People’s Democracy

Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 39





commentators have argued that the information revolution currently underway is
as momentous a phenomenon as the industrial revolution. The latter was an
integral part of the capitalist social formation, which represented a
fundamental change in the way that society was structured the world over. It is
difficult to see the information revolution as a part of any such fundamental
structural change or as a harbinger of a new mode of production. However, it is
clear that it will have eventful social, economic and even political impacts
that are not, and perhaps cannot be, fully understood today. An outstanding
example is one such aspect of the information revolution, the Internet, whose
35th anniversary is being celebrated this year.

can be little doubt that, in the relatively short time it has been around, the
internet has brought about enormous changes in important areas of social life
such as communications, entertainment, business, education, research, networking
and information exchange and even social interaction. Alongside the explosive
growth in, and diversity of applications of, information and communications
technologies, radical changes in all these areas and more can be foreseen in the
next few decades.  




Anniversary is being commemorated during September – October of 2004 by many
fora and, quite typically of the confused diversity that is the internet itself,
is being observed on different dates depending on which incident or innovation
is taken to mark the beginning of the internet era.


some, the internet dates from September 2, 1969 when a team of engineers led by
Leonard Kleinrock at the University of California at Los Angeles, USA,
established the first network connection between two rather bulky computers
linked by a short, thick cable, with information bits passing between the first
node, the UCLA computer, and the Interface Message Processor (IMP) thus laying
the foundation for what was to become the internet.


work was part of a research programme sponsored by the US Defence Department’s
Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) created in 1958. ARPA was looking for
ways to connect computers of the many scientific projects it was supporting so
that the information could be shared and the effectiveness of the scientists’
work enhanced. In technical terms, the heart of this first experiment was the
development and use of a wide area packet switch, the IMP, at that time
considered a difficult, some thought impossible, task for conveying information
by means other than through a conventional telephone switch. Without getting too
technical, the idea was to relay information within a network in
“packets” or bundles of digitized bits of information, rather than in
sequential analogue transmissions as in a telephone conversation, thus enabling
communications and information sharing between computers.


some others, the Internet or ARPANET as it was known then, was only born on
October 29, 1969 when a second node was established at Stanford University and a
message sent from the UCLA node to the Stanford node. Soon nodes at other
Universities and many more research institutes were inter-connected in an
ever-growing ARPANET. By this time, the “packet communications”
research effort had been picked up and used to develop mobile packet radio and
packet satellite communication networks. The addition of mobile platforms
drastically changed the ARPANET, leading to a new definition of the Internet
problem. The US Defence Department actively supported this research, being keen
to network sea, air and ground installations both fixed and mobile.    


challenge now was to develop software enabling so many computers in all such
platforms in the ARPANET and in other networks to communicate with each other.
Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn, both having worked alongside Kleinrock, now
collaborated to develop communication protocols that would be independent of any
particular networking hardware or software as used by machines of different
manufacturers. Their pioneering design of 1974 and major contributions by other
researchers led to development and standardization of the Transmission Control
Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP), the now universally adopted TCP/IP.
On January 1, 1983, all ARPANET computers were converted to TCP/IP and joined
other parts of the Internet in a unified network. This date, in its own way, is
seen by some as yet another “date of birth” of the Internet.


next decade was to witness prolonged battles between rival protocols, finally
decided in favour of TCP/IP, the creation of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee
providing an abiding architecture for the internet, and the release of Marc
Andreesen’s Mosaic WWW browser, the first internet tool allowing a user to
“surf” or go through the entire internet. Meanwhile ARPANET had been
closed down, and many parts of the Internet had also gone commercial, but the US
government’s major role in funding research in this area continued through the
National Science Foundation (NSF), constituting yet another tribute to the
success of public funding of scientific research.


