Five myths and truths regarding the Internet

This was written in 1995.

Philip Elmer-Dewitt, writing for TIME Magazine's special issue on "cyberspace", claims that the Internet is largely a waste of time (no pun intended, presumably) [1]. Cliff Stoll, author of The Cuckoo's Egg and Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Superhighway, seems to be bothered by the fact that he can't plant a tomato garden online [2]. Greg Blonder argues in Wired Magazine that we must hasten our own evolution through genetic engineering to make sure we stay ahead of computers in terms of intelligence [3]. Who do you listen to and believe?

A profound revolution is coming about in terms of how a collection of individuals should interact with each other. "Yeah?", you say, "it's old news." It is, but the mainstream media have gotten their act together and realised this only a short while ago. What they say and do is going to influence, to some degree, millions of people all over the world on how this revolution will take place. Will it be a draconian system full of laws, or an Utopian anarchy with the freedom to do whatever we wish, or, perhaps, a mix of the two leading to a system that is useless, nonproductive, and stagnant forever (much like our current political systems)?

The media has been touting the Internet as the greatest communication tool for about a year now. But like with everything else, the imminent backlash to the Internet's fame is now becoming visible, especially in Stoll's latest Silicon Snake Oil. Given the frustration seen on the various newsgroups about how the media distorts issues on the Internet, I thought I might as well do the same thing since I have the power to reach millions of people via this medium. Thus I address what I consider a subset of the myths of the Internet that has been largely perpetuated by mainstream media, and discuss what I think are few of the actual truths.


Myth #1: The Internet is mainly the Web or USENET. Most news articles focus on these aspects of the Internet. For example, in the TIME Welcome to Cyberspace Editoral, Philip Elmer-Dewitt focuses only on USENET and the Web [1]. TIME is not the only magazine that does this---almost all focus when the media refers to the net is on the two entities listed above. This is the primary reason why people have a skewed perspective of the Internet as a "waste of time". The actual networking nature of the Internet is ignored. Consider this: I email an amino acid sequence to a remote server and I get the secondary structure of the protein predicted. I download a map of the weather using FTP and display it as the background of my screen. I run a job on a remote machine many thousand miles away using a remote shell (which you normally need an account for). I could go on, but the point is that none of these activities involve the Web or USENET. In fact, I'd argue most productive work on the Internet is accomplished outside of Web and USENET, including email.

Myth #2: The Internet is not as good as the real world. This is Stoll's (and many other people's) objection to doing things over the Internet. But these are the same people who use microwaves, cellular phones, and other high-technology items every day of their lives. Suddenly they perceive the Internet, with its higher degree of interactiveness, as a threat whereas I see it as the most natural progression, that of integrating man with machine. I'd rather learn about dolphins using on-line info than see them objectified in an aquarium. Hopefully, this attitude will push technology to a point where we can perform frog dissections and other animals experiments virtually. Stoll's attitude, and other similar ones, are regressing back into the stone age.

Myth #3: Sex is a predominant issue on {USENET, Web, the Internet}. I don't have any exact statistics on this, but let's think about it for a minute. I have access to about 3000 newsgroups. Of this, 30 contain the word sex in their headers. A few of these discuss sexual abuse, coming to terms with sexuality, etc., and are thus more academic than pornographic (conversely there are some groups that don't have "sex" in their title but do get rather explicit). Out of the thousands of Web sites, I've run across very few that are pornographic in nature (definitely less than 0.01%). The number of FTP sites or mailing lists that are specifically about sex are lesser. In comparision I invariably see some sexual content in the average TV show/movie or magazine (some of the ads, for example, have gotten pretty graphic out there [4]). So a rough analysis would suggest that items with pornographic content are evident in less than 1% of the Internet. It's probably more prevalent in supermarket checkouts than on USENET newsgroups. Further, in some sites, access to newsgroups that are pornographic in nature are usually prohibited thus indicating local noninfringing censorship is possible.

Myth #4: The Internet should be censored so our children don't get corrupted. This is related to the previous myth, but it is actually given as a solution to an imaginary problem. As argued above, the average child can probably find instances of pornography in the real world far easier than they could on the Internet. The beautiful thing about the Internet is that a great deal of censorship (perhaps as much as that offered by policing) can be achieved at the local domain/host level. Have a problem with pornographic pictures or text? Don't carry the relevant groups. Similarly, measures that will allow for access of sites that are nonpornographic in nature can be built in locally (if really necessary). This "censorship" is not global and doesn't infringe on the freedom of someone who does think it is fine to view pornography. I personally think that even if you censor stuff on the Internet, children will find access to pornography in the real world from siblings and friends. It is sad to see that children remain the most oppressed people in this world.

Myth #5: The Internet is largely a waste of time. See my explanation to myth #1 for productive uses of the Internet. Sure, the Internet can be a waste of time, but so can other things in this world. There are a few primary reasons to use the Internet: entertainment, information, and using network capabilities to do productive stuff that you couldn't do otherwise (like running jobs on remote servers with greater computing power, etc.). The latter two are not something I consider a "waste of time". Neither is entertainment, but I would classify it as "nonproductive". Information is easy to find if one knows how. I have used the Internet to find out how to copyright my songs, in deciding what guitar effects processor I should buy and what is a good price for it, to find the best known algorithm for finding cliques in a graph (and actually obtaining the source of the algorithm that does this), and finally for communication and academic discussion. But the communication (social) part is not the only thing that is the basis of the Internet or the aspect that makes it special.

