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Conclusion: the End?

The revolution is just beginning.

New communications systems and digital technologies have already meant dramatic changes in the way we live. Think of what is already routine that would have been considered impossible just ten years ago. You can browse through the holdings of your local library -- or of libraries halfway around the world -- do your banking and see if your neighbor has gone bankrupt, all through a computer and modem.

Imploding costs coupled with exploding power are bringing ever more powerful computer and digital systems to ever growing numbers of people. The Net, with its rapidly expanding collection of databases and other information sources, is no longer limited to the industrialized nations of the West; today the web extends into once remote areas from Siberia to Zimbabwe. The cost of computers and modems used to plug into the Net, meanwhile, continue to plummet, making them ever more affordable.

Cyberspace has become a vital part of millions of people's daily lives. People form relationships online, they fall in love, they get married, all because of initial contacts in cyberspace, that ephemeral ``place'' that transcends national and state boundaries. Business deals are transacted entirely in ASCII. Political and social movements begin online, coordinated by people who could be thousands of miles apart.

Yet this is only the beginning.

We live in an age of communication, yet, the various media we use to talk to one another remain largely separate systems. One day, however, your telephone, TV, fax machine and personal computer will be replaced by a single ``information processor'' linked to the worldwide Net by strands of optical fiber.

Beyond databases and file libraries, power will be at your fingertips. Linked to thousands, even millions of like-minded people, you'll be able to participate in social and political movements across the country and around the world.

How does this happen? In part, it will come about through new technologies. High-definition television will require the development of inexpensive computers that can process as much information as today's work stations. Telephone and cable companies will compete to see who can bring those fiber-optic cables into your home first. High- speed data networks, such as the Internet, will be replaced by even more powerful systems.

Vice President Albert Gore, who successfully fought for a landmark funding bill for a new high-speed national computer network in 1990, talks of creating ``information superhighways.''

Right now, we are in the network equivalent of the early 1950s, just before the creation of the Interstate highway system. Sure, there are plenty of interesting things out there, but you have to meander along two-lane roads, and have a good map, to get to them.

Creation of this new Net will also require a new communications paradigm: the Net as information utility. The Net remains a somewhat complicated and mysterious place. To get something out of the Net today, you have to spend a fair amount of time with a Net veteran or a manual like this. You have to learn such arcana as the vagaries of the Unix cd command.

Contrast this with the telephone, which now also provides access to large amounts of information through push buttons, or a computer network such as Prodigy, which one navigates through simple commands and mouse clicks.

Internet system administrators have begun to realize that not all people want to learn the intricacies of Unix, and that that fact does not make them bad people. Coming years will see the development of simpler interfaces that will put the Net's power to use by millions of people, just as the number of host systems offering public access to the Net will skyrocket.

Gophers and Wide-Area Information Servers have become two of the fastest growing applications on the Net. They are relatively simple to use and yet offer access to vast amounts of information. Mail programs and text editors such as Pico and Pine promise much of the power of older programs such as emacs at a fraction of the complexity.

Some software engineers are looking at taking this even further, by creating graphical interfaces that will let somebody navigate the Internet just by clicking on the screen with a mouse or by calling up an easy text editor, sort of the way one can now navigate a Macintosh computer -- or a commercial online service such as Prodigy.

Then there are the Internet services themselves.

For every database now available through the Internet, there are probably three or four that are not. Government agencies are only slowing beginning to connect their storehouses of information to the Net. Several commercial vendors, from database services to booksellers, have made their services available through the Net.

Few people now use one of the Net's more interesting applications. A standard known as MIME lets one send audio and graphics files in a message. Imagine opening your e-mail one day to hear your granddaughter's first words, or a ``photo'' of your friend's new house. Eventually, this standard could allow for distribution of even small video displays over the Net.

All of this will require vast new amounts of Net power, to handle both the millions of new people who will jump onto the Net and the new applications they want. Replicating a moving image on a computer screen alone takes a phenomenal amount of computer bits, and computing power to arrange them.

The legislation pushed by Gore in 1991 will eventually replace the existing Internet in the U.S. with the National Research and Education Network.

At the center of NREN will be a ``backbone'' that, in one second, will be able to move as much as 3 billion bits of information from coast to coast -- the equivalent of shipping the contents of a large encyclopedia from New York to Los Angeles electronically. That seems like a silly thing to do. But that kind of speed allows for widespread distribution of complex files, such as video loops, without bogging down the entire Net. Its capacity will let millions more people onto the Net.

As these ``superhighways'' grow, so will the ``on ramps,'' for a high- speed road does you little good if you can't get to it. The costs of modems seem to fall as fast as those of computers. High-speed modems (9600 baud and up) are becoming increasingly affordable. At 9600 baud, you can download a satellite weather image of North America in less than two minutes, a file that, with a slower modem could take up to 20 minutes to download. Eventually, homes could be connected directly to a national digital network. Most long-distance phone traffic is already carried in digital form, through high-volume optical fibers. Phone companies are ever so slowly working to extend these fibers the ``final mile'' to the home. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is working to ensure these links are affordable.

Beyond the technical questions are increasingly thorny social, political and economic issues. Who is to have access to these services, and at what cost? If we live in an information age, are we laying the seeds for a new information under class, unable to compete with those fortunate enough to have the money and skills needed to manipulate new communications channels? Who, in fact, decides who has access to what? As more companies realize the potential profits to be made in the new information infrastructure, what happens to such systems as Usenet, possibly the world's first successful anarchistic system, where everybody can say whatever they want?

What are the laws of the electronic frontier? When national and state boundaries lose their meaning in cyberspace, the question might even be: WHO is the law? What if a practice that is legal in one country is ``committed'' in another country where it is illegal, over a computer network that crosses through a third country? Who goes after computer crackers?

What role will you play in the revolution?

@vskip 0pt plus 1filll @flushright ``The first duty of a revolutionary is to get away with it.''

--- Abbie Hoffman

``The only act of revolution left in a collective world, is thinking for yourself.''

--- Bob Geldof, @fyi{Is that it?}

``And all else is silence.''

--- Shakespeare, @fyi{Hamlet} @end flushright