It came as no surprise to me that 28 percent of Americans shopped online on “Cyber Monday,” the day after Thanksgiving weekend at the end of November. That was up from the 21-percent figure a year ago. More and more of us are concluding that it’s easier to cruise the Internet than to fight traffic in a shopping mall parking lot.
People surf the Web all day long, or so it seems. Thanks to the new “cloud” technology of private internet-based file storage about which I wrote a few postings back, we can carry many aspects of our lives with us on the Internet and check them out whenever we feel like it.
The files on our home desktops, enough financial information to make paper receipts obsolete, even the TV shows and movies we’ve loaded onto our home entertainment systems, can be uploaded to our cloud account and then accessed from whatever computer we happen to be using. Any time. Anywhere.
Up until about 20 years ago, the Internet was mostly the domain of scientists and computer programmers we sometimes call “geeks” or “nerds.” Since then, it has become an almost necessary part of everyday living in many parts of the world. So much so that many experts believe the Internet rivals the printing press in its impact on civilization.
Wild exaggeration? After all, the printing press ushered in an era of intellectual advancement called the Enlightenment.
But if you ask John Perry Barlow, the Internet is even MORE revolutionary. Not that what we have now is always enlightened.
Barlow is a former Wyoming cowboy and lyricist for the Grateful Dead, of all things. But he also founded an important cyber-rights organization called the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And he calls the Internet “the most transforming event since the capture of fire!”
He made that statement 16 years ago in 1995, when an estimated 16 million people around the world were using the Internet every day.
By 2002 the number of users was calculated to have grown to half a BILLION worldwide. That’s 31 times as many people utilizing the global computer network, in just seven years.
And the Net was just limbering up. On one day, March 31, earlier this year, an organization called Internet World Stats counted 2,095,006,005 people using the Internet around the world. (Please don’t ask me how it counted these heads!) That’s 2 billion people connecting to the world through their computers and tapping away each day.
Some math extrapolator will have to tell us when the last person on earth who had never used the Web finally logs on, but I’d guess it’s not an unbelievable number of years away. If the Discovery Channel can get cameras into the Amazon rain forest to video the last, lost tribe of the Americas, can laptop computers for every tribe member be far behind?
Already in the United States, at least 80 percent of the population has Internet access at home, not even counting terminals at work or neighborhood libraries, or wireless hookups at Internet-friendly cafes.
Daily use of the Net here is the norm, not the exception. We give no more thought to jumping on the Internet than we do to brushing our teeth, driving a car, punching a microwave button, or clicking the TV remote.
“Cyberlife” has many implications — and they’re not all good. One negative that has people worried is the growing digital divide between those who comfortably bop around the Internet and those who don’t even have Net access. Another is the gulf between fluent speakers of English — the language of nine-tenths of Internet Web sites — and those whose English is weak or nonexistent. What is the latter group missing, and how far is it putting them behind?
There are also issues of “information overload” that many feel the Web has created; computer users’ seemingly insatiable need for instant gratification through more and faster information; smut around every cyber corner; and the Internet’s effect on family and community life. Is the Web driving us into separate, antisocial worlds of our own, as some critics believe?
John Horrigan, the associate director of research at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, says Americans as a rule don’t even bother writing to government agencies or health-care providers any more when they want information. They don’t call or visit, either, because just about everything they want to know is available in a flash on the Net. So is less critical information about every casual interest under the sun.
In short, Horrigan says, the Internet has become “America’s go-to tool.” We pay bills with it, read books with it, shop with it on Cyber Monday and many other days of the year, connect with people of like — and differing — minds, and even check out things that we didn’t know existed until we hit a couple of keystrokes.
Imagine what would happen if someone tried to take the Internet away!
The Internet is both a mass medium — dispensing everything from videos to newspaper articles — and a personal, one-to-one facilitator.
“One of the Net’s assets is what you might call ‘one-to-many communications,’” John Horrigan told me. “People can e-mail one another or many people at once. Another asset is its ‘information utility.’ The Internet in some people’s cases has completely supplanted the telephone or other kinds of information tools.
And that’s where search engines come in. People love to go online to scratch a little informational itch.”
They love it to the point that the name of the dominant Internet search engine — Google — has become a generic verb. We google things, even on Yahoo.
