August 6th marks the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, more commonly known as the Internet, a technology that is nearly inescapable in today’s world. While older communications technologies like TV and radio made significant impacts in terms of linking the world together, they pale in comparison to the Internet. Born in a Swiss lab in 1991 to facilitate academic collaboration, the Internet has since ballooned into something much more than even its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, could have imagined. From social networking to business to gaming to education to government, the Internet is part of the fabric that holds the modern world together. It has spawned entire categories of professions dedicated to maintaining its core systems and expanding it with new, cutting-edge websites. With the click of a mouse or touch of a screen, information is available in mere milliseconds, and the scope of that information is virtually limitless in an age where almost everything is being digitally documented. And as we’ve seen (such as in various protest movements and revolutions) that digital information can have dramatic real-world consequences. In short, the Internet has made the world a much smaller and more connected place in a way that once only existed in the minds of sci-fi authors.
However, along with the benefits the Internet has brought to global society, it has also brought challenges, especially when it comes to law enforcement, the “gig economy,” privacy, and how Orthodox Jews are dealing with its vast amounts of objectionable content. This article will discuss the history of the Internet, look in depth at some of the countless ways it has impacted our daily lives, address its dark side and give an overview of what’s to come.
Even before Tim Berners-Lee launched his world-changing project, the Internet was technically in existence. It started in the early 1960s, when fears over a Soviet attack on the nation’s telephone system were top concern at the Department of Defense. Thus began ARPANET, the precursor to today’s Internet. ARPANET was based on the theory of packet switching, where data is broken into separate blocks known as “packets” before being reassembled at its destination. The key advantage of this is that each packet has its own separate route to the destination, thus ensuring security against potential hacks.
October 29, 1969, marks the date ARPANET officially went online. It started out with just four computers at four different universities. A programming student at UCLA sent a message from Boelter Hall 3420 to the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford in the first “node-to-node” communication. The message entered was “LOGIN” but the receiving computer only got the first two letters before it crashed.
In the following years, more university computers were added to ARPANET including some outside the U.S. However, as the network grew it soon became clear that computers needed a cohesive, reliable method to talk to each other. Fortunately, a computer scientist named Vinton Cerf had the answer. At the end of the 1970s, Cerf came up with “Transmission Control Protocol” (aka TCP/IP). With this new communication standard, universities, businesses, and government institutions could talk to each other efficiently and send files to one another.
In 1990, Tim-Berners Lee, working at CERN in Switzerland (now famous as the home of the Large Hadron Collider) came up with the World Wide Web, a system where documents are linked to other documents through hypertext. The language Berners-Lee developed, HTML, is now at the heart of all websites and allows users to not only access pages from any connected computer and view them easily but also build pages themselves. The first web page went online on August 6, 1991. It can be viewed at http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html
From there, the number of websites grew exponentially. Netscape Navigator became the first popularly used web browser in the mid-1990s but was soon dethroned by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Some of the most well-known online companies such as eBay and Amazon started in 1995, while 1998 marks the birth of the Google search engine.
The social media era officially started in 2003 with the birth of MySpace, followed by Facebook in 2004 and YouTube in 2005. Today, there are over 1 billion websites and more than 3 billion people worldwide have access to the Internet. Mobile Internet usage has skyrocketed in the past few years to overtake desktops as the number one digital platform.
The Internet’s impact on society has been incredibly profound. The Internet has brought ceaseless technological wonders and affected everything from economics to education to personal communication. Things that people couldn’t imagine doing just a few decades ago are now commonplace: Want to do a live video chat with someone halfway around the world from your phone? No problem. Need to buy your groceries online and have them delivered within an hour? Sure thing. Would you like to earn a college degree from the comfort of your own home? Lots of people do that! Store all your most treasured photos, videos and documents on a cloud server? Absolutely.
The Internet has also had a huge impact on businesses and government. Businesses can advertise cheaply through social media and/or their own sites, keep an easily accessible and searchable database with their customers’ and employees’ information. Companies may even base their entire business around the Internet itself as Dropbox, Netflix, Paypal and many others have done. As for government: officials can quickly communicate with the people they represent and vice versa, citizens can submit forms electronically and government records can be digitized and uploaded to facilitate both inter-agency and intra-agency communication. Critical infrastructure such as power plants, airports, and water rely on the Internet. In fact, the Internet itself is considered critical infrastructure (and even a basic human right by the U.N.). Whatever a politician says or does can be instantly uploaded to the web and discussed. Rally groups can coordinate through social media and protest their government (even when said government tries to block access, as during the Arab Spring). E-voting is still controversial, though, due to security concerns.