COME A LONG WAY, GOING FURTHER                            


Internet of today compared to that of 1974 is a qualitatively different entity,
far more so than the gap between, say, the Wright brothers’ plane and the


ARPANET backbone or its base structure operated at a maximum speed of 50,000
bits per second whereas systems today offer over speeds of 1 gigabit (or 1
trillion bits) or more per second, 20,000 times faster than the system pioneered
just 30 years ago! The capacity in terms of volume of information traffic is
matched only by the sheer diversity of applications running on the contemporary


from the simple e-mail, access to remote terminals and date sharing between
computers offered by its ancestor, the Internet today offers the almost
unlimited and instantly-accessible library of the world wide web, instant
messaging, internet telephony, transmission of streaming video and audio,
global-scope conferencing, joint or shared computing and so on. The earlier
networking over radio has led to Internet-enabled mobile phones and local area
networks, as well as satellite systems such as DirecTV. Code Division Multiple
Access (CDMA) technology, a spin-off from the packet radio experiments of the
1970s, is today used by many mobile telephony providers worldwide including
India, and is emerging as a key element of third generation (so-called 3G)
mobile technologies. There is also growing convergence between services offering
movie downloads through the Internet and satellite-based cable TV operations.
Gaining ground rapidly too are Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID),
which are similar to bar codes except that they are embedded in micro-chips and
can be read by computerised devices which, when linked to the Internet, enable
instant tracking of goods, inventory control and monitoring operations on a
global scale.


are an estimated 300 million users of the Internet today, up from about 13
million in 1974, and as many as 100 million computers acting as servers, not to
mention the countless more devices connected from time to time such as laptops,
palmtops, internet-enabled mobiles and so on.
It is also estimated that by
2010 close to half the world’s population may have access to the Internet one
way or another with an astonishing 35 billion devices connected, almost 6
devices per capita! This seemingly improbable estimate comes from the
anticipated explosion in the kinds of applications to which micro-processors are
likely to be put and then connected to the Internet for management of the
information and provision of a variety of services. 
Devices likely to be so connected in the very near future include TVs,
faxes and printers, vehicles with GPS (global position systems) and linked
information services, “smart” buildings and even whole neighbourhoods with
permanent wireless internet connectivity, manufacturing systems working with
designs provided over the internet, and multi-function palm-top devices
including the so-called “digital wallet”.


the rapidity of developments in the Internet, many of which were neither
anticipated nor foreseen even by its inventors or the most perceptive of
commentators, it would be foolhardy to try and predict what exactly will happen
to the Internet in the future. But one need not go into realms of
science-fiction fantasy either to at least anticipate some future directions
which the Internet and related applications are likely to take, projecting from
contemporary trends and technologies under development.




terms of hardware, internet-enabled devices will become commonplace in a whole
host of things used by individuals, households and businesses. This is due
partly to the expansion of the Internet itself, and partly to the rapidly
escalating processing capacity of micro-chips and an almost corresponding
decline in their prices.


former is driven by the fact that the marginal cost of internet connectivity and
the processing capacity or storage space available has dropped and continues to
fall sharply: therefore, if one has a computer or simply an embedded
pre-programmed micro-chip, connecting it up with the internet is a simple and
minor issue. The increasing spread and capacity of fibre-optic links, satellite
services, broadband connectivity and convergence between different information
and entertainment media will drive substantial horizontal expansion of the
internet and the services offered through it. 


latter is driving the micro-chip manufacturing industry to constantly increase
volumes and production capacity in an effort to keep afloat while,
simultaneously, newer applications must be thought of daily to absorb the vast
quantities of micro-chips being churned out.


tiny digital watch of today has as much computing capacity as that of all the
Allied Forces in World War II put together! At current rates, computing capacity
of micro-chips are doubling roughly every 18 months. Ever more transistors and
related circuitry are being crammed into tiny silicon wafers the size of a
finger-nail and 500 times thinner than a human hair! Micro-chips are rapidly
approaching the dreaded “point-one limit” where thickness equals one-tenth
of a micron (thousandth of a millimeter) and the insulating layer is just a few
atoms thick. Beyond this point things change fundamentally according to the laws
of physics and the weird rules of quantum mechanics take over. Electrons will
start jumping across, rather than along, wires and also across the atom-thin
insulating layers causing disastrous short-circuits. 


