Here is one of the first stories in any mainstream publication to introduce the Internet to the public. I stumbled across researchers using it when I was covering higher education and thought I'd found something that could change the world. The Internet and email were so new that this story sat a couple of weeks because the editors couldn't quite grasp what the hell it was all about.
Take a look and see how prescient (or not) I was.
TAPPING INTO A FUTURISTIC INFORMATION HIGHWAY
FROM UNIVERSITIES TO LABS TO LIBRARIES TO HOMES,
THE LINKS STEADILY GREW. THEN THERE WAS THE INTERNET.
Mar 28, 1993. pg. C.1
We witness Jonathan M. Smith, designer of high-speed computer highways, at work:
A graduate student in the Netherlands is sending him the latest version of the academic paper they are co-authoring. The student ships it by computer, 90 seconds from the Netherlands to Smith's desktop monitor in his cluttered office at the University of Pennsylvania.
Smith scans the simulated pages, the words and diagrams appearing just as they would in a book. He types a reply. The electronic message will reach Holland in seconds.
Smith - and uncounted millions more - are plugged into the Internet, a wildly sprawling, quickly growing computer network linking research libraries, corporations and computer chatterers worldwide. Once the province of specialists, the network is fast becoming a part of everyday university life.
With a few keystrokes, someone with a personal computer in Philadelphia can read Chapter One of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - the version that's stored in the Australian Defence Forces Academy library in Canberra.
A few more strokes, and up come centuries-old commentaries on Dante's Inferno in the Dartmouth University library, or the history of Bar-Ilan University beamed in from Israel's Negev desert.
All for little more than the price of a local phone call.
"I can't imagine being a research university without being on the Internet right now," said Daniel Updegrove, an associate vice provost who administers Penn's participation in the network.
The Internet began in 1969 as a research and development tool of the U.S. defense establishment, connecting a few elite universities and defense-research labs. Now it links millions of people in the United States and 40 other countries who are hooked into 10,000 smaller computer networks. They transmit 20 billion "packets" of information a month - and the volume is doubling annually.
By the end of the decade, an estimated 100 million Americans, and millions more abroad, will be hooked into the Internet. Already, it is making its way into some elementary and secondary schools. Visionaries hope eventually to link them all.
The Internet seems certain to change the way people do their work, get their educations, or write their Aunt Sarah.
Enthusiasts say the Internet is building a foundation for more powerful networks just ahead. For years, Vice President Gore has advocated that the federal government finance a high-speed "information highway," just as his father, the former Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore, urged Congress to finance the interstate highway system in the 1950s.
High-speed computer networks will spark "a revolution in knowledge and learning that could exceed the impact of the original scientific revolution," Gore said in 1991.
"It used to be that nations with deep-water ports and good railroads, or with abundant raw materials, had a competitive advantage," Gore said. "But since the information revolution began to pick up speed, it's become clear that the most important determinant of national competitive advantage is the ability to handle information and knowledge, especially in digital form."
In January, the chief executives of major computer firms urged President Clinton to challenge the nation to build a "National Information Infrastructure" that would connect all Americans within the next 20 years - a '90s version of President Kennedy's vow to land a man on the moon by the end of the '60s.
Vice President Gore envisions children coming home from school and, instead of playing Nintendo, linking up with the Library of Congress and learning at their own pace.
Maybe Gore never had a child hooked on Nintendo.
But that's no reason to doubt that such a system is possible. With the Internet, it's largely a reality already.
Anyone on Penn's 20,000-student campus, for example, can peruse the university library's catalog by computer. Anyone can check on campus events by computer. Anyone can tap into other research libraries around the world.
Mostly, though, people send electronic messages, or E-mail. They send it to other individuals. They send it to groups.
Boy, do they ever.
David Farber, a computer science professor with a reputation as a networking guru, took a trip to Greece last summer and left his computer behind - something like Jane Fonda skipping her exercise. "The first time you're away for a long period of time and you get back and realize the world hasn't collapsed, you realize you can disconnect," Farber said. "And you see that sometimes it's healthy to disconnect."
Farber returned after 10 days and found 2,500 E-mail messages waiting.
"That can be a disadvantage," conceded Smith, a Penn computer science assistant professor. "The volume is amazing."
Updegrove belongs to 30 electronic "discussion groups," or pools where people of similar interests sent messages to be read by anyone else in the group. "I've got a question about something," Updegrove said, "and I might get the answer back from somebody in Norway."
Penn's goal is to give every student an E-mail account and unrestricted access - things once thought necessary chiefly for engineering students.
"If they have friends in Berkeley, go to it," Farber said. "If they have friends at Keio University in Japan, be my guest."
The ease of global communication has "changed the culture of the university and professional relations across the world," Farber said. "I sit on thesis committees with people I've never met. I've attended the defense of theses of students I've never met."
Penn physicists doing research this year at the Fermi Laboratory in Illinois and Brookhaven Laboratories in Massachusetts keep in constant touch with people on the Penn campus through E-mail. "In many fields, they can't do their work without the Internet," Updegrove said.
