In this clip from 1994, Today Show host Bryant Gumbel asks, “What is the Internet anyways?”
It’s funny to look back such a short time ago and realize many of us didn’t know what the Internet was. Now nineteen years later, the Internet has drastically changed the way we communicate and the way we get things done. By now, everyone including your grandmother has at least heard of the Internet. Dictionary.com defines the Internet as: “a vast computer network linking smaller computer networks worldwide.” Of course, the Internet is more significant than this literal definition would lead us to believe. So what is the Internet anyways? Nearly two decades later, this still remains a perplexing question.
Marshal McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher renowned for his work in media theory, hypothesized how technology is an extension of our human senses. For example, the telephone is an extension of our ears, television is an extension of our eyes, and the automobile is an extension of our feet. In his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan described how the globe has been contracted into a village by electric technology. The Internet is literally a global village. In his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man McLuhan predicted the Internet as an extension of consciousness.
In one way, the Internet is like a global consciousness that can put us in touch with like-minded people on a broad scale. There are message boards and online communities for virtually any interest. Where, in the past, many of us with strange hobbies or interests may have felt isolated, the power of the web has connected us with previously non-existent virtual communities. The Internet can serve as a pulse on how we globally feel about certain issues and anyone with access to a computer can weigh in and give their opinion. Where we were once primarily reliant on mainstream media for our information, younger generations choose the Internet as their primary news source.
Online news sources, like Infowars and The Young Turks are growing and their message is vastly different from mainstream corporate sponsored TV networks like CNN. Unlike mainstream news, online or “alternative” news is more interactive with their viewer base, allowing for more direct interaction between the online viewer and the news source. It’s not all positive though.
Exploring the Internet can be an exercise in mindfulness. It seems distraction is hidden around every corner online. Web ads and pop-up ads bombard us like our impulsive thoughts bombard our mind. It’s so easy to constantly get carried away and lose track of whatever it was we were trying to do. Indeed, getting things done online can sometimes feel like we need a Zen-like focus. Consider writing a research paper. The Internet can provide limitless resources for information and inspiration, but it can also provide limitless distraction and can keep us from actually getting things done. Even with the amazing possibilities the Internet and other technological advancements provide, technology still does not wave a magic wand, fulfilling all our desires. We’re constantly being challenged to keep up with an ever-changing technological landscape, and some believe “we ain’t seen nothing yet.”
The astounding advances the Internet has made to date could possibly just be the tip of the iceberg, if Ray Kurzweil, world-renowned inventor and author is correct. According to Kurzweil—a proponent of Technological Singularity—we will see “A future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.” Ray Kurzweil is not alone in his far-out prediction. Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired, has his own definition for the Singularity: “…the point at which all the change in the last million years will be superseded by the change in the next five minutes.”
It’s nearly impossible to imagine how such a reality would look and it’s even more difficult to believe it may actually happen. However, consider how impossible our present reality appeared just fifty years ago. Who would have ever imagined (with the possible exception of Marshal McLuhan) that we would one day have the ability to send videos through the air? We never anticipated that ordinary, everyday people would be able to communicate with thousands, if not millions of people instantaneously. The future as predicted by the proponents of the Technological Singularity does not seem so impossible when we consider that we’re already living in a future that was unimaginable a short time ago.
The growth of technology is so rapid it’s sometimes difficult to discern whether it’s here to aid us or if we’re here to aid technology. The new realities and possibilities technology creates often leave us baffled.
In 1994 Bryant Gumbel was asking “What is this @ thing?” Today, together with the vast majority of Internet users, he’s probably wondering where things will be @.