I love to ask it questions that 20 years ago might have taken an entire staff of reference librarians hours to research. Google gives me answers in seconds. Here’s a goofy one I just made up for no reason at all. It just popped into my head:
Is there copper pipe in Malaysia?
Not only did this inquiry produce about 1,500,000 results almost instantly, some of the ones that showed up on the first page demonstrate that a good deal of copper pipe is actually made in Malaysia.
Another exercise that I enjoy is typing in a few words to start a search. The Internet fills in a search phrase with what it thinks will be question you’re about to ask.
For example, I typed “How many people . . .”
Here are the first three questions that the computer filled in:
How many people have my name?
How many people are there in the world?
And How many people died on 9/11? — the infamous month and day in 2001 when terrorists struck targets in the United States.
None of those was the question I had in mind, but one of the charms of the Internet is that it widens the scope of our curiosity. I never wondered, or cared, how many people have my name until the Internet it brought up.
If you’re interested — and again, don’t ask me how this was determined — HowManyOfMe.com told me instantly that there are 192,259 “Theodores” in the United States, but just 116 “Landphairs.”
The “Theodore” count seems kind of low to me, and the “Landphair” total about right. I’ve found only 10 or so in the whole country who spell it my way, rather than “Lamphier” or “Lanfair” and such. But I still don’t know from this Internet inquiry how many “Theodore Landphairs” might be running around.
“Oh, you’re one of a kind,” you’re supposed to say here.
Eight years ago, I remember writing about a lighthearted e-mail going around VOA. It said, “You Know You’re Living in the Year 2003 when . . .” and it listed some of the technological realities of everyday life in America. You knew you were living in 2003, for instance, when “you get up in the morning and go online before getting your coffee.”
I’d update the e-mail now with something such as, “You Know You’re Living in the Year 2011 when . . . you pay all your bills online, do all your banking online, work from home online one or two days a week, research 95 to 100 percent of your term paper online, create your own greeting cards — message and illustrations — online, and do much of your dating online.”
A few years ago, Caroline Haythornthwaite — and there can’t be too many Caroline Haythornthwaites — who runs an information technology program at the University of Illinois, edited a book called The Internet in Everyday Life. She told me that the average American Internet user was on the Net 11 hours a week — experienced users 16 hours a week.
That’s two typical workdays’, or nights’ sleep, worth of time — time once spent on other things.
What do we lose during those two days? Human contact, perhaps.
To the contrary, Hawthornthwaite countered. “That’s how I connect to people.” She explained:
If you think we’ve gone away from the telephone to e-mail, have you lost anything there? Some of the real changes that seem to show up in the statistics are less TV and less sleep. The sleep business could be the fact that the people who are using the Internet are also the same kind of people who are wired into being active and ambitious. It’s their time of life for getting a lot of work done.
And Hawthornthwaite hadn’t even discovered texting!
She told me that studies had detected a difference in the ways that men and women tend to use the Internet.
Young, white males were the first ones on it. Their culture became the early culture, some of the early ways of talking on the Internet and ways of behaving through e-mail. Lot of programming stuff. When women started getting on, the tone became slightly different — softer, more family communication. So they’re talking on the Web about different things. Some studies show women have always been the ones looking for medical information. They’re the caregivers in the family, and they’re doing that.
A wild guess that more men than women check sports scores, and more women than men search for celebrity gossip. There’s a bottomless well of each on the Web.
The Internet is also used to get divorced, make reservations, copy songs, shop for gifts, form clubs with unseen cyberfriends, tell the world about ourselves and what might previously have seemed our obscure lives . . . and, oh, perhaps to read and listen to “Ted Landphair’s America” blog and podcast on the Voice of America Web site.
In fact, I just googled “Ted Landphair’s America” and got 170,000 results. Maybe I’ll use my two days’ time on the Web to see what entries 169,001-170,000 are all about.
Or maybe not.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Extrapolate. To take information from one situation and apply it to another, often erroneously. The fact that a form of cancer spreads wildly in mice does not necessarily mean that it will do so in humans, for example.
Limbering up. Warming up in preparation for strenuous exercise or, metaphorically, for some sort of performance, such as a concert.