WORLDBEAT - Volcano-top thoughts on an Internet world

Martyn Williams reflects on how the Internet has changed lives over the past 15 years

The top of the Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii is quite a contrast with the beaches and warm water that surround this island in the Pacific. Here at 4,200 meters there's still a deep covering of snow, and temperatures plunge below zero as soon as the sun goes down.

Those certainly aren't the kinds of conditions that draw millions of tourists to Hawaii each year, but the clean air and clear night skies at the top of Mauna Kea attract astronomers, both amateur and professional. With 13 telescopes, the volcano top makes up the world's largest observatory for optical, infrared and submillimeter wave astronomy.

The technology at the volcano top amid the harsh weather reminded me of the differences the Internet has made to many lives in the past 15 years.

Back in 1993 when I first logged onto the Internet, it was, of course, quite different from today. Nevermind the hours it took me to configure Trumpet Winsock networking on Windows 3.1 so it would connect to a TCP/IP network -- connections were slow, PCs were slower, and Yahoo was a few thousand pages of links. But that didn't stop me from logging on.

In those days, some of my favorite destinations were the US FTP (File Transfer Protocol) and telnet services that allowed access to satellite weather images and pictures from the types of telescopes that sit atop Mauna Kea today. There was something so cool about logging onto those sites so far away and downloading the images onto my own computer. It made me feel like I was a hacker in some futuristic movie or something.

Today, mobile phone signals can be received at the top of Mauna Kea, so a hook-up with a laptop computer means it's possible to directly access images coming from some of the telescopes. After light travels millions of light years to reach Earth and the image sensors in the telescope, electrons carry that image through servers, and then after a quick hop across the cellular network, it's in my PC.

The contrast was bouncing around in my head thanks to research I recently completed about the early days of Yahoo. Checking out old home pages through the Internet Archive brought back a flood of memories of my first couple of years accessing the World Wide Web through the NCSA Mosaic Web browser and the pages I used to visit.

Certainly, the romance is gone these days, and the Internet has turned into a utility that we expect almost everywhere -- at least in rich, developed nations.

A report published last month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) underlined the contribution to our lives that the Internet has made and the potential contribution it and other communications systems can make to the billions of people who remain off the grid. Around 80 per cent of the world's population lacks Internet access, but people are quickly coming online. As a result, the average daily salary of new users is about US$2, said the Paris-based organization.

The stage is now set for these people to take advantage of the same benefits the Internet and other communications have brought in the past decade.

Back up on the top of Mauna Kea, as the sun set, amateur astronomers got ready to enjoy a night of stargazing. Despite all of the advances the Internet has brought, giving us access to the heavens courtesy of the bigger telescopes here, there's nothing like the view in person.

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Martyn Williams

IDG News Service
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