Lecture given at the British Association's "Festival of Science", Newcastle upon Tyne, Sept. 1995. (Since I gave this lecture many of the pages pointed to have moved or disappeared - I have not attempted to keep the many links in the text up to date, but instead simply turned them into bold text..)
The Internet is hugely significant because of the (in many cases free) services provided by the computers that are linked by the Internet, and the amount and variety of interesting and/or important information they thus make available. (Note that by information I mean anything in digital form - text, pictures, music, movies, etc.)
The significance, and usage, of the Internet has been greatly enhanced by the freely-available easy-to-use software which can be used to explore and utilise the Internet. Paramount is the software that has been used to create, on top of the Internet, what is known as the World Wide Web.
Web users can view documents and databases held on computers all round the world as though their contents have been linked together into what appears to be a single very large document. This "document" can in fact include not just text, but also pictures, sound and video. Users can browse through it, copying or printing off anything of interest to them. They need not even be aware of the fact that multiple computers and computer networks are actually involved. Users "move" around the Internet merely by selecting and "clicking" on words or images that act as links, and so causing the replacement of the current page of information on their screen by the one that the link was pointing to.
The World Wide Web, or WWW as it is often called, originated at CERN and was publicly announced in 1992, but really took off in 1993 when graphical interface software (the Mosaic Web "browser") was developed by NCSA at the University of Illinois, and made available as freeware for UNIX, PCs and Apple Macintosh computers. The main growth was at first in the United States, but in the UK over the last year there has also been a dramatic growth: Growth of Web Browsing.
It is the Web that I am using as the source of illustrations that you see on the screen - some of them being actually held on a computer elsewhere in this building, others on various computers elsewhere in Britain and beyond.
From my department at the University of Newcastle we find a very convenient "Active Map" of the UK & Ireland, which we can use to find information about this city: Newcastle upon Tyne, or any of the other places marked, such as London. And in fact a huge amout of information has been gathered together to allow one to be a "virtual tourist", able to go almost anywhere in the World.
First let's go to the map of Australia/Oceania. From here we can select and obtain information about all the provinces, towns and cities in Australia, and eventually locate a Guide to New South Wales
A bit more exploration and we reach University of Newcastle and a Campus Map, and where (to my surprise when I first came across it) we find the ANZAS Conference at Newcastle
This immediately prompts the question: Is there, anywhere among the millions of pages on the Web, information about this present British Association conference here in Newcastle, England?
For example, one of several so-called "search engines" is Lycos , which is in Pittsburgh in the USA. This provides a simple search form for the Web.
Let's use this to search for the words "British", "Association" and "Newcastle", so as to check whether it is only the Australians who have thought to put their Annual Science Festival on the Web. This search produces the following results and thus indeed finds some information about this meeting, though the information in fact comes from the Dept of Psychology at Aberdeen for some reason!
Now to London, to: The Science Museum, where we can find, among the Science Museum's Treasures one of the telegraph devices that enabled the creation of the distant forerunner of the Internet.
But we can even "visit" a museum that doesn't actually exist - such as the WebMuseum, where one of the current exhibitions is on Gauguin, and where we can examine a number of his paintings in detail, for example his Femmes de Tahiti.
There are now several hundred newspapers and journals being published on the Web, such as The Electronic Telegraph and a version of the The Economist, or in France of the journal Libération.
Also very actively exploring this new medium is The BBC, for example using it for distributing news items such as: Newsflash, where one of the main stories is, unfortunately, still The War in Bosnia.
And many thousands of individuals (by no means all self-publicising American graduate students!) are using the Web to become independent publishers - in some cases simply by performing the valuable service of bringing together links to lots of useful information on a particular subject, e.g. this one on France and all things French.
At present the main commercial use of the Web is for what might best be described as advertising, but its use for actual commercial transactions is growing - and will grow even more as improved means of ensuring confidentiality and integrity are developed.
The (American) Internet Shopping Mall is a huge virtual shopping centre. Possibly the first virtual shopping mall in Britain is called Barclay Square. Among the shops here are Sainsbury's Wine Direct and Toys 'R' Us.
As just one example of the many individual shops on the Internet, there is The Internet Book Shop, with its huge "stock": Searching the Internet Book Shop.
But you can already do more than look at advertisements, and order products, via the Internet. Again one example must suffice - the company Federal Express provides a facility for its customers to track the packages they have entrusted to the company for delivery.
And so we are back home, and our cruise is ended!
But remember that even just a couple of years ago the Web barely existed. So the thought of what things might be possible in another few years, leave alone by the end of the century is literally mind-boggling. Not for nothing did The Spectator, hardly the most sensationalist of magazines, describe the advent of the Internet as being as important as the advent of printing.