(Stock photo/Christopher Bartley) Almost everyone has some familiarity with the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a list of unparalleled achievements of mankind from before the second century BC. But today, while size still impresses us, we are no longer struck with a sense of awe. So what does strike a sense of awe in us if not big things?
Seven Wonders of the Internet World
NOVEMBER 15, 2006By Happynews Staff, Byron ReeseAlmost everyone has some familiarity with the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a list of unparalleled achievements of mankind from before the second century BC. The compilation was a creation of the Greeks, