The Internet at 40

The Internet turned 40 this week. But while some of us feel middle-aged when reaching that plateau, the Internet remains young at heart.

That might be because most people didn’t know anything about the Internet until it was 25 years old. So, for most of us, it’s still a gawky teenager.

On Sept. 2, 1969, scientists at UCLA, led by Len Kleinrock, passed information from one computer through a 15-foot cable to another computer. Over the next few months, computers connected UCLA, Stanford, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah. At that time this was called the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANet.

The first e-mail message was sent two years later, and the addressing system that gave us “.com” and “.org” arrived in the ’80s. But it wasn’t until the early ’90s that the wider population became aware of the Internet, thanks to British scientist Tim Berners-Lee. He invented the World Wide Web, which made the network more practical and easy for regular people to use.

You know the rest — technological advancements seemingly every day that make the Internet more useful and powerful in delivering different kinds of information around the world. Today’s Internet can serve as a radio, television, record player, telephone, library and method of paying bills. Inventors and entrepreneurs seem determined to find ways for the Internet to perform every human activity.

But let’s not get carried away. Hundreds of millions of people still live satisfying lives without spending hours parked in front of a computer screen crafting clever Twitter messages or watching funny animal videos.

It’s still a hybrid world. For example, a local writer and I recently struck up an odd correspondence. He writes me a letter, puts it in an envelope, glues a stamp to it and drops it in the mailbox. When I receive his letter, I write him an e-mail in response. Then he writes me another traditional letter. And so forth.

I find e-mail fast and convenient. He doesn’t mind reading my electronic messages, but he tells me he still prefers “writing on paper with ink.”

But while I’m a rapid-fire e-mailer, I’m not sold on other aspects of the Internet. I still prefer reading books and magazines on bound paper, for example. I have a Kindle book reader — it’s a nifty toy, but I don’t use it much. My general conclusion is there’s nothing wrong with a regular book that an electronic book reader fixes.

I’m also not an avid viewer of video on the Internet. Online video is all the rage. And a few things are indeed worth looking at, such as that recent snippet in which Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., eviscerated some crazy woman who accused him of supporting a “Nazi” health care proposal. But overall, I can’t get excited about home videos of amateur Elvis impersonators and stupid pet tricks.

But the Internet does have incredible value. I remember when we didn’t have the Internet, but it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without it today. At least for me, the Internet has become indispensable for its fast delivery of useful information. Here are a few Web sites I consult on a regular basis:

— Internet Movie Database (imdb.com): This is the encyclopedia of movie and television information. If you want to know when a movie or TV show was made, who directed it, who starred in it or anything else about it, IMDB has the answer. I love a world in which I have this information at my fingertips. Allmusic.com provides a similar service for music.

— Rotten Tomatoes (rottentomatoes.com): In the old days, if you wanted to know about a new movie, you turned to your local newspaper and got one critic’s opinion. That’s still true. But sometimes critics are biased or wrong — a critic in Las Vegas may hate a movie, but critics elsewhere like it just fine. Or vice versa. In the past, you wouldn’t have easy access to those other critics. At Rotten Tomatoes, literally hundreds of movie reviews are compiled and averaged to determine an overall rating. Metacritic.com provides a similar service for music.

— Arts & Letters Daily (aldaily.com): This is a compendium of thoughtful articles addressing just about everything, from history and philosophy to literature and science. Drawing mostly from American and European magazines, journals, newspapers and Web sites, it’s a carefully selected digest of the world’s best thinking and writing. There’s no possible way I could scour all the Western world’s publications to find the mosaic of articles highlighted here.

— Wikipedia (wikipedia.com): This is an astonishing resource for the rapid retrieval of basic information about everything, including Nevada and Las Vegas subjects. Never mind the purists who question Wikipedia’s accuracy. Nothing is perfect, but Wikipedia’s system tends to get the basic facts right.

Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have become part of my world relatively recently. They have their uses, but for me the Internet’s primary attraction remains free and easy access to the world’s vast stores of knowledge.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal’s director of community publications. His column appears Friday. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/geoffschumacher.

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