Machine Age: Postcards From The Inside

In the fall of 1993, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) released the Mosaic browser, opening up the World Wide Web (now affectionately known as "dub-dub-dub") for general use and exponentially accelerating the colonization of the Internet. For a medium that seems to evolve by dog years, five years signifies a transition to adulthood. On the Web, the frenetic, exuberant, hair-raising adventure of adolescence is over.

Is this good news or bad? Aimless surfing has been all but obliterated; the bulk of Internet usage is for pragmatic concerns. (A survey released last month by PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed that 44 percent of Americans use the Net most often "for research or getting information," 27 percent for e-mail, 6 percent for online banking, and 5 percent for reading magazines and newspapers; 11 percent use it mainly for "entertainment.")

Still, despite predictions that corporations would swallow the Web whole, the grassroots spirit has prevailed. For evidence, one need look no further than the online networking of October's political funeral for Matthew Shepard, or the scores of homegrown start-up companies that have dictated the development of the Web— and are now household names: Amazon, N2K, Salon. . . .

Where does this leave us? In the precarious position of being both over- and underwhelmed by a medium we continue to saddle with hope and secretly fear— even as we invite it deeper into our lives. It leaves us awed and frustrated and longing for human contact, like Austin Bunn; enthralled, like Julian Dibbell, with the tiny technology that the digital culture keeps demanding; immersed in a struggle, like Edmund Lee, to define a movement among people who call themselves "hackers." And much more. Read on.


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