All together now...
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #2

Three, two, one, we have lift off! Welcome aboard this expedition to explore the Internet, the newest planet known to humanity. Where is it situated? No, there are no spatial coordinates. The Internet is everywhere, because it's in cyberspace.

Coined by cult science-fiction writer William Gibson, cyberspace is a very appropriate term for the web of infrastructure that is forming the basis of the new information society. Time, money and life are becoming increasingly dependent on knowledge and the flow of information. Governments and corporations around the world are preparing and planning for the giant information superhighways of the next century. Meanwhile cyberspace grows in population -- there are perhaps 30 million people on wide area networks worldwide, and 20 million accessible through the Internet, the largest electronic community in existence. The Internet (or simply the Net), which is more or less synonymous with cyberspace, has its own social structures, net.etiquette, emerging economy, and politics. Most of all, it has a tremendous momentum that is demonstrated by its exploding population -- over a million new people connect to the Net every month. One reason is the sudden publicity given to it. Recently a spate of articles in mainstream media, including the Economist and Time has made an e-mail address on the Net, from a curio for the academic cyberpunk community, into a prestigious must-have on the business cards of upwardly mobile executives.

Before we take a bird's-eye view (of a very high-altitude bird!), let's do some digging into the Net's history. The Internet, like much of the information society, has its roots in the US DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, now part of the Department of Defense) initiative, in 1969, to connect crucial research institutions across America. One problem was the inherent lack of reliability of communication links. At the height of the cold war, DARPANET had to survive a nuclear attack. The solution was to build a network against the traditional thinking of the time; instead of setting down rules for switching through a fixed series of hubs, as done in most telephone exchanges, messages were broken into small packets. Each packet was uniquely numbered and stamped with the source and final destination, and hurled into cyberspace. Machines, or sites on the Net that received these packets inspected them and hurled them yet again in the general direction of the final destination. All this happened, and happens (all major modern networks are packet-switched) very fast. When packets reach their destination, perhaps out of sequence, perhaps duplicated through multiple routes, they are reassembled to form an intelligible message. The reliability and interconnectivity of this technique have played a major role in the evolution of a US Defense network into a conglomeration of government-sponsored academic networks, into a mish-mash of subsidized and commercial networks from all over the world.

Now on to our whistle-stop tour. What are you interested in? Geology? Psychology? Ancient Druidic rituals? I thought not. Well, I'm interested in just about anything I can find on the Net, so the first thing I did was try to find the Andromeda Galaxy. You read that correctly. Sitting at home, with just a local phone call to the neighbourhood Internet node, I connected to the NASA Extragalactic database at California Institute of Technology. After a few blinks, I was presented with a rather bewildering menu. I selected the least frightening item, Photometry, and typed in Andromeda when asked what I was looking for. I got a long list of very technical looking coordinates and probabilities. No. This was not meant for the casual observer. It did give me a warm omniscient feeling, though, knowing that I can access data intended for hi-tech ET watchers glued to their telescopes. My next try (I'm obsessed with NASA) was better. I got information on the Mars exploration programme, including the phone number of the project leader. What NASA did leave for every lay person are the complete archives of Voyager, Magellan and Viking photographs. You get large files such as these images, or the ridiculously detailed CIA World Map, through what is called, plainly enough, file transfer.

CNN is passÚ, what you need is GNN. The Global Network Navigator, accessible through the Net, is a great example of the use of hypermedia. You get news reports on the subjects you ask for, with text, sound and graphics. If you are particularly interested in a specific topic, you select that, and through the wonderful World Wide Web, the relevant, up-to-date information is procured from wherever in the world it might be, at that time. WWW is one of the new methods of accessing and organizing the humungous amounts of data on the Net, as new cybercitizens don't have the patience to acquire the net.gurus' arcane knowledge of the mysterious nooks and crannies where treasure-troves of information are stored. Another method is WAIS, the Wide Area Information Search. Just like a boring DBMS search, but across thousands of machines.

Cyberspace is all about an open society. There are no central authorities or chains of command on the Net. This anarchical utopia is best expressed in the management of the thousands of news groups on USENET, an informal broadcasting channel for people with diverse interests. About 70 Megabytes (70,000 pages) of information is transmitted every day on news groups. While groups such as or are created by three unsupervised rounds of voting, for others there is the huge alternate hierarchy of groups that anyone can create., for example, or alt.buddha.short.fat.guy (on Zen Buddhism). One of the popular groups that demonstrates the Net's principles against censorship of any kind, is, for discussions on "ways to have sex that are outside the mainstream."

Cyberspace and the information society bring to light many new applications, both good and bad. In future issues of this column, we'll discuss privacy, security, entertainment, advertising, and many other interesting topics.

Meanwhile, in case you want to bomb Delhi (the one in Oklahoma, not the one in Ohio), the coordinates, according to the US Geographic Name Server, are: 35║ 10' 29" North, 99║ 40' 34" West.

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