In the 1990s the personal computer revolution turned into the social computer

revolution. The thrill of having sophisticated computer power on your desktop

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turned out to be just the beginning, once your machine could connect to everyone

else's via telephone lines. There is a global computer the size of humanity

taking shape. Now that everybody can publish their own interests to a world

audience on the Net, we learn irreversibly that the world is far stranger and

more interesting that we would ever guess from magazines, books and broadcast

media. Our sense of the world is altered and, oddly enough, in an optimistic

direction. Two simple-seeming devices -- search engines and links -- have made

search-space on the Internet more exciting than outer space. It is more current

and diverse than any encyclopedia, and it's inhabited with real people. However

remote-seeming your query with a search service like Alta Vista, within minutes

you find yourself on the home page of someone who has made that subject their

life's obsession. What he or she has to say raises questions you would never

have thought to ask. And they provide links to even more astounding sources. Web

surfers experience a giddy sensation of boundless variety and boundless

possibility. How the world talks to itself is permanently changed. In the

jargon, it has shifted from one-to-one (telephone) and one-to-many (broadcast)

to many-to-many (the Net). Power is taken from the editors and distributors in

huge over-cautious corporations and handed to no-longer-passive, radical

everyone. Individuals on the Net initiate and control content to suit themselves

and those they can interest. (This makes governments nervous.) The Net is an

antidote to broadcast news. The news tells you about a shocking earthquake and

you're depressed. The Net gives you the people who are helping the earthquake

victims and provides firsthand reports: "I was out in the garden when it

hit, and I noticed that suddenly the ground was covered with earthworms."

Some have described most activity on the Net as merely "vanity

publishing" or "advertising." Those are left-over broadcast terms

whose meaning is changed in the Net environment. Grass-roots

"advertising" is what assembles new communities of interest and whole

new ecologies of knowledge. If we had any idea how wildly interesting

"vanity publishing" could be when it is cheap and plentiful, we would

never have condemned it.