The Internet Turns 20

5 MINS READMay 1, 2013 | 04:02 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

The United States is successful, in part, because of its geography, which includes a wealth of navigable rivers overlaid with contiguous farmland. In the same way geography shapes societies, it also shapes individuals, since an individual's behavior is largely dictated by where he comes from. Although geography remains in many ways constant, technologies can change foundational geographic principles. The printing press gave the lower classes access to information previously only available to the elite. The telegraph allowed messages to be delivered in a new, more efficient way, not just on horseback. Blue water navies enabled the rise of globalized trade, and the Panama Canal created a mid-latitude connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.

The Internet is one of the most recent examples of a technology that fundamentally changes the way humans communicate and organize themselves, thus loosening some of the constant constraints under which nations and individuals had previously operated. Tuesday marked the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web becoming public. The technology was developed in its most primitive form in the 1950s as a U.S. government project, but it was not until 1993 that the tools became available free of charge to the public. Since then, the Internet has rapidly developed. Indeed, the technology has been integrated into most aspects of life; it has changed how people communicate, how economies operate and how societies function.

Throughout history, technological, scientific and philosophical advances have resulted from the exchange of ideas and information over distances. The Internet has accelerated this exchange. No single person or organization could handle the sheer volume and breadth of the information available on the Internet and the speed at which it multiplies and evolves. It is by necessity a cooperative effort. The Internet thus diffuses intellectual progress, making good ideas available alongside bad. The rapid exchange of information increases the likelihood of new discoveries and the speed of development. Once a problem is identified, if all the people working on it are able to easily exchange information and easily report progress, the problem gets solved faster. These advances have been made in numerous fields, including healthcare, space exploration and the development of new energy sources. At the same time, the Internet makes it easier to access copyrighted information, which can cause legal problems between countries with different intellectual property standards. It also allows for the spread of terror tradecraft and the proliferation of magazines like Inspire that can increase the ease of carrying out attacks such as the recent Boston bombing.

The Internet has had profound effects on global commerce, signaling a revolution in the production and flow of goods and services. For example, the Internet has fundamentally changed how global supply chains operate. Previously, retailers had to predict what consumers would demand in order to ensure sufficient supplies. However, the advent of the Internet has allowed for increased efficiency and thus lower costs in the supply chain. It has increased profits and enhanced flexibility. E-commerce has also made products available to a wider market, allowed smaller companies to better integrate into the global supply chain and introduced greater specialization into the service sectors. At the same time, the Internet has added a new dimension to global illicit trade and money laundering.

The Internet eliminates some of the security guaranteed by physical geographic borders. Electronic controls are now used in many key infrastructural and security elements, from power plants and electrical grids to military satellites, thus introducing a new level of vulnerability. Cyberwarfare is the chosen mode of battle of the 21st century. The Stuxnet attack on Iran is one example of just how powerful this tactic can be against nations' key programs. As governments and global businesses embrace the rapid development of devices that promote constant connectivity to broader networks, vulnerability to theft of information, disruption of daily activities or destruction of property increases.

The rapid exchange of information also has a profound impact on public perception. Throughout history, the written word and the dissemination of information has fueled debates over censorship and the problem of distinguishing public opinion from fact. The prevalence of social networking and constant communication through outlets such as Twitter allows for the rapid spread of both information and opinions. With the Internet, only the volume of data has changed. Because nothing and no one vets this flow of data, rumors spread just as quickly as facts. 

Still, the Internet has an undeniable impact on public opinion and has become a vital tool for spreading information and gathering public support. This public opinion and support can shape political decision-making on national and international levels. Even where infrastructure is isolated from interconnection, the information-sharing capacity inherent to the Internet opens up new frontiers of vulnerabilities. Where Internet communication shapes a society's understanding of what constitutes a fact, the manipulation of facts has profound global implications. Geography has an important influence on the behavior of nations. But it is just as important to recognize when technology has the potential to alter the map.

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