The Internet - What's in it for YOU
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #23

You've heard so much about the Internet by now, you must be wondering whether you should get on board. Unless you have oodles of spare time (and money), you probably don't want to join the Net just for its own sake - you want to know what it can do for you, not what it already does for the 25 million or so from all over the world who are aleady using it! If you do decide that it's worth it, you will also need to know how to connect, and how to make the most of it. In this and the next couple of episodes of Electric Dreams, I'll take a reality break from the soaring heights of cyberspatial stargazing, and try to address some of these issues.

Let's begin with a survey of the services provided on the Net and the interests they may cater to.

The Net began as a tool, an environment for researchers, teachers and learners to interact efficiently and comfortably. Education - teaching programmes, methods of training, discussions on learning paradigms - remains the primary area of interest on the Net, with more services available than for any other field. Education is naturally the common ground for the large Net population from colleges and research institutes. Resources include large file libraries, document bases hosted at various organizations and arranged hierarchically under categories such as 'Projects for K12 kids' and 'Teaching grownups math', as well as a number of conventional indexed databases. These services go under the technical and somewhat nerdy names of FTP (File Transfer Protocol), Gopher (a highly literate rodent), and WAIS (Wide Area Information Search). Each of these services has huge directories - detailed contents pages - that can be searched for specific items using special utilities with the whimsical though distinctly non-technical names of Archie, Veronica and Jughead.

Of course, these services that form the basic method of information archival on the Net are available on many topics other than education. Many other subjects rely a lot on fixed (rather than continuously changing) information. For politics and international relations, the text of constitutions, case law, UN reports and treaties are available on document servers on the Net. Medicine and biotechnology enthusiasts will find enormous banks of experimental results and data, including all that's trickling out of the Human Genome Project. Nuclear physicists will be able to participate in interactive projects at CERN, and other laboratories worldwide.

Astonomers will find themselves glued to their monitors instead of their telescopes - as I wrote in the last episode, Shoemaker-Levy's collision with Jupiter was much-covered on the Net with regular reports and images. NASA, which has a major presence in cyberspace, provides images from the space probes on file archives, and participates in a number of projects to interest people in the world beyond the clouds. Using Telnet - another basic Internet service that effectively attaches your keyboard and monitor to a computer half-way around the world - people join in a make-believe launch of a space-shuttle, working in teams to control a simulated array of instruments.

No matter what your work (or hobby) requires, the Net will have something for you. Its most important resource is probably not technological at all, but simply something that technology has made convenient to access - the user base, the millions of people you can communicate with.

Never before has it been possible to express your ideas freely to so many people at once, so easily. And never before has technology provided such powerful ways to ensure that the people you talk to share your interests, and that you find the right people as your interests change. And never before has it been so important to take advantage of a new technology, a new attitude, a new way of life - or get left behind, as society moves on into a new age.

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