Welcome to the Internet Age

by Sky Dayton

(Originally published February 2000)

The Internet has long been a magnet for misguided predictions. For example, it was once reported broadly that the Internet was merely a passing fad, the modern equivalent of CB radio. Sounds ridiculous, but it was all over the news media at the time. Then there were the predictions that the Internet was going to melt down. And for a time, it was believed by many that the Internet would ultimately consist mostly of cyberporn that would poison our children (an actual Time magazine cover story!).

Clearly, those prophecies were wrong. The Internet is going to change the world in countless positive ways, and isn't going to melt down in the process.

So what does the Internet's future look like? The best way to get a grip on where the Internet is going is to understand its true nature.

Some time ago (I confess, many months after starting EarthLink), I finally "got it." I realized what this Internet thing is. It's simple:

The Internet is the result of a common language for computers.

The common language is called TCP/IP, which stands for "Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol." (A "protocol" is a standard procedure that regulates communication between computers.)

Linking similar kinds of computers together is nothing new. But TCP/IP was unusual in that it allowed any kind of computer that could speak TCP/IP to talk to any other computer that could speak TCP/IP. So a tiny iMac on your desk could tell knock-knock jokes to a massive supercomputer at MIT.

TCP/IP gave rise to the Internet. The Internet is actually the result of linking a bunch of computers together and making them all speak the same language.

TCP/IP is a bit like a human language such as English. Once it is understood, creative people start making up new words and new combinations of words; start writing books, poems, and songs; and building on the base language in all kinds of ways. Thus, TCP/IP gave rise to all kinds of amazing applications written by smart computer programmers who spoke the language.

The two most popular creations to result from this common language are email and the Web. Shortly after connecting their computers with TCP/IP, some smart scientists realized they could use their computers to send messages—and email was born. Then a really smart scientist named Tim Berners-Lee figured out an ingenious way to navigate through information by clicking on words in a document. He added text and pictures to these documents, and the Web was born.

And then a wave of entrepreneurs decided that anyone should be able to connect their computers to the Internet, and they started Internet Service Providers (ISPs). By linking modems together with computers that route TCP/IP information (called "routers"), ISPs set up networks that interconnected with each other and all kinds of TCP/IP networks.

EarthLink began as 10 modems in a tiny office I rented in Los Angeles, connected to a router that was connected to Sprint's TCP/IP network, which interconnected with all the other big TCP/IP networks. If you dialed into one of those 10 modems (actually eight, because there were always two down for maintenance), EarthLink would take the TCP/IP packages from your computer and transmit them first to Sprint and ultimately to a destination on the Internet.

Why is all this relevant to you? Because you have inherited this amazing communications medium, probably the most powerful communications medium ever invented. Netage

History shows that every great advance in civilization was preceded by an advance in communications technology—from the earliest invention of alphabets to the printing press to the telephone. Every time it became easier to communicate, civilization advanced.

The Internet communications revolution will change the world. It's already changing our country, and I think it will spread to the far reaches of Earth and bring humanity closer together and improve life for everyone it touches.

Of course, there are many more immediate priorities: poverty, illiteracy, hunger, human rights. Obviously, putting a computer in the hands of a starving child is a misguided gesture.

But by linking people together, the Internet breaks down geographic and cultural boundaries that keep us from seeing problems, and keep people with solutions from reaching areas in need.

Some day, researchers collaborating over the Internet will find the cures for cancer, AIDS, and other devastating diseases. Likewise, major advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology, transportation, and other fields will be brought about by people exploring the frontiers of science together over the Internet.

You're inheriting the Internet Age. It's a great time to be connected.