In the 1990s the personal computer revolution turned into the social computer
revolution. The thrill of having sophisticated computer power on your desktop
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.