don’t think the day when we can be on the Internet, at broadband speeds, no matter where in the world we are. What will that do to the way we communicate? Why have a cell phone, for instance, when you could simply Skype over your remote Internet connection? Why carry around storage media for your camera or video camera, when you could simply send the photos or video over the Internet — no matter where you are — to some storage facility available there (straight to Flickr or YouTube, for instance)? Think about it — if you knew that no matter where you were, you’re connected to the Internet — what things would be different? I’ll wager it would be a lot of them, starting with all the ways we communicate.

On a personal level, the Internet’s communications tools have radically changed this guy’s life. I now routinely “talk” with friends all over the world, in places that not so many years ago would have seemed very exotic: Bulgaria, Thailand, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Estonia, and many others. Through my work, my hobbies, and my blog, I’ve “met” so many nice people (and really very few not-so-nice). I have extensive conversations (generally by email) with a few dozen of them. Some I’ve even met face-to-face — and I have standing invitations in cities all around the world. I think it’s safe to say that none of this would have happened without the Internet.

Now of course the Internet does many things for me. It’s an essential tool in my work (software engineering). But if I think about the single most profound impact the Internet has had on me, it’s clearly communications. Not all that other stuff, however pleasant and convenient it is…

No comments:

Post a Comment