Farber routinely sends computer news to about 1,000 people through the Internet, disseminating it instantly with a keystroke. Recently he was attending a lecture when he heard a joke he liked. He sent it on the spot to his 1,000 people, using a hand-size computer equipped with a radio modem. Within 10 minutes he got replies. "Not so funny," someone messaged back.
It's cheap - or relatively so, considering how much the system is used and how far its lines of communication stretch. Penn leases phone lines to a regional network center in New Jersey, which relays signals to target computers around the world. By agreement, research libraries charge nothing. "People at Harvard figured their people would use the Penn library as much as Penn people use the Harvard library," Updegrove said. "And they didn't want to be bothered with all the accounting."
The Internet is much faster and conveys much more information (book-length manuscripts, graphics, the digitalized sound of Eric Clapton's guitar) than commercial home-computer services like Prodigy. But it's harder to use.
There's no central authority organizing the Internet. It has been growing like a huge library, with new stacks sprouting in all directions - and no card catalog. It has been hard to find things. To reach the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's library, you need to know that its computer address is library.mit.edu; Harvard's is hollis.harvard.edu. Even if you know that, you can't intuit how to reach Stanford or Berkeley.
But searching is getting easier. In the last year or so, several systems, including one called Gopher, developed at the University of Minnesota, began organizing the Internet's scattered resources into menus. Now it's possible to quickly find the text of any of Bill Clinton's speeches, or recent decisions of the Supreme Court, or passages from the Torah or the Koran, or the most recent development in the World Trade Center bombing - by choosing the right menu and selecting the item.
For serious research moles, the Internet has made it possible to extend those off-hours work schedules and intensify the all-nighter pallor that's de rigueur for grad students.
"It's extremely asynchronistic," said Smith, a gentle-looking man with a killer vocabulary. "I can deal with my messages when I want to." This is very different from doing things by telephone. As Smith, a former researcher at Bell Labs, well knows, the telephone ring has been selected by psychologists precisely for its irritating ability to seize your attention right then - you have to answer when the caller wants you to.
But with E-mail, a student working at 3 a.m. in a dorm room can reach into the library for information or send a question to a professor. The prof doesn't have to read it until hours later.
"Farber says that a student used to be able to contact him during office hours from 2:30 to 3:30 every Tuesday and Thursday, except for days when he was out of town," Updegrove said. "Now anyone can send him E-mail at any time, no matter where he is in the world, and probably get a reply within a day. That's less personal, but it's something - and before, most students had nothing."
E-mail makes it possible for anyone to send a message directly to a dean or other high-ranking official. In the old days, the E would have stood for effrontery. "It flattens the hierarchy," said Ira Winston, director of the university's Computing and Educational Technology Services.
"Students are expecting to communicate by E-mail," Farber said, "and as they get out of school, more and more of them are expecting to keep on using it." Witness the young Clinton aides who were shocked to find that the White House - the White House! - was network illiterate. Orders for Apple Powerbooks flew fast.
No one is sure what this technology will do for the future of teaching. Soon, Penn students might be expected to do their term papers by navigating the Internet for information, Updegrove said. Other possibilities are just being dreamed of.
Human contact probably won't be replaced entirely. Smith said it would be hard for technology to replicate mentoring - the kind of learning that close contact between teacher student can achieve.
Nevertheless, it's clear that computers are fast becoming near-ubiquitous on campuses. At Penn, where an estimated 40 to 50 percent of students own computers, jacks are being installed in every study carrel in the law library now under construction and next to every pillow in the dorms. For others, hundreds of computers are available in public labs.
Smith, a few years ahead of the curve, has installed a computer in his parents' home in Massachusetts so he can communicate with them by E-mail.
"I work at all hours," he said - and once you've tasted asynchronicity, it's hard to go back.
"Over the past decade it's been hard to deal with friends who aren't on the Internet," Smith said. "It's hard to deal with friends on the phone. I don't know why that is."
LINKING UP WITH INTERNET
If you have a computer and a modem, several services are available that allow you to link up with the Internet.
Among them are:
* UUNET, of Falls Church, Va. Call 703-204-8000 or 800-4UUNET3. Ask for UUCP service.
* GVC Delphi, of Cambridge, Mass. Call 800-544-4005.
Both services charge fees, $13 a month and up and depending on how much you use the system.
Organizations such as universities, business firms, government agencies and secondary schools can connect with the Internet through "entry points" that use leased phone lines. Rates normally range from $15,000 to $100,000 a year, depending on the location and the speed of the connection. Possibilities include:
* In Pennsylvania: PREPnet, the Pennsylvania Research and Economic Partnership network. 412-268-7870.
* In New Jersey: JVNCnet, the John Von Neumann Center network, headquartered in Princeton. 609-258-2400.
* In Delaware: SURAnet, the Southeastern Universities Research Association Network, in College Park, Md. 301-982-4600.