What is the Internet to You?

I have a simple question:  How do you classify digital networking?

I ask because I think we are at a critical juncture in our society.  The idea of "being connected" is foreign to some folks and completely natural to others.  In my personal life, I have found that this split seems to heavily correlate with age.  The younger you are, the more you "get" the idea of a digital network ("The Internet" to most folks), while the older you are the more likely you will view it as an unnecessary and frivolous endeavor.

I submit my grandmother — born in the early 1920's, growing up in the Great Depression, and putting a husband and children through WWII — and me — born in 1983, witnessing the end of the cold war, and watching a US President get impeached for his sexual appetite — as a canonical example of this age spectrum.

My grandmother does not use digital networking at all.  Email?  Nope.  "Send me a letter, Kevin."  Local politics?  She reads the morning paper and calls her scrapbooking friends.  Calendar?  Thank goodness she lives with my aunt.  For television, despite the cable discretely plugged in the back, she thinks of "rabbit ears."

Then there is me.  I eat, sleep, and breathe the Internet.  Before I wake up, my computer downloads a stream from an internet radio station for use as my alarm clock.  I check my email before I even get out of bed.  I do not own a radio, so during breakfast I stream news from NPR.  I download daily podcasts to my iShuffle for the bike to work.  I email back and forth all day, and check the status of multiple online projects and blogs.  I download large files hourly via bittorrent.  Other days I work remotely from home.  In the evenings, I stream Chuck, Heroes, and Arrested Development (TV shows) via Hulu, while I chat via IRC (instant messaging).  My phone service is completely Internet dependent as I use VoIP.  I depend heavily on digital networking.

What I do on the Internet — and why I choose to do it there — is lost on my grandmother.  For me, however, the Internet is like infrastructure.  I barely think about it when it is working well, but boy do I notice it when it is gone.  Kind of like power from my outlets, the water in my pipes, and the hot water for my shower.

A couple of months ago I pondered why the Internet is ingrained in my life.  What does being constantly connected do for me?  Is it email?  I could write more letters.  Is it streaming radio?  Maybe I should buy a receiver.  And podcasts?  I really should not be biking while wearing headphones anyway.  Remotely working from home?  I could suck it up and just go to work.

But what do these activities all have in common, and why do I feel I could not replace them?  I finally realized the unifying thread: communication.  Networking is communication — fast communication — and communication is absolutely essential.  I cannot replace my email activities with letters and phone calls; it would be monetarily and temporally prohibitive.  The ability to work from home is necessary in my line of work; I access and administrate computers across the globe on a daily basis.  I develop an operating system with people all over the US; the most economical way to transfer the large files involved is a daily bittorrent.

We are social creatures and communication is very important to us.  Extended-distance communication is a problem we have tried to solve since the dawn of time.  In recent memory, however, we have postal mail — the mental image of waiting by the mailbox is still strong in our collective minds.  Then Alex Bell gave us the phone — we share a 60's, pastel-colored mental-image of a fifteen year-old girl waiting expectantly by the phone.  Now we are in a new era of "You've got mail!"  It's better because it's faster.  It's better because it's cheaper.  It's better because it's much more versatile than just the medium on which it operates.  It's a revolutionary technology.

The way I see it, the Internet is a fundamental medium in how today's world works.  Consequently, I believe we should treat it as such.  Like water, sewer, and power, it should be part of our infrastructure.

So I repeat: How do you classify digital networking?


As a new parent I think a lot about the transition of time from one generation to another. A area where this is most tense is technology. Paper and printing presses are technology. Books are technology. Computers are technology and so is the Internet.

How can older generations think about the future when they plan resources such as communications infrastructure? You know how long it can take to plan and build. Who is thinking about what the far future will be like for young children? What are our local elected officials doing to lay foundations for a fast Internet communications future?

We all have to be futurists. Even if we may not live to see all of it.

I think bandwidth is a very important goal for the future of the US. Already Japan residents are connected at much higher bandwidth rates than the US. This increased band width capability will stimulate quicker innovation and spur economic growth. If we innovate in America hopefully the jobs that come with the innovation will stay in America for our children to fill.Our children must be connected in order to do business in the future. On the other hand it can take over your life. I try to limit my connectivity related to work when I am at home. I have found in the past with working at home it becomes hard to figure out when I am at home vs when I am at work. Your job can turn into a 24 by 7 thing if you let it. Also some people don't have the knowledge, skills or desire to get connected so I believe old method of communicating should still be available.

My stepson Byron was in town last week from Portland, OR.  Since he and his wife  don't have a telephone landline and don't subscribe to cable TV, we had a long discussion about how they do their internet browsing -- and being young and well-educated in high-tech stuff, they are heavy internet users.  In summary, here is what he reported.The city of Portland tried, unsuccessfully, to provide a WiFi service all over the city by installing wireless transmitters everywhere.  It didn't work because the transmitters weren't powerful enough and wouldn't reach well into the buildings, even homes made of wood.  To make it work at all, customers had to buy little amplifiers and put them in their windows.  Eventually the city bailed out of the service.A private company, Clear Communications, intalled "Clear" WiMax service  all over the city and its suburbs.  They transmit from the cell towers and other high towers and buildings, but I am not clear (bad pun) whether they use the actual cell phone channels or whether they install their own antennae and use a different set of frequencies.  It works beautifully.  There are various payment plans, but Byron chose the $40 per month option.  He said it works flawlessly and reliably, anywhere in the house or outside that he takes his laptop, and it is very fast.  There are no special boxes to install in the house, nothing equal to our cable modem or my DSL internet box, and contemporary laptops come equipped to use the Clear service without any  additional hardware or software.  Desktop computers may or may not require an additional internet card, depending on the model.It has never been clear to me (just can't resist the puns today) that Chapel Hill should provide this service.   The town, not an all-electric city, doesn't have electrical engineering expertise, and has little to do with any of the wires (electric, phone, cable TV) that grace our utility poles.  That is not to say that I am happy with the state of wires in the town; to the contrary I believe that we are over-run with ugly wires due to our state laws and frankly the town's lake of backbone (yet one more pun) in dealing with the utility companies.  


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