How the Internet has changed our lives
Thirty-five years old this month, the Net has revolutionized most of
everyday life's activities. Techweekly counts the ways
The Vancouver Sun
Thursday, September 16, 2004
You've been living in a cave for more than a decade and missed that
whole Internet thing. But wait. There's a knock at the cave's entrance.
A cheerful young man stands there holding a laptop computer with
wireless, high-speed Internet access. Within moments of learning about
the World Wide Web, you're shopping online for a nice faux fur to
replace that ratty snaggle-toothed cat coat.
Those who fail to realize the Internet's profound effect on all our
lives are condemned to life in the cyberspace equivalent of a cave. Yet
even the Luddites who eschew the trappings of the electronic
environment surrounding us are in denial. Nobody escapes something so
big and all-encompassing that it not only encircles the Earth 24/7, but
has links to devices that we've sent to Mars and Saturn.
Even the many millions of people with no knowledge of, or access to,
the Net or e-mail or Amazon.com or any of the electronic toys we've
acquired since the web ensnared us in the early '90s are just as surely
caught in the profound, reverberating effects of this e-world that we,
for good or bad, call home. Just ask Bangalore.
Tens of thousands of Indians who had been caught in their country's
crippling underemployment are now happy to have lunchtime tiffin tins
delivered to workplaces that exist in a strange kind of cyber-America,
renting cars to people in Poughkeepsie, or a cyber-England where
someone in Newcastle needs information on shipping coal. Their online
jobs came from those places, infuriating Yanks and Brits even as
Bangalore counts blessings and rupees (at much lower wages than was
paid in Poughkeepsie).
Here's the very heart of the passive-aggressive way the Internet has
helped society tremendously in many ways and hindered us in some
not-insignificant ones. Pandora's box has been opened to unleash evils
such as electronic stalking or identity theft, but we have also
benefitted from amazing advances that allow, in the words of Mao
Zedong, a hundred schools of thought to contend.
Despite the Chinese government's efforts to shape the flow of thought
on the Internet as if it were the Yangtze's waters, the free global
exchange of information seems unstoppable. And in spite of the dot-com
collapse, it's clear the Internet is again gathering steam as a force
for commerce. Ironically, while the Internet's universal access boosts
globalization, it's also led to a balkanization of trade that sees the
tiniest companies, when well-placed on the Net, doing business from
anywhere, to anywhere.
What has happened to us in the 35 years since scientists first
connected two computers by the electronic equivalent of a string
between two tin cans?
Here are 35 ways the Internet has changed our lives.
1. Personal communication is now instant and universal. When I was a
kid in the early '60s we had a heavy black rotary-dial telephone (on
the HOuse exchange, 66391). Other than the letter carrier who delivered
six days a week, that was it. My mother loved to talk on the phone but
only rarely called long-distance. When Granny Pearce was on the line
from Owen Sound it was an event that had everyone lined up in the hall
to say hello.
Now, instant messaging on the Internet and cheap Internet long-distance
calling mean you can have a conversation any day, all day, from
anywhere to virtually anyone, for next to nothing.
2. The flip-side to this is that when conversation is cheap, it's often
too cheap. Since it's easier to keep in touch with cousin Kate in Kuala
Lumpur than it is to strike up a mano conversation with someone
standing next to you, why should we blame young people for the
increasingly common oddity of communicating almost exclusively via
3. Even the slightly slower speed of sending e-mail is far faster than
the snail-mail days of posting a letter. Not only is there no longer a
need to search desk drawers for paper, pen, envelope, stamp and address
book, but even the most housebound people need never get themselves to
a post office before it closes. And those photos of the kids added to
Grandma's e-letter aren't dug out of another drawer, because they come
from a digital camera and now sit in a folder on your computer's
desktop, ready for attaching.
