A global network of computers (also known as the World-Wide Web) which allows instantaneous access to an expanding number of individual Web sites offering information about practically anything and everything-including the contents of daily newspapers, the price of goods in local shopping malls, library holdings, commodity prices, sports news and gossip, eroticism, and so-called chat-rooms (by means of which people can communicate with each other on-line about their interests, hobbies, and opinions).
The Internet is a product of the Cold War. It was originally developed by the Government of the United States during the 1970s as a means of sharing information and protecting communications in the event of a nuclear attack. During the 1980s it developed quickly, first into an academic exchange network, then as a means of mass electronic communication available in principle to anyone having access to a personal computer and a telephone line. In 1995 approximately 1 million people were using the Web. Two years later this total had reached an estimated 40 million. Between 1993 and 1997 the number of accessible pages on the Web grew from around 130,000 to more than 30 million. Most sites offer free access. (Pornographic ‘clubs’ are a rare exception since membership usually carries a monthly or annual charge.)
Most users find information by using one of many ‘search engines’ that are available. These are fast computers which produce organized lists of relevant Web sites in response to a query about particular topics or key-words. For example, typing in the name of a multinational corporation (such as ‘Nissan’) will generate dozens of sites giving information about the company's current products, economic performance, manufacturing capacity, retailing outlets, and so forth. Many of these will be ‘official’, being maintained by the company or its agents, but some will be unofficial sites supported by Nissan enthusiasts.
Use of the Internet continues to grow rapidly all over the world. The social implications of this are contested. It has been argued that the Internet is the greatest technological development of the twentieth century, comparable in importance to (say) the invention of printing, or even of electricity. It could change the way economies function, for example by depressing prices (as customers increasingly have the facility to search the globe for the cheapest products), holding down wages (some tasks can be farmed out electronically to cheap labour-markets ), or making it possible for people to work from home. There are companies which subcontract routine administrative work (such as maintaining their personnel records) via the Internet to Third World agencies which can pay computer staff lower wages than would be required in the West. Increasingly, it is possible to shop on-line (for example to buy airline tickets direct from airlines), and this may affect the structure of retailing. Some forecasts suggest that the resulting so-called technological deflation may depress prices by as much as 25 or 30 per cent over the next decade.
There are also more than 3,500 sites where one can search for a job. This is said to be affecting the US labour-market, since people on the East Coast can explore vacancies in the West that they otherwise would not be aware of, and vice versa. The increasing availability of digital products (including on-line magazines and films) may lead to an under-recording of economic activity by conventional measures (such as Gross National Product ) and may make it difficult for governments to collect certain taxes. Some observers maintain that the existence of the Web makes totalitarian regimes less likely to succeed, because the effects of propaganda can readily be countered by accessing alternative sources of information on the Web, and it has even been suggested that this will make new forms of participatory democracy possible in the near future.
Sceptics argue that much of the information available on the Internet is trivial. They also point out that global ‘Netizenship’ is restricted to those who can afford a personal computer, a modem to link it to the world's telephone lines, and who can then pay the associated running costs. It is estimated that in Britain, for example, fewer than 2 million people have PCs (as compared to 22 million households which have television sets). More than 96 per cent of Internet sites are located in the most affluent 27 nations. Fluency in English is virtually a prerequisite of Net use. This information revolution could therefore be creating a new international division of the world into a small group of ‘information-rich’ countries and individuals and a dispossessed majority who will be excluded from this particular form of power . The computers which serve the system also seem to be permanently on the edge of collapsing under the weight of demand. New capacity constantly has to be installed. Users often complain of information overload.
At the time of writing, there are signs that some of these shortcomings may be overcome by the mass production of cheap ‘network computers’ (which do not contain expensive components such as hard drives), and by making television the key medium through which the Web is accessed. This may make the Internet a truly universal and affordable source of information. If the problem of finding a secure method for payment of goods bought over the Web is also solved then the prospects for transforming retailing and other markets will also be dramatically enhanced. On the history of the Internet, and its possible implications for the organization of work, leisure, and politics, see, Cultures of Internet (1996). See also cybersociety ; telecommuting.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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