Even the nature of warfare has changed: The entire defense infrastructure relies heavily on the Internet. From coordinating with generals on the ground in real time to handling logistics to controlling drones, the Internet is an essential part of the military’s day-to-day operations. Thus, the U.S. military has invested significant resources into preventing cyber attacks, especially those from Islamic terrorists and China. These cybersecurity efforts also extend to preventing internal leaks, such as we saw with the Edward Snowden case. Israel especially has taken the lead in developing some of the world’s best cybersecurity solutions (in fact, an Israeli company called Check Point developed the very first firewall in 1993). In fact, the field is so lucrative that cybersecurity specialists were recently named the highest paid workers in Israel. Currently, an entire sub-city within Beersheba, Israel is under construction to house a national cybersecurity response team comprised of the IDF’s secretive cyberattack squad Unit 8200 and the National Cyber Security Authority.
As far as education goes, the Internet is truly this era’s “Library of Alexandra,” except holding many orders of magnitude more information than the actual library ever did. Students today can take online classes, obtain online degrees, get tutoring, and much more. The advent of Massive Online Open Courses, hosted on sites such as Coursera, M.I.T. OpenCourseWare, and EDX has allowed students from around the world to get quality, university-level education from anywhere at their own pace. Research institutions can publish articles and upload historic documents for the whole world to see. Teachers can easily incorporate multimedia in their lectures and communicate with their students at the click of a mouse. Almost anything you’d want to know is available through online resources such as Google, Wikipedia, or an Internet-connected A.I. assistant like Siri.
Regarding communication, the impact cannot be overstated. As one expert puts it, social media is a place where people “can freely and autonomously construct their lives.” If you want, you can essentially put your entire life online for the world to see. Sharing special moments with others is now as simple as hitting the “share” button on your phone. Live streaming your birthday party to friends and family thousands of miles away can be done seamlessly through something like Periscope. Need to talk to someone but don’t want to use a phone? Just text or Skype them. Hours upon hours of Torah lessons? Chabad.org or Aish.com (or even an entire yeshiva curriculum at webyeshiva.org) can help you out. Finding a potential marriage partner is simply a matter of going to jdate.com or using the Tinder app. Renting someone’s room: Airbnb. Getting a ride from someone: Uber or Lyft. Advertising a yard sale? Craigslist. The list goes on and on. The Internet has essentially virtualized almost every social function and, for better or worse, made real-life, face-to-face conversations optional. On the other hand, sites like meetup.com have actually encouraged users to meet new people face-to-face by streamlining the process and allowing users to form groups by interest. For business, education and government, though, the communication benefits of the Internet are crystal clear. The Internet allows for fast and efficient collaboration, something that’s essential in, say, a team project where the members are located far from each other.
Unfortunately, like almost any other technology, the Internet presents its fair share of challenges. The Internet has added an entire new category of crime: cybercrime. From stealing people’s personal information to online stalking to pirating movies to selling illicit products, cybercriminals are inventing new ways to skirt the law and make sure they don’t get caught. With the rise of anonymizing services such as the Bitcoin currency and the Tor web browser, simply identifying illegal activity and the perpetrators behind it can be a daunting task for law enforcement. What’s more, even if cybercriminals are caught and their website is shut down (e.g. Kim Dotcom who ran the pirating site Megaupload), there’s always others looking to step in and replace that site with something even more impervious to anti-cybercrime efforts. Increasingly, companies are both helping the government maintain online law and order (such as YouTube taking down videos that infringe on copyrights) as well as developing their own crime-fighting solutions (e.g. the Denuvo anti-piracy software).
Another major issue is privacy. Countless lawsuits have been filed against tech giants such as Facebook and Microsoft for handing over users’ personal data to big businesses and governments. Personal data can be acquired by numerous methods including spyware, face recognition software, tracking user searches, Internet service provider records, and Big Data – a highly complex set of info about the user that’s analyzed by special software to reveal trends, especially those relating to human behavior and interactions. Perhaps the most famous case of a privacy breach is the massive NSA spying program that was exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013. Another notable one is the FBI/Apple controversy earlier this year, centering on Apple’s refusal to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s phone. Cases like these illustrate the incredibly complex legal issues surrounding the Internet and how technology is always one (or often more) steps ahead of the legal system.
The “gig economy” is another major point of Internet-related controversy, particularly when it comes to Uber. Uber lets anyone drive for them so long as they pass a background check. Uber driving is seen by many as a fun, quick way to make cash while not being tied down to a desk job. However, the company’s practices have often flown in the face of local laws (case in point Austin, Texas, where the company was booted out), enraged taxi drivers, been cited in numerous safety complaints, and sued by its drivers for the right to be considered employees of the company. Furthermore, Uber is planning on deploying an entire fleet of self-driving cars in the next few years, thus replacing human drivers entirely and truly putting the “gig” (aka temporariness) in “gig economy.”
