by Russell Handy
In 1972, the first documented e-mail message was sent. Of course, it was sent on APRAnet, whose chief function was to allow the military to maintain their computer systems in the event of a world-war. This was more than a year before the development of transmission communication protocol and Internet protocol (TCP-IP) and almost five years before the development of File Transfer Protocol (FTP). Thus, unless you were a Defense Department employee, you were not sending or receiving e-mail. We have come a long way.
Today, in the universe of online communications, hundreds of thousands of pieces of e-mail are sent daily. More than that--with the development of multimedia technology--we have developed an interactive digital universe that engulfs the user in the blanket of the sights, sounds, and symbols known affectionately as the "Internet." The prevalent use of the word Internet is technically incorrect: the Internet was the network of networks originally connected to the NSFNet. The "Internet" now represents the entire digital universe of online communications.
Amazingly, although the development of this digital universe has taken 27 years, the last 3 years have seen a revolution of epic proportions. It is no small wonder that the global community has been swept off of its feet as of late. Until 1993, users of the Internet were limited to transmissions of text. Then the bomb was dropped. The bomb was called Mosaic. Developed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), Mosaic was the first graphical-user interface (GUI). Now, pictures as well as text could be transmitted, and the effect was extraordinary.
Retailers and information providers have taken front seat when it comes to discussions about the power and influence of the Internet. But the psychological empowerment of the individual is relatively overlooked. An interactive digital universe has unparalleled potential when it comes to the human psyche.
Artist Robert Sapien displays a painting titled: "Wasteland," at the Monterose Museum of Fine Art. This painting depicts two shadowy figures whose forms are blended into the couches they sit upon. The figures are done in a charcoalish color. In the forefront and in vibrant color is a television. On top of the television is a McDonald's bag and cup. The painting symbolizes what sociologists have recognized as a valid threat. The technological revolution has changed the face of American culture. The average American watches 6 hours of TV a day; almost 38% of their waking hours. We are inundated with mass commercialization, which often reinforces sexism and racism, and exalts form over substance. Our homes are penetrated with a one-way stream of messages.
The Internet promises to change that. Two-way interaction in a multimedia environment has begun to revolutionize the way we interact with our world. With 150 million personal computers around the world (and the numbers growing rapidly) and telephone jacks as ubiquitous as front doors, the Internet connects people. Ironically, this developing digital universe acts as a counter to the threat depicted in Sapien's "Wasteland." With e-mail and the development of IRC's (Internet Relay Chat) we see the creation of a world stripped of culturally erected artificial barriers. When one is communicating online with someone known only as "Dart23" one is forced to engage that person on the basis of his/her communicative ability. Race, age, gender, sex-appeal, and a host of other insidious prejudices do not taint the interaction. Thus, the very things that have been exalted by mass commercialization techniques have no bearing on personal interaction in the digital universe (yet).
Psychologists say that a forum for expression is necessary for emotional health. The Internet certainly provides this forum. Message boards, chat groups and the like allow people to express themselves. Mark Martinez, a reporter for a digital mutual fund information company (FundWorks, Inc.), commented that "online system users really feel like their opinion and commentary has effect--and it probably does. What other medium gives 'the audience' personal, immediate, and ongoing access to the author?"
One of the amazing things about the digital universe is that one can "sign-on" and almost immediately find and develop a relationship with a class of friends who share common beliefs, opinions, or interests.
Additionally, the Internet provides unheralded access to information of amazingly diverse breadth and depth. The adage rings true: information is power. Thus, the Internet empowers individuals. It heralds a counter-cultural move away from the one-way inundation of mass-media influence. It allows a forum for individual expression and serious, non-stereotypical, interaction with the minds and hearts of un-compartmentalized individuals. And, all this accompanies incredible databases of information just a few keystrokes away.
Those of us who are involved in the legal issues surrounding this form of telecommunication--whether it be intellectual property rights, contract negotiation, constitutional freedom concerns, use-regulation, or another of the many legal facets--are fortunate. We are involved in a revolution. We contribute to the process of bringing those charcoal figures of the "Wasteland" to the light and life of the digital universe.