The communication revolution should be based not on how we talk to each other over the Internet, but how we use the Internet to do our work, to find what we need, to entertain ourselves, while there are millions of other people doing exactly the same thing. It is how individuals interact as they go about doing their own thing and not how a society functions as a collective.


Truth #1: The Internet has replaced other forms of news and entertainment media for many people in this world. This includes television, radio, movies, and print media. The interactive nature of the Internet is the key to this. The media usually cites bandwidth as being a problem, but the bandwidth problem is also overrated by the media. Bandwidth will always be stretched to its limits and our needs and uses will always be colinear with the bandwidth available. The truth is that the other forms of media are facing severe competition. As Elmer-Dewitt writes, "the Usenet newsgroups are, in their way, the perfect antidote to modern mass media." [1] It is not only USENET, but a combination of it and the actual raw information available via other sources and protocols like ftp, telnet, finger, Web, and email that is threatening the mass media/entertainment industry.

To this effect some organisations have tried to take advantage of the the Internet's ability to reach audiences far and wide. TIME's Pathfinder effort is quite impressive in terms of the interface, but the content is still bilge water. Right now, TIME's efforts are free but some day it might not be. It would be suicide to not make things free since people would then flock to independent publishers who make their creations free, have a better interface, and more information content. To quote Elmer-Dewitt again, it "offers the nearest thing to a level playing field." Perhaps this might actually forces companies like TIME to put out articles of higher quality than before.

An excellent publication that should be used as a guide by the mainstream media on how to write informative pieces is the net book The Netizens and the Wonderful World of the Net: An Anthology by Michael Hauben and Ronda Hauben.

Truth #2: The Internet is largely a waste of time and is nonproductive. This is true if the Internet were used only for entertainment and not to further one's knowledge. Also the use of bad tools (nonthreaded newsreaders with no kill file capability, slow www browsers, MS-Windows :) will contribute greatly to this. It is thus in the interests of everyone involved to disseminate information that will allow for users of the Internet to utilise it in a productive manner. Unfortunately, the mainstream media is focusing on the sensationalist hacker and pornographic aspect of the Internet instead of educating its audience.

Truth #3: Commercial entities and the government will eventually ruin the nature of the net. This, given human nature, seems like the way things are going. Too many people scream "slander" and "libel" when posts that could easily be ignored/kill filed are made. Too many people are quick to complain and whine about various perceived transgessions instead of handling the problems themselves. Commercial companies continue spamming the net without thought and introduce lots of noise in all forms of the Internet. This includes making propaganda posts on USENET and use of excessive interlaced graphics on www pages which simply are bandwidth hogs (the most annoying thing is sometimes one has to click through 2-3 images before any text can be read; this is ridiculous---people should learn to aesthetically merge images and text; not use showy graphics all the time).

But the biggest threat commercialisation and the government brings are the introduction of "rules". As is typical in modern mass society, I fear that regulations will be imposed upon the people using the net (whether they are made in "good faith" or not) to further the agendas of a select few people. This will eventually lead to the destruction of something wonderful and marvelous. Instead of having a medium where communication is free and unihinibited, where conventional ideas are questioned without fear, we will have what is seen in present society: political correctness, pseudopoliteness, and sheep-like compliance of laws without reasoning "why", all leading to the miserable state of humanity we see in the real world.

Truth #4: Ideas of the Internet as a "community", "cyberspace", are all inane. This is true because in order to ensure that no regulations are enforced, it is imperative that the individuals on the net think of themselves as such, and not as belonging to some organised community or society. This will simply lead to complacency and the need for rules and laws. Each individual must have the freedom to do whatever they please, and realise that they have such a freedom. There is no need for rules that take away a person's freedom (even the freedoms that harm other individuals) since almost any action can effectively be shielded and ignored on the net without global rules. Given the transient (you can move between locations), interchangeable (you can be in several locations at once under several guises), and almost anonymous (you can be as faceless as you want) nature of the Internet, notions of the community and culture are virtually (pun intended) impossible.

Truth #5: The Internet can be better than the real world. It can, purely from an individual perspective, as long as people can avoid getting stuck in a cultural rut, making rules that represent the thoughts of the people making them, and realising that with great freedom comes great responsibility. There is no reason to fear the Internet and computers in general. I see computers as the next step of human evolution. In [3], Greg Blonder argues that by the year 2090, computers will be twice as "intelligent" (he doesn't bother defining it) as humans and advises that we should do something so we are not left behind. While I do forsee this, not as soon as Blonder does, I think this is a natural progression. Evolution led to us, the perfect carriers for genes, having the ability to control the selection of our own genes. Does it matter if they now propagate digitally as a mass of electrons? I think this would be an ideal evolution since they would be transcending the limitations of a physical body [4].

And what better material to carry the information in our genetic code than silicon, which falls right under, i.e., in the same group as, carbon in the periodic table?


  1. TIME special issue on Cyberspace, Spring 1995
  2. Transcript of a radio interview with Cliff Stoll
  3. Wired, March 1995
  4. TIME's issue on Cyberporn has an illustration that could easily be considered pornographic!
  5. Genes, Computers, and Macromolecules are related by Strange Loops

Pseudointellectual ramblings || Ram Samudrala ||