MANY 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.
There 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.
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE INTERNET
The 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.
For 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.
The 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.
For 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.
The 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.
The 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
The 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 Concorde.
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 Internet.
Apart 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.
There 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”.
Given 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.
LIMITS TO GROWTH?
In 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.
The 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.
The 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.
A 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.
Clearly, 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.
SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC IMPACT
Needless 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.
Yet 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.
A 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.
Some 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.
In 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!
But 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. The 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.