PCP – Internet

Yuhan Lin - 1A ECE
Posted on: November 6, 2016

If you were to choose the one aspect of our modern society that is most definitive of the times in which we live, what would it be? The possible answers are many, ranging from the machines that drive our endless lines of manufactured products, to the countless cars that zoom across city roads, to the globalized adoption of cultures and ideas from around the world. The world, as it is today, is a culmination of numerous changes and revolutions built atop one another, and almost all of these had been the result of human innovation. As such, the most definitive way to quantify any such innovation is to determine the degree by which society advanced as a result. By this criterion, two novel aspects of human civilization are of particular importance: the prominence of complex industrial processes responsible for building everything around us, and the interconnected nature of our world. These respectively result from the Industrial Revolution and the building of the internet, two innovations which rival one another as revolutions of human society.

Before we begin comparing these two revolutions, however, I would like to make a point regarding the analysis of innovations in general. When comparing any two chronologically dissimilar innovations of any significance, it is tempting to claim that the older one is more important because the newer one would not have occurred without it. While this is perfectly true, fully employing this logic would only serve to stymie the discussion, as almost every innovation is built on top of the previous ones. With that line of thinking, we will simply value ideas and discoveries by their oldness without considering the individual impacts of each one. As such, this comparison will only take into account the difference between society before and society after each innovation and ignore other separate innovations that may have followed as a result. This assumption will serve to isolate the analysis of each innovation and its merits.

Despite its singular name, the Industrial Revolution refers to a series of new inventions built between 1760 and 1840 that changed the fields of manufacturing, textile, and transportation for years to come. The key inventions of the revolution were mechanical cotton spinners and looms, the steam engine, and the use of charcoal for ironmaking. The steam engine in particular was a pivotal tool throughout the revolution, as it introduced a power source of unprecedented efficiency. The later innovations of steam-powered ships, trains, looms, and even factories were all based upon this single invention. The internet, on the other hand, came into prominence in a much shorter period of time. Its first instance came in the form of ARPANET, a private network between military and university computers commissioned by the US military in the 1950s. This was followed by the creation of the World Wide Web network by Tim Berners-Lee of CERN in 1989, which was eventually adopted for public use in the early 90s. This novel method of allowing near-instant interaction between computers on a network quickly exploded in popularity, creating the phenomenon that is now the internet that we know and love.

In regards to the advancements brought on by the Industrial Revolution and the internet, it is safe to say that their primary merit was the speeding up of existing processes. After all, trains and ships had already existed far before the 18th century, but new steam engines allowed them to travel far faster. The same can be said for the internet, which can be seen as a means of universally expediting all communication by allowing near-instantaneous exchanges across long distances. The difference, however, lies in which aspects of life were sped up. On one hand, the Industrial Revolution was responsible for a significant increase in the efficiency of industrial and mechanical processes. This increase in speed quickly spread to other aspects of civilization, such as transportation, trade volume, and even the availability of low-paying but abundant work in the newly built factories. However, many other aspects remained relatively untouched. Policing, education, and entertainment, along with many others, all experienced little direct change as a result of industrialization. As such, though the impacts of the Industrial Revolution were numerous and dramatic, they were mostly economical in nature and left much else untouched.

On the other hand, the popular adoption of the internet during a time when computers were commonplace in every household allowed for nothing short of an astronomical increase in all aspects of communication. All of a sudden, every person was capable of disseminating as much information as they want to anybody else in the blink of an eye, regardless of proximity. And unlike industrial processes, there are absolutely no limits on what can be affected by communication. Economics, politics, security, education, and even entertainment have, like every other human activity, strong ties to the spread of information. The ability for a single idea to instantly become available to all, on-demand, is an unprecedented power with implications far beyond the technology of the internet itself. Now, the impact of every lesson, every news story, and even every cat video is greater than ever before, as their effects can now be felt by the whole world. Thus, the information revolution brought forth by the internet is essentially a revolution in every other field as well. By revolutionizing the very essence of all human activity, the internet has directly transformed the way civilization operates at a breadth far beyond what was accomplished during the industrial revolution.

In this comparison between two of the most impactful innovations in human history, we defined the measure of revolutionary capacity for any innovation as the degree to which its fruition was able to advance mankind. Under this criterion, one must consider the direct impact of these innovations on all aspects of human civilization. As such, it is most reasonable, in my view, to consider the internet the more revolutionary of the two innovations due to its astronomical impact on the way people communicated, which in turn revolutionized every other human activity. Thus, for the same reason why the written word is considered by some to be the most important invention for human survival, the internet proves to be the most important invention for human advancement.