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Caught up in the 'Net

How the Internet has quietly changed our lives
start quoteSocially, locally and globally - nothing else has had such a huge influence over the populationend quote
-- Caleb Chung, UGOBE


Technology (general)


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(CNN) -- "Within a few years, the Internet will turn business upside down. Be prepared -- or die."

So stated The Economist in 1999, a few months before Internet stocks crashed, and the web boom went spectacularly bust.

The Internet has always been associated with hype -- it's prophets proclaimed it as a bold techno wonderland that would change the world.

During the early dotcom boom days, investors fired up by a hysterical media invested millions of dollars at brake neck speed in companies so wobbly and hastily put together they could never last more than a few months. In the end, most didn't.

But now we've all had a few years to live with the Internet, The Economist magazine and many other's predictions seem much more reasonable - possibly even understated. The Web does seem to be genuinely changing the world, and those companies and organizations not ready for it are dying as predicted.

Perhaps without the flash and fuss and revolutionary haste we were promised in those early, heady days, but quietly and effortlessly the Internet has become an integral part of our everyday lives: at home and at work.

The shakeout of weak tech companies in 2000/2001 is now seen as symptom common to most technological revolutions, and marking the point from which the strong companies would grow to increasingly dominate both the marketplace -- and our lives.

"Socially, locally and globally - nothing else has had such a huge influence over the population," says Caleb Chung, co-founder and chief inventor at tech company UGOBE.

"It's multiplied my productivity by a factor of about five," admits philosopher Daniel Dennet. Think how many times you check the web for news, or look for magazine articles. (You're reading this online, after all.) Or how often you read your email every day. When did you start doing that?

Think about how much online shopping you do now. Think about how strong online brands, such as Amazon, Google or AOL, suddenly are. Think about how normal it seems to be able to access the web on a mobile device, or hook up to Wi-Fi in a café or on a train. All of these developments have happened in the last few years.

"[The Internet has] had such a huge impact that I am currently unable to remember how it was to work without it," says anthropologist Daniela Cerqui.

Almost all businesses now use the web to communicate with their customers, order stock and manage accounts. Financial services -- especially the insurance industry -- have blossomed online. Retailers no-longer see the web as a threat and businesses aren't still divided into on- and off-line enterprises, with most high street stores competing in both realms. Telcos are launching online telephone services. Even the music, TV and film industries, which until recently saw the web as threat number one, are beginning to gingerly embrace downloads.

National newspapers are finding a global audience through their Web sites, and Podcasting is blurring the line between print and broadcast media. Blogs are challenging professional journalism and shepherding the news agenda, and readers/viewers are increasingly becoming part of the news by providing their own video clips, pictures and observations to the public through the wealth of interactive features offered by many broadcasters online.

As the marketplace mutates, so consumers have benefited: primarily from an explosion of choice, but also because online bargain hunting is now so easy -- and product comparison sites so ubiquitous -- that prices have been forced down, and business has to offer a better service to stay competitive. Plus being able to shop from your desktop has saved us all a lot of time and made essential purchases far more convenient.

But as well as changing the way we access our banks, news, music, film -- products and services of all kinds -- the Web is genuinely revolutionizing the way we communicate with each other.

"The Internet has had an enormous effect on my work and on my life," says John Searle. "I am able to communicate nearly instantly with people all over the world and the access to information [it provides] enables me to find out what I need to know much more rapidly and efficiently than I ever could by going to a library."

"I can access as much research on any topic as my brain can handle in a given time period," says "robot psychologist" Joanne Pransky. "I am able to work anywhere in the world as long as I have Internet access. I can also play bridge, my favorite pastime, anytime, anywhere, on-line with my favorite partner, my elderly mother who lives 3,000 miles from me."

But perhaps one of the greatest surprises has not been how much the Web has changed our ability to communicate, but how our desire to communicate has actively driven change on the web. Social sites -- like with its 50 million plus members -- have risen from nowhere to form a key part of the social network of many people.

These are genuinely original concepts, without precedent in the offline world, and mark a new direction where innovation is outstripping our existing understanding of what we want -- or where the Web can take us socially and culturally.

"Without question the ability to communicate, share data, develop projects jointly, network has magnified the human mind has changed everything," says Peter Diamandis. "The Internet is the nervous system of a new developing 'meta-intelligence'."

But these rapid changes to something as fundamental a part of our humanity as the way we communicate are not without their concerns.

"As an anthropologist, I stand back to try to understand what all this means," says Cerqui. "What I see is that human beings are flexible and able to get used to almost everything. And once we are used to a new kind of technology, we become unable to live without it. But this does not necessarily means that it is an improvement."

"From a direct social interaction perspective, the Internet has had a negative impact on me," says Pransky. "It may be several days before I have the need to leave my house and have contact with the "outside" world. It has been awhile since I have worked in a group situation. After we have dinner, my family and I often retire to our own individual, confined use of the Internet."

"Technology is not the solution to all problems," says Cerqui. "Social problems ought to be faced with social solutions. For instance, you do not solve the problem of people feeling lonely by connecting them to the Internet, but you contribute in establishing a new kind of society where face-to-face interaction is less important than mediated communication."

Where historically the extent of our social contact was limited to our immediate community, and our information sources restricted by practical, physical limits of conversation and the printed page -- suddenly now we are all at the hub of a personal network wired up to the entire world. It can, at times, seem all too much.

"The pace, the vast wealth of information coming from all directions -- how the heck can you keep up when it comes at you like this? Yes, it seems too much to assimilate," says Mark Reed, Yale Professor of Engineering and Applied Science.

But Reed argues that however confusing and overwhelming the web seems now, overcoming this helplessness will be the next stage in our social evolution.

"Watch a child play a computer game or surf the Internet -- truly child's play. How parochial of us to assume that just because our imprinted minds can't keep up, that fresh new minds won't be able to either. We are amazingly adaptable, which is why we survived -- our progeny will not only adapt, they will excel.

"However, we need to give them the right tools. We need to teach them to think critically and objectively -- teach them to grasp scientific methodology and embrace technological literacy.

"Unfortunately our society does a very poor job of this. The future of the human race is too important to leave to politicians and corporations. A scientifically educated global population will help us focus on the truly important problems, such as energy -- arguably the most important crisis we as a species will face -- instead of wasting efforts on petty squabbles for short term economic and political gain."

However we teach our children and however our society evolves, many scientists already have a clear vision of the way technology is leading us. 'Singularity,' the fusion of human, machine and the communication capacity of the web may enable a spectacular and fundamental shift in our understanding of human consciousness.

"I am still a big believer in Artificial Intelligence; new software 'shells' that surround us as individuals and becomes our interface with the outside world," says Diamandi. "These interfaces will allow us to communicate with individuals and machines more efficiently.

"The Internet will merge into these software shells, serving as a global nervous system interconnecting people to people in the way single cell life-forms grouped into multi-cellular organisms and eventually into an organism as complex as the human body."

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