Twilight of the 20th Century

You've got to love the Twentieth Century. From humble Victorian beginnings, it parlayed a slender talent for technological innovation into the most exciting and savage ten decades since the Middle Ages. Consider a single example: The motorcycle. This one invention all by itself would be enough to make the modern era the envy of all previous historical periods.But we didn't stop there. We created one marvel after another -- the electric guitar, the travel alarm clock, and greeting cards that squeak out tiny songs when you open them. Of course, we've paid a high price for all this technology -- the guitar alone could run you as much as $900.At the very pinnacle of this century of progress stands the World Wide Web. Here's what happened: The first computers were invented about 50 years ago. They were bigger than Rush Limbaugh and filled with glass vacuum tubes. They got smaller and cheaper every year until even the poorest child pornographer could afford one.About 25 years ago computers in separate locations were hooked together to from a network. Communicating with people without actually having to see or hear them answered such a deep-seated human need that computer networking became a global phenomenon -- the Internet. There are now an estimated 30 million Net users, but half of them work in advertising or journalism, so it seems like a lot more.The Internet has been a boon for the whole family. Dad's downloading free cyber-therapy software, Mom's giving the credit card a workout at the online lottery, and Junior is meeting some fascinating older fellows who really take an interest in him. Some people like the Net so much that they find it's actually cutting into their TV watching time.What exactly is the Internet? According to Vanderbilt University professor Donna Hoffman, there is "no agreed upon definition because the Internet is at once a set of common protocols, a physical collection of routers and circuits, distributed resources, and even a culture of connectivity and communications." (http://www2000.ogsm. That's pretty much what I think too, except I don't know what "routers" are.The Internet enables your personal computer to send and receive data over a telephone line. Netheads could call this process "using augmented telephone service," but this would make them feel like computer geeks. They are not computer geeks. They are console cowboys, electronic frontiersmen, cyberpunks. Nowadays they -- we -- "log on." The more distinctive "jacking into cyberspace" has fallen into disuse -- a relic of the early Nineties.There are many nooks and crannies in cyberspace, but the World Wide Web is the ever expanding megalopolis that increasingly dominates the online landscape. The Net gave birth to the Web, and now the child is eating its mother. Before WWW, the Internet was mainly about text. Now it's about color, sound, motion, and shopping.You don't "read" on the Web, you "surf." This means flitting from place to place, click-click-clicking your mouse to explore the infinitely forking paths of hypertext. Spending your formative years slumped in front of the dizzy box may have reduced your attention span to the point where it's roughly on par with that of the lower vertebrates, but nevermind. Surfing the Web requires even less concentration than watching TV.The smoldering ruins of the Roaring 1900's lie all around us. As we stand at the doorway to the 21st Century, wondering if we can afford the cover charge, the World Wide Web invites us to project ourselves into a clean, well-lighted place where the stores never close and the entertainment never stops. The past is analog. The future beckons.

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