4. Decorum suffers when it's all too easy to simply slap together any
collection of consonants and vowels and call it communication. A whole
new Internet etiquette arose to deal with such faux pas as FLAMERS WHO
CAPITALIZE EVERYTHING in a bid for attention, whether in an e-mail or
chat room, and those who can't or won't moderate their language can
suffer a cyber-cold shoulder. Now that many of us realize how easy it
is to give offence in an e-mail, we're learning to soften things with
little symbols like :) and LOL.
5. Don't tell the French, but English is gaining global acceptance as
the Internet's lingua franca. Since this is especially true for
business, which keeps the gears of society greased, facets of our lives
such as culture and the arts are sure to fall in step, leading to even
more complaints from within fragile language groups about the hegemony
But what kind of English is out there on the web? Again, it's largely
youths who are driving a shorthand newspeak that turns "text message"
into "txt msg" and Shakespeare into "2B or nt 2B." U cn C ware its
going -- spelling, syntax and grammar are all sacrificed for
6. When it comes to commerce, the revolution is well underway. Even
mom-and-pop shops must give serious thought to selling on the Net, or
at least advertising there, because if the convenience of online
shopping doesn't trump loyalty to local merchants, the web's bargains
certainly will. A perfect example: on the website dooyoo.com, an Irish
smoker proclaimed his love of e-commerce because he could purchase his
brand of rolling tobacco -- at a price far below what he'd pay at the
local shop -- from a mall outlet in Phoenix, Ariz.
7. The smoker added that he didn't have to pay Irish duty, which was
part of the reason he's spending less for the vile weed. Since
e-commerce now transcends borders, allowing consumers to buy without
scrutiny, customs officials must be all the more attentive to gathering
taxes and duties on incoming goods. I can attest to the Canada Customs'
sharp scrutiny -- when I anti-Bush T-shirts online from the U.S., the
packages hits the border and comes to a grinding halt until a hefty fee
is tacked on. Such is the price of lazy liberalism.
8. Stock trading has never been easier. It still requires some savvy to
tackle e-trading, as the many neophytes who burned their fingers in the
late '90s learned when the markets stopped being so compliant; it's no
surprise that the players who survived and still trade online are those
who retired (often at far too young an age, damn it) from Wall Street,
Bay Street and the world's other bourses.
The friendly neighbourhood stock analyst to whom you pay fees often
uses the Internet simply to search for information on companies he or
she deals with. Again, don't try this at home unless you know not to
stumble into a stock scam.
9. Ah, the stock scam. One of many ways criminals try to use the
Internet to separate you from your cash. Who hasn't had an e-mail
begging us to help a Nigerian oil tycoon extract millions from his
impoverished nation? Vancouver's Better Business Bureau warns of that
one, as well as other online "investment scams, fake business
opportunities, fraudulent actions, chain letters and pyramid schemes."
10. Identity theft is not exclusive to the Net, but has grown in part
because too much of our personal information is loose in cyberspace.
While some clever crooks go to elaborate lengths to surreptitiously
"swipe" your bank card and secretly video your PIN, others have been
able to break into online databases in search of not only financial
data but personal information. And in advance of the U.S. elections on
Nov. 2, it's no secret that election results relying on the electronic
transfer of polling information from touchscreen machines have been
proven prone to tampering.
11. Thankfully, the fight against Internet fraud is producing
increasingly unbreakable encryptions. The vast majority of transactions
are safely hidden from prying eyes, although it's an ongoing war
requiring ever more sophisticated technologies.
12. As a senior Vancouver financial planner told me, the Internet has
also driven the "Intranet" that now exists within all corporations.
Information between colleagues must now flow as fast across a room as
it does transglobally. "No longer can you wait for a piece of paper to
cross your desk," she says. "The pace is unbelievable."
13. It's not just the big bucks flowing invisibly. Every bill you pay
can now be drawn from your bank account, where your paycheque has
probably been deposited automatically. In a regimen you orchestrate
yourself on the Internet, this one gets paid on this date, that on that
date, and "the cheque's in the mail" holds less credence than it ever
Since you can access all accounts and financial statements any time,
any place, new excuses will have to be found to replace "I was out of
town, out of the country, etc."
