The Internet is becoming invisible. That's how we know it has truly arrived. In much of America, the Internet is turning into something like household current, a humdrum fact of life. Technologies are mature when they cease to be a major part of a person's consciousness -- when the wires aren't just hidden in the walls, they're completely forgotten, no more remarkable than the oxygen in the air.

(I don't even know what kind of electricity I have in my house. I just know the brand is Pepco.)

There remains, I must quickly note, a serious digital divide. There are tens of millions of people who have yet to send their first E-mail message. There are schools with no computers, or old computers, or computers with no technical support. This is not a long-term problem -- it's an immediate crisis, made urgent by the rapidity with which the Internet has been adopted by so many Americans. link to post story by richard drezen from may 17 If you're a committed Luddite, you can still get away with avoiding the Net, or computers altogether. But if you're a student, not having Internet access at this point is like not having any books.

(Use of the Internet is surging by the minute. Traffic on the Net doubles every 100 days. A survey by BellSouth and Emory University, the results of which were reported earlier this week, showed that 48 percent of Americans now have Internet access, a number that is increasing dramatically every month.)

It's hard to say when the Internet reached maturity. In 1994? Or was it 1997? Or was it last week? Whenever it was, it has now happened, and it has happened faster than almost anyone thought it would.

"The typical pattern for technology to penetrate in society is usually 20 or 25 years," says Bill Raduchel, chief technology officer for America Online. "Color television took 25 years -- and the Internet did it in five."

He says, "I used to stand up at conferences, year after year after year, and ask the question, `Is the Internet underhyped or overhyped?', and inevitably the audience would say it was overhyped."

An editor here saved a story from June 1995 quoting analysts and money managers saying Internet companies were a bad investment.

"I think the Internet access providers are going to make a big hole in the ground," said one expert who is no doubt at this moment selling umbrellas outside the New York Stock Exchange.

I certainly shared that skepticism. For years I had a strict policy of mocking the Internet whenever possible. I've already reported, [see MY COLUMN OF OCT. 25] but will note again, that I interviewed Steve Case about five years ago and returned to the office with the confident declaration that there was nothing there worth writing about. The Net in the mid-1990s seemed to be bog of gibberish, a waste of time, the land of File Not Found. It might be good for starting an online cult but it wasn't that useful for getting a piece of accurate information.

Part of this is cultural resistance. Reporters are not naturally technological, for the most part. One does not want to enthuse excessively over a system of wires and fibers -- it's too cold and synthetic. And the greed fueling the industry can be odious. It's easy, in many cases, to root for these would-be billionaires to fail, and fail spectacularly.

What we didn't see was the demand for the technology, the craving for bandwidth. We underestimated what people would be willing to buy, the extent to which they would want to spend hours and hours online, chatting, surfing, instant messaging.

Everything converged: Suddenly, in a few years, personal computers were ubiquitous, the government allowed the Internet to be used for commercial purposes, and the telecommunications industry created a vast network based on optical fiber. Plus the relatively simple language of Internet communication, the protocol for writing code, was easily handled and adapted by programmers everywhere.

"What you had here was the harmonic conversion, if you will, of several things," says Paul Saffo, the oft-quoted sage of the Institute for the Future.

The Internet can trace its origins to the 1960s, but for decades only academics and computer geeks had much use for it. Many of us remember using the proprietary, closed systems of Compuserve and Prodigy in the 1980s, before it became possible to send an E-mail from one system to another across the Net. Even in the early 1990s the technology was clunky. The World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, and couple of years later the first graphics browsers began to pop up, including Mosaic, but it wasn't until Netscape appeared in 1994 that it became easy to surf the Web.

I asked one of the people who helped invent the Internet -- Vincent Cerf -- when he realized his creation would become something huge. He said 1988. This is a man who was involved in the development of ARPANET, an Internet precursor, in the late 1960s. He also created MCI Mail in the early 1980s. Even so, he didn't see the Internet taking off. Finally, one day in 1988, he went to a trade show called INTEROP. He was amazed by how many companies were showing off their plans for the Internet. "I was stunned by the size of the exhibits," he says. He turned to a friend and asked how much the exhibits cost. The friend said $250,000, maybe $500,000.