therefore, there are limits to the current exponential growth in computing
capacity which is likely to taper-off at least in the medium term. Alternatives
such as optical computing using laser beams instead of electricity,
nanocomputers or molecular-level computers or even DNA computers that use the
double-stranded molecule as a kind of replacement for the magnetic tape, are all
currently barely if at all off the drawing board. Given this limit on computing
capacity, set to be reached as per current trends by about 2015 or 2020, one can
safely forecast a mushrooming of applications for use of micro-chips which will
increasingly be internet-connected.  




to say, the density of such devices and usages will differ widely between
regions of the world and within countries as well. Lack of purchasing power
among vast sections of the population and poor infrastructure especially in
rural areas will accentuate the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Even in
China, where internet connectivity is 50 times more than in India and with
higher growth rates, despite the latter’s much-vaunted English-language
advantage and reputation as an information technology powerhouse, its burgeoning
urban middle-class, reveling in Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum “to be rich is
glorious”, is rapidly leaving behind huge numbers of Chinese in rural areas
and in factory dormitories for whom personal computers and the internet are but
distant dreams. Even with the foreseeable expansion of rural mobile and fixed
telephony, satellite TV and fibre-optic links, this digital divide is unlikely
to be truly bridged any time soon. 


the transformation brought about by the Internet will be enormous, transforming
the way things are done with far-reaching significant social, economic and
political impact.


great deal of comment has already been attracted by the apparent changes in
social behaviour prompted by the Internet. Individuals becoming virtual hermits,
not having to come out of their homes, ordering meals and groceries, conducting
their banking and bill payments and doing business on the Internet, even
restricting their inter-personal interaction to e-mail. But the internet is
still too young a phenomenon to judge whether these trends are temporary or
longer lasting, and several commentators have pointed out that social atomism,
the isolation of individuals from family, kin or clan groups, the weakness of
peer groups given the radical changes taking place in the nature of work and the
work place and so on, are all trends that pre-date the internet which may only
be exaggerating their effects. A million marriages are said to have been
“arranged” in India through the internet but who is to say this is not
merely an extension of non-traditional word-of-mouth contacts already appearing
as a discernible trend among upwardly and geographically mobile Indian
middle-classes against a background of weakening traditional ties.


other fears have also not borne fruit. Electronic books have not taken off and
printed books, magazines and newspapers continue to flourish and even grow. The
cinema has not been threatened to the extent feared and has in fact adapted to
the TV and internet challenge by focusing on media-effects which have impact
only on the large screen in darkened auditoria.     


business, though, changes have been quite substantial with large volumes of
commerce being transacted through the Internet. Individuals are also working
from home in “virtual offices” and a large part of outsourcing work is done
via the Internet, all blurring national boundaries and conventional ideas of
work and workplaces. With persons now doing banking, investments, paying
bills, booking travel etc on the internet, companies have in fact
“outsourced” work they used to do to the client!


perhaps the most surprising development regarding the Internet, pregnant with
significance, is the absence hitherto and foreseeably of corporate or State
control, and the near-monopolies seen in the hardware and software sectors of
the computer industry. The very nature of the Internet has produced an
unprecedented degree of socialization in comparison with any other technology or
means of production in the capitalist system.  Corporates may use the Internet, internet-based companies
like Google or AOL may make tons of money on the stock-market, but large parts
of the internet itself are likely to stay in the public domain.
corporate world of the music industry was able to absorb even the counter
culture in music, which only the Internet’s Napster, which enabled individuals
to exchange music without paying for it, was able to challenge. The future will
tell if the Internet is able to retain this subversive character.