The Internet is a global network of computers. It is conceptually similar to the world wide telephone network: it allows any connected computer to contact and exchange information with any other computer on the network. It differs from the telephone network in that the form of information is not limited to speech. Instead, the Internet supports the exchange of arbitrary forms of information - most commonly textual, but also supporting audio information, high quality colour images, and even video materials. Furthermore, whereas the telephone network is exclusively person-to-person, allowing only pairs of subscribers to connect at a time, the Internet allows arbitrary groups of computers to interact simultaneously. These technical considerations mean that the Internet can support and mediate new forms of communication and interaction between computers - and thus between people - that have not previously been feasible.
The Internet is still significantly smaller in scale and penetration than the telephone system; but connectivity to the Internet is now experiencing explosive growth, similar to, but even faster than, the global boom in FAX communication in the 1980's. The Internet originated as a tool for the global Academic community, and virtually all Universities in the world now provide Internet access to academic staff; it has become an indispensible tool to academic research. But access is now rapidly expanding out of education to commercial and governmental organisations; widespread Internet connectivity has already become commonplace in North America, and this pattern of expansion is now extending to Europe. Anyone can now obtain access to the Internet via the telephone network, using a standard personal computer equipped with a modem. Telephone charges are only to the nearest Internet access point, so they are normally at minimal, local call rates, regardless of where in the world is being contacted; and Internet charges proper start at as little as IR£10 per month for unlimited connection of a single personal computer. Thus, the Internet can be quite feasibly accessed even by private individuals.
The Internet is technically a "generic" data communications network: it provides only the communications infrastructure. A wide variety of actual "services" can be delivered over this underlying infrastructure. For my purposes, there are just two relevant services:
This form of electronic publishing is preferable to paper publications in many circumstances. There is no "minimum print run" ~- the marginal cost of publishing information in this way is very small, and does not depend at all on how many people access it. The information is instantly (literally, within seconds) available worldwide, to anyone who wants it. It is also, in effect, automatically archived; that is, once published, it stays accessible, worldwide, indefinitely. The information can be kept absolutely up to date, without the need to recirculate revised copies - all interested readers can always, immediately, access the central, "master" copy. The information can be automatically indexed and searched by computer, which is impossible with conventional printed information.
But the real advantage of e-mail is that it need not be limited to simple person-to-person communication. E-mail "mailing lists" or "conferences" can be easily established. In this case, all messages sent by any participant are copied to all the others. The result is a very flexible forum whereby people in arbitrary locations around the world can carry on an extended and co-ordinated discussion. Such discussion groups have already been established for tens of thousands of different topics, and new groups are being set up all the time. This form of group communication is effectively impossible with conventional paper mail, due to the time delays, and the mechanics of copying all the correspondence; but it is easy with e-mail.