Cerf recalls, "I simply stopped dead in my tracks. `Someone must think this is going to be worth something!` I thought."

Cerf may be right about 1988. The first mention of the Internet in The Washington Post was on Nov. 4, 1988. [see a Philip Hilts story that ran that day on A1.] Twelve years later, almost everyone in my office uses the Internet routinely, blithely, without pausing to consider how remarkable it is that we can access within seconds a piece of information that may be stored on a server in the basement of a library on some other continent.

Increasingly, people don't talk about having Internet access, or going online -- that's implicit in whatever else they're saying. To call attention to the process of going online would be like having a discussion about this incredible technology you've discovered in your mouth, called your tongue.

Even the term "the Internet" is started to feel antiquated -- it sounds so 1995. Soon, "wireless" will cease to be a buzzword. The type of wire, pipe, cable, or free-air light beam will cease to be all that interesting. There will simply be a communications network. You will be able to get any piece of information from anyone in the world and reroute it anywhere else, almost instantly. The technology for transmitting data improves even more rapidly than the processing speed on computer chips -- the bandwidth is said to be doubling every nine months.

(I find myself using the word "bandwidth" now, and feel the mounting urge to say "megabit" and "gigabit" and "terabit" as though these are normal words like "tree" and "rock" and "bunny." I've learned the meaning of the word "photonics," and now, like many techies, believe the most important fundamental particle in the communications industry of the future will be the photon, not the electron. You know your world has changed, has become more innately technological, when a distinction like that strikes you as interesting.)


Technology does not define our lives. It shouldn't be the centerpiece of our personal narrative. It's more of a medium, a mechanism, through which we interact with others and move ourselves from one point to another. One doesn't want to overstate its importance. That said, there's no doubt that the invention of the transistor, the coming of the computer, the transition from analog to digital technology, has profoundly changed our lives.

Many of us remember growing up with a party-line telephone. Pick up the handset and, instead of hearing a dial tone, you'd hear strangers on the line. Try to call later. When you did get a long-distance call it was a big deal, an event, implicitly an expensive moment, the meter running, the voices often faint, static on the line. That the call had been successfully routed through all those switches and along all those wires over hundreds or thousands of miles was something that we deeply appreciated.

Now you can call anywhere in the country for pennies a minute, and the person on the other end is as clear as if he or she were next door -- and you don't even feel compelled anymore to note it. (When was the last time you said, "Wow, you sound like you're right next door!" I'm guessing it was way back in 1996.) When the phone rings, it's no longer a big deal -- it's some jerk trying to sell you a credit card.

The moral of the story is that technology will continue to change our lives, and there will come a day when we look back upon the way we live now and chuckle that things were so primitive. (You mean you had to PAY for long-distance phone calls?) In a few years it may seem odd that our personal computer and television were once separate boxes. Telecommuting could give way to holocommuting -- we'll send our holograms to the office to meet with our bosses.

When biotechnology enters the picture things could get even stranger. We'll have phone jacks in our skulls. We'll have computer chips installed that instantly translate any other language into our native tongue. Maybe there will come a day when people fragment into multiple consciousnesses. They become stereo at first, then 8-track, then 24-track. The individual becomes a launching pad for a MIRVed mind.

An engineer told me that it will be possible someday, in theory at least, for every person on the planet to communicate simultaneously over a single strand of optical fiber. A single planetary conference call! One person speak at a time, please. ("Shaddap, I'm TAWKIN' here." "No, YOU shaddap.")

In a thousand years we may reach the final convergence. Ten billion minds join together in a single protracted conversation. Information is fully and equally distributed and processed. The bandwidth becomes infinite. Through beams of light we link to civilizations on other worlds. The Earthmind goes galactic, and finally, inevitably, joins the great cosmic intelligence.

And that's where the story of civilization would end -- in the ultimate party-line phone call.

(Rough Draft appears certain days of the week at 1 p.m. at, and, for those not yet online, is simultaneously shouted from a window on the fifth floor of the Washington Post headquarters.)