14. While e-traders scrutinize the markets, sports fans engage in
equally detailed analyses. More than just places dedicated to game
gossip or the finer points of play, some sites are so complex that you
can follow a PGA tournament, swing by swing, virtually as it's
15. The same is true if your sport is political activism. The Net and
e-mail provide a cyber-equivalent to rallies in Union Square for any
Emma Goldman out to change the world. Weblogs by "bloggers" are also
coming into their own as sources of genuine information and not just
rambling anecdotal chat. The U.S. mass media seems stubbornly
determined to look the other way whenever the Bush administration makes
mistakes, but not the many bloggers who are out for blood. Common sense
dictates that these ramblings be taken with lots of salt, yet the ease
with which an Internet search can collate and compare data means a
genuine journalism is on offer, and it's free.
16. Travel has been revolutionized. Agents may not be crazy about the
way many people now book their own flights, rental cars, hotels and
every other facet of a holiday online, but the DIY folks are hooked.
Not only can you shop for the cheapest airfare, book a flight and pay
for it, but follow that by doing the same thing in search of a rental
car. Savvy hoteliers have websites or provide photos and information to
an online tourist office for the city or region, so you no longer need
fear blindly booking yourself into the Bates Motel.
17. Vicarious travel has also exploded. Armchair journeys for those who
can't afford the real thing or are unable to travel are now no further
than Google. Unable to attend rituals this year in the Papua New Guinea
highlands? Couldn't come up with the readies to take in tennis at
Roland Garros? Professionally designed pages brim with photos and
information about places from Tim Hortons to Timbuktu, plus thousands
of webcams to provide ever-updated images of far-off places. Personal
pages and weblogs of those who've been where you'd like to go are often
exhaustively researched and documented.
18. Or not. Personal pages and weblogs can also be viewed as a blight
on the Internet, masses of undifferentiated thought and sloppy layout.
Since so many of them are poorly conceived and hastily executed,
mockery seems almost obligatory.
19. Gamers have been on the Net since its infancy, shaping a vast,
complex network to create and share online games. While big players
such as Sony muscle in with paysites, most gamers remain dedicated to
offering freeware and shareware.
20. The Internet has also revolutionized the art of writing. Sure,
charlatans offer to e-publish your book no matter how badly it's
written, but an increasing number of credible authors such as Cory
Doctorow or Jim Munroe bypass the slaughter of trees with works that
can be enjoyed online. Many fine e-zines are also offered for next to
21. Visual artists are reaping benefits too. Coffee with friends beats
an e-mail, and a trip to the Louvre beats seeing an online image of the
Mona Lisa, but the Internet quickly became useful for artists and
galleries seeking exposure. Not only can you visit some of the world's
great museums and galleries online, but many other collections in the
busy art marketplace are available on the Net, even if you don't plan
to buy a Degas for the dining room.
22. The good news about the music industry is that it's been
transformed by the Internet. Artists with web savvy (or a tech-friend)
can have their music heard by anyone, anywhere. Musicians and bands can
also market so effectively on the Net that their audiences could be
comprised almost entirely of people who discovered them while surfing.
23. The bad news about the music industry is that it's been transformed
by the Internet. Record companies, apoplectic about free downloads, are
not only up against the many young people who refuse to play by the
rules of the marketplace, but by not a few artists sympathetic with
fans. This will continue to be a raucous topic involving threats and
lawsuits, and yet another case of evolutionary warfare.
24. Abuse of copyright and theft of intellectual property remain
contentious issues, with the recent raft of dismissals faced by
reporters who "borrowed" the writings of others offering proof of how
easy it is to lift material from the Internet. Happily there's a
corresponding increase in the determination of editors and higher-ups,
such as professors in search of term-paper cheats, to out the
25. So far, the Internet has not replaced going to a movie or the
rental or purchase of a DVD or video. That's changing, though, as more
high-speed connections mean easier illegal downloads of entire films.