For frum Jews, the Internet presents an entirely different host of challenges. A key principle in Judaism is shmiras eynayim (“guarding the eyes”). The Torah commands us to keep our minds pure and guard from inappropriate/immoral content, as can be found throughout much of the Internet. Many rabbonim have tentatively allowed Internet use so long as it’s for business, learning Torah, or emailing. Otherwise, members of religious communities are required to filter out social media and all but a few whitelisted websites. Internet use for children is strictly forbidden.
The problem for Haredi leaders comes in the form of WhatsApp. This is a very popular social media app developed by Facebook that mixes business with social media features. A group of top Haredi figures in Israel denounced the app as “a great spiritual danger.” In Israeli Hasidic communities, those caught using an unfiltered phone face denial of certain rights (such as not being allowed to read from the Torah during yamim tovim) or even outright shunning. As it is, rabbis have virtually given up on outright bans and settled for “kosher smartphones” that block immoral content through filtering software like Livigent or eNativ.
As the Internet continues to penetrate more and more layers of society and present new opportunities and dangers, the question is how frum Jews will continue to live with it. As noted in a recent Haaretz article, some groups such as the Sanz and Kretshnif Hasidim (whose members are noted for declaring that their home is free of the “ills of the Internet and technology”) have taken a very cautious approach. A famous anti-Internet rally held four years ago in New York warned of the potential dangers to the Internet posed to the traditional Jewish way of life. On the other hand, modernist Jewish groups like Chabad and Aish embrace the Internet (at least to a limited degree) as a way of reaching out to young Jews and getting them engaged in Judaism. One thing is clear though: Given the Internet’s easy accessibility and far-reaching social consequences, the Orthodox Judaism of today will likely look very different from the Orthodox Judaism decades from now.
But so too will the Internet itself. One of the biggest predictions for the future Internet is the so-called Internet of Things where the objects around us are connected and communicating with each other. This has very big potential: For instance, engineers can install a device inside a concrete bridge that will tell your car to slow down if the bridge is icy. The appliance of the “smart home” can be accessed remotely and even be programmed to do new things by using a microcontroller device such as the popular Raspberry Pi. A refrigerator won’t just something to put food in – it’ll let you remotely view what food you have so you don’t have to carry a shopping list or suggest recipes to you or even let you order food right to your door from via its touchscreen. Cars are increasingly being packaged with connected infotainment systems like Android Auto. Speaking of cars, it’s likely that one day soon you’ll be able to summon a self-driving Uber from your app (the company is testing a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh this month). Artificial intelligence has been experiencing an incredible renewal of interest as major companies are increasingly looking into chatbot technology to assist customers. Indeed, the A.I. of today is lightyears ahead of the A.I. of just a decade ago, as evidenced by this year’s defeat of world Go champion Lee Sedol at the hands of Google’s DeepMind supercomputer. A.I. is even being integrated into the home through Amazon’s Alexa, an A.I. hardware hub that allow you to do everything from controlling your smart home appliances to making phone calls to automating just about anything, all using voice commands. Augmented reality (where virtual elements are layed on top of the real world) is being brought online by Google’s Tango project while Google’s Daydream app promises to bring virtual reality to mobile devices this fall.
Thinking long term, computer scientists, and network engineers are devising plans to extend the scope and speed of the Internet. Just this past June, NASA installed its Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking Internet system aboard the International Space Station with plans to extend it to Mars and beyond, if and when humanity gets there. The Internet speed record is constantly being broken in labs testing cutting-edge technology that’s way beyond even the best fiber-optic Internet connection. A new method of accessing the Internet wirelessly through light, called LiFi, is gaining traction. Even more exotic is the recently launched Chinese satellite that aims to create a quantum Internet.
But even with all these advances, don’t expect the many problems the Internet has posed to society to go away. On the contrary, some experts predict that the Internet will increase economic inequality and along with it government surveillance and censorship. Some believe that the very power of nation-states to control its population will erode. Others have a brighter outlook and believe that the Internet will ultimately benefit society by increasing access to education and creating new opportunities for self-improvement and connecting with others. A few even think that the Internet will be brought down by cyber attacks and cease to exist.
Whatever the case, we should keep in mind the words of communication theorist Marshall McLuhan, who once said “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” The Internet, for all its good and bad, can be seen as a mirror of global society. It represents both our most destructive and creative tendencies – our tendencies to turn away from each other and hate as well as connect with each other and find common ground. When it comes down to it, how the Internet changes depends on how we change.