The Evolution of the Internet 
by Paul R. Fayfich

There is no doubt that the media has hyped the Internet but the underlying reality of the importance of this technology is undeniable. The Internet is a fundamentally important technology that will greatly influence our society in the coming years just like television has over the last fifty years.
When television first entered the market there was tremendous excitement about the potential of the technology. Early proponents of television saw it as a way to educate the masses; a better type of radio -- radio with pictures. It is not unusual to try to understand new technology by using old analogues but when the new technology is qualitatively different from the old, this can lead to disastrous results. Television is not simply radio with pictures; it is a qualitatively different medium and we must understand it as such. 

Television has had a tremendous influence on our society but not the effect predicted by its early proponents. Inherent in the technology was the potential to educate the masses but television never fully realized that potential. It became a vehicle for mass marketing, not mass education. 

Like television, the Internet represents a qualitatively new medium. It is difficult to predict exactly how the Internet will evolve but one thing that we can say with certainty, is that it will evolve in directions that we can not even imagine now. 

The Internet represents the confluence of multiple technologies. To understand the Internet, you need to understand the context in which it is evolving. Microcomputing, networking technologies, multimedia, graphical user interfaces and hypertext theory, all rapidly developed during the 1980's and are now converging in Internet related technologies. 

In retrospect the Internet seems inevitable but when you try to project its future, you need to realize that all things that are possible are not equally probable. Technology does not exist in a vacuum and how it evolves is a function of thousands of interacting variables, many of which are external to the technology itself. 

There are a lot of exaggerated claims made about the impact that Internet technology will have on society. Self-serving marketers often make claims that later become conventional wisdom through repetition. Unfortunately, this conventional wisdom is often wrong. 

Trying to influence the evolution of technology is big business; billions of dollars are at stake. However, predicting how a technology will manifest itself within a social context is not a trivial matter. Industry pundits who try most often fail. 

The Internet is an empowering technology. You can interact with the Internet in one of two fundamental ways; as a reader, or consumer of information, and as a publisher, or producer of information. 

For a reader, there is a lot of information available on the Internet. However, there are some major problems associate with retrieval of information. 

The first problem is that the information that you are looking for may not even exist on the Internet. People erroneously view the Internet as a vast storehouse of information just waiting to be plundered. Nothing goes up on the Internet without someone putting it there and there is a cost associated with that placement. The primary motivation for publishing on the Internet is economic. If no publisher has an economic incentive to publish the information that you are looking for, the information will not be there for you to find. 

The second problem in finding information on the Internet is isolating relevant information from the noise. This problem has gotten a lot of attention from entrepreneurs who have developed numerous business plans proposing solutions. The Internet is a dynamic and decentralized entity. It does not lend itself to categorization. Finding the information you are looking for can be problematic. This is the underlying cause for the explosive growth of Internet search engines and push technologies. 

The third problem in retrieving information over the Internet is a quality problem. How can you be sure that the information that you are receiving is accurate? You need to develop a healthy skepticism towards information culled from the Internet since there is so much bad information out there. However, you also need to carry that skepticism over to more traditional sources of information such as print and broadcast media and even our schools. If the Internet does no more than forces us to become more critical consumers of information, it will have done us a great service. 

Being a publisher on the Internet is one of the most exciting aspects of the technology. The barriers of entry are incredibly low. With a small amount of technical expertise and for a few dollars a month, individuals and small businesses can electronically publish information that is immediately accessible to millions of people around the world. In the history of humanity, we have never experienced such an empowering technology. The full implications of this are simply impossible to foretell but it is clear that the technology will impact society in significant ways. 

The Internet is an important component in the globalization of the economy. Even the smallest companies can now service international markets utilizing the telecommunication infrastructure. In a connected World, geography becomes less important and international borders breakdown. With the emergence of global capitalism, the potential for economic prosperity has never been greater. The next century should see unparalleled entrepreneurial activity and wealth creation driven by technology. 

However, there is a dark cloud on the horizon. The future that I have outlined depends on a highly motivated and educated work force. What does the future hold for those with marginal skills? Will our society become bifurcated into information haves and information have nots or will all segments of the society equally benefit from technology? We need to realize that globally we are just at the beginning of an exponential economic growth driven by technology. The question then is how far can our technology take us in the next century? 

Paul R. Fayfich is an Assistant Professor of Information Systems at The University of the Incarnate Word.