Internet vs. Printing Press
Throughout human history, there have been inventions and discoveries that have fundamentally changed the way we live. The lightbulb, the telegraph, the book, the printing press, the turing machine, the computer, to name a few. Yet arguably none of these have been as significant and impressive in scope and influence than the dominant one in our world today, the internet.
The internet began out of the need to share and store identical information in many places to protect sensitive knowledge from destruction in times of war. The United States military began to develop a system of computers to store and share information and research known as ARPANET. Advancements were made, creating packet switching technology, or splitting data into small parts for easy and assured transfer, and the concept of a distributed network powered by individual nodes, allowing for the distribution of data over a longer distance and with more security. Advancements like these coupled with an increase in computing power allowed the internet to grow rapidly. Spreading to the University of California Los Angeles, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, and other elite schools around the country, and eventually into our very living rooms, where it resides today.
The reason why the internet is such a grand achievement when placed next to human inventions of the past is less about the physical information being transmitted, of which most could likely be distributed as effectively by literature and film, and more about the speed at which this mechanism has grown and its user research capabilities. The flexibility of internet protocol technology and its ability to spread rapidly from small local area networks to a world wide phenomenon permeating every aspect of personal and professional life is unprecedented. In about 25 years, the internet has become a world-wide, mass scale system for storing and viewing information, and growing every second with our ever-evolving plunge into new, more capable technologies. The printing press and the concept of movable typed, by comparison, had been invented centuries before it was even discovered in Europe, far less widely accepted and utilized. Surely this growth has something to do with our advanced capabilities for international travel in modern times. But nevertheless, somehow all manner of cultural, religious, and doctrinal beliefs tend to quickly step aside in favor of internet adoption around the world, certainly this is not usually the case with new inventions. Even strictly religious, radical insurgent groups have picked up on the power of the internet and are now using social media marketing tools to spread their message globally. The growth of the internet seems to know no bounds, enabling any person with some basic computer knowledge and a machine in their living room to view and contribute to the world’s encyclopedia, for better or for worse. The internet has given people around the world access to life saving information in seconds, spread the seeds of revolution and political uproar, and provided people with a relentless stream of the consciousness from the general public (thanks, Twitter). Its power and influence is as far reaching as any information infrastructure we have ever built. The information presented, while some of it highly polarized and just blatantly untrue, is generally outweighed by sources that are either equally biased in the opposite direction, offsetting some of the ridiculousness, or fairly reasonable and trustworthy. Creating a world wide community of activists, innovators, intellectuals and unfortunately, a wide variety of morons. But identifying and squashing stupidity is information exchange nonetheless.
The unprecedented size of the internet coupled with its ease of use has plagued regulators with a unique problem. Never in the history of the world have so many been able to speak out and spread ideas so quickly and easily. You see, even with the invention of the printing press, most information distribution was reserved for wealthy aristocrats and powerful clerics. Even when books were widely published and distributed there were editors and publishing houses keeping at least some of the utterly ridiculous content at bay. But the internet is difficult enough to maintain, and near impossible to police in its current state. Therefore, the information floodgates have finally opened, and the result is terrifyingly beautiful, allowing us to put a finger on the world’s pulse like never before.
The internet is not only more grand in scope and scale than the printing press and all other forms of information infrastructure before it, it is also fundamentally different from an operational standpoint because of the way the information is consumed. Because of the use of computers as terminals, the internet has unique capabilities for performing user research on a massive scale. Never before have we had an informational resource capable of fundamentally understanding and recording actions and knowledge transfer in the way the internet is able to. For example, consider for a moment that the internet does not exist. You hand someone a book, provided that person reads this book, lets assume that they now know what you know from reading that book. You have in effect shared knowledge. This sharing of knowledge is how most learning occurred throughout history until quite recently. The limitation of this system is that it is not very effective when it comes to revising this information, analyzing where it came from and why it is here, who is looking at it, and who might want to have access to it in the future. This is where the internet shines. An unbelievable amount of information is stored about you every time you make a request to a web address. This information is then compiled, stored, and later used in conjunction with other information previously stored about you to build a profile of your interests, and then target you as a member of a specific audience or focus group. Many people think of this and immediately see devious plans thought up by clever marketing professionals set to sell you some product that you hardly need. Much of this is true as marketing companies are most definitely using this to market effectively and increase their ROI’s. But this capability, when used for more proper and ‘morally just’ reasons, is quite fascinating. Let’s say you are a scientist, seeking research on a complex chemistry problem you have been working on. While searching for answers, you have built up a search query that resembles someone clearly well versed in the sciences. Search engines can now analyze that data and suggest scholarly papers that you are likely to be interested in and able to interpret and utilize, perhaps furthering your research or creating a more efficient operation at your laboratory. Definitely something no amount of books or printed material will ever be able to do for you.
Never before have we had an infrastructure not only so capable of sharing information, but retrieving and storing information about those who are consuming it as well. The ability of the internet to self-sustain, rapidly grow, and store information has blasted this communication system far past all else before it. The fundamental Input/Output model that computers are based on has afforded us the power of personal data storage and user research currently being demonstrated every day by this seemingly limitless form of communication we call the internet.