Of course, studios are scrambling to make sure we first pay them a fee
first. Meanwhile, they're cleverly marketing movies with elaborate
websites packed with video clips. Distributors make it just as easy to
search for showtimes and buy tickets online. And, of course, you can
always find a fan with a site worshipping your favourite star.
26. Unfortunately, that site is sometimes filled with nude photos of
said celebrities. It's just the tip of an iceberg of porn, so vast that
it caters to any of many subsets of sexual behaviour. The genie is so
well and truly out of the bottle that democratic societies will have
huge difficulties trying to put it back in. It remains for good parents
to use an electronic net nanny to block the corruption of young minds.
And it doesn't hurt to check on your kids' friends and see if their
parents are up to speed on the dangers.
27. Gambling offers another good news/bad news scenario. Those who love
a good game of Texas hold'em can join online friends far from a real
card table, coming away with winnings or at least a sense of
satisfaction. But online gaming is just as tempting to addicts unable
to avoid blowing the budget, and they're especially prone to gambling
scams that run them the risk of credit card and identity theft.
28. Scientific research has been transformed by the Internet. In
Australia, a "flying doctor" visit to a remote cattle station can now
take place online. Researchers can use the Internet to create
cyber-communities, so that no one is ever isolated in a lab. Ideas can
be presented, discussed and discredited in a single day, or go on to be
transformed as tomorrow's latest hot topic. In every field of science,
from a chemist's ability to create virtual compounds to an astronomer's
remote manipulation of a telescope on the other side of the planet, the
Net ensures that no good thought need be left behind.
29. Nor is research restricted to brainiacs. All of us can do a Google
on any topic, and while it's no secret that the results must still be
filtered to remove a lot of dross, there's bound to be something
useful. Digging deeper, you can access university library databases to
determine if an actual, physical book exists on a shelf; it's then up
to you to find it.
30. By contrast with such constructive use of the Internet, it also
fills innumerable hours with useless pursuits. Seriously addicted
surfers, gamblers or porn addicts aside, many still use search engines
or chat rooms as nothing more than a time-waster on a slow day. While
this is to be discouraged at the workplace, it's a matter of choice at
home -- only those who cannot be pried from their keyboard to sleep
should worry too much about time they'll never get back.
31. Online education has transformed distance learning. No longer do
you receive and send packets in the mail, with the occasional telephone
call to a teacher or conference call with a class of similarly distant
students. Now it's all online, and a diaspora is easily linked via
video and instant teleconferencing. Snail mail begone, as every facet
of earning a diploma or degree can occur in a cyber-campus where you
can see what Miss Jean Brody looks like as she teaches English lit.
32. Access for the poor is an ongoing concern. While the rest of us can
ride each new wave on the information ocean, people whose access the
Net at public libraries or community centres must rely on the largesse
of gatekeepers if they want a taste of online riches.
33. This invites the larger question of control. Those who control the
media have a larger measure of control over public discourse -- just
look at how Fox News in the U.S. has managed to keep half of America
focused on trivia instead of more important election issues. As more
young people switch off their TVs and turn to videogames or Internet
equivalents, it's all too possible that control of information for the
next generation of electronica junkies will simply shift from Rupert
Murdoch to, well, one of his sons.
34. We're getting fatter, and while the Internet is not entirely to
blame in this age of cocooning and cable TV, it's especially disturbing
to see children spending less time at genuine exercise because they're
kung-fu killing someone online. And there are other physical
manifestations of the increasing amount of time we spend staring at a
screen. from eye strain to sore backs to carpal tunnel syndrome. All
Internet connections should come with a reminder to stand, stretch and
stop staring at that dancing hamster.
35. The Internet has changed the way we look at the future. No longer
constructing a physical future of flying cars and mid-air jetports, we
are increasingly caught in cybervisions of virtual reality. The 3D
world that doesn't really exist can only grow more fantastic and
inviting, so it will take genuine dialogue, person-to-person, to remind
us that reality is not on your monitor or humming box next to it. The
future will be very real, and unless we have a clear sense of what
reality really means, it also has the potential to be very scary.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2004