The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Monday, April 14, 2003

You are currently using a browser. You've gotta be, or else you wouldn't be able to access and read this blog. As ubiquitous as the browser has become on computers and computer-like devices (PDAs, cellphones, etc.), it's hard to believe that it hasn't been around forever. But in fact, it's been a mere ten years since the graphical-interface Web browser has been around, first conceived as the Mosaic browser. It's been a wild, revolutionary ten years, for the computer world and society in general.

Lots of great tidbits of info by ZDNet's Mike Yamamoto here. Let me focus on a couple of key passages:

Just as important as the browser's practical role is the psychological shift it has produced. Today, people expect to be able to find all manner of information in an instant, an assumption that would have been unthinkable before the Web became a mainstream medium--a phenomenon that cybersociologists call "expectation transparency."

So true. More and more, it seems like the pre-Internet days were a dark ages, where getting information required a good amount of exertion, whether you were doing a school report or trying to get a new mortgage. Thorough research still requires a good deal of effort, but the Web makes the first steps so much easier.

"No fact is ever lost. Obscure texts, not to mention musical recordings, are almost as easy to retrieve as today's local newspaper," said Andy Oram of technology publisher O'Reilly & Associates, who is a member of the activist group Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

While in theory it's true that "no fact is ever lost", this is actually a case of wishful techno-thinking. Twenty years of reliance on digital formats has taught us the hard way that electronic methods of information recording is extremely unreliable on a long-term basis, and in fact is a disaster waiting to happen. Plus, you can find the limits of what's on the Web without too much trouble; by no means is everything in world civilization available online, and a lot of those "obscure texts" may stay that way for a long time.

"Every organization has to have a Web site, and by now an organization would be considered some kind of suspicious, underground entity if it doesn't."

How funny! That's usually my first reaction too, although it's an unfair generalization to some extent.

Evidence of this tectonic change can be seen at the earliest stages of childhood for those growing up in a household with a computer connected to the Web. Elementary games and PC-resembling toys are being marketed at toddlers 2 years old or even younger, making the computer a staple in the home from the time they begin to develop their cognitive and motor skills.

The result, behavioral psychologists believe, will be a new thought pattern influenced by the Web that was unimaginable only a decade ago but accepted as natural human development by coming generations.

What will all these little Web-heads be like when they come into the world as young adults? I anticipate it with equal parts dread and wonderment. Keep in mind, having grown up with it, these kids aren't going to think of the Web as anything other than the standard background utility--a contrast from those of us who didn't experience it until adulthood. Same experience as the telephone, television and other technological benchmarks.

All this was catalyzed by the graphical browser, opened up so that practically anyone could use it. It is important to note, though, that many people consider the browser model of experiencing the Internet to have outlived its usefulness, and are looking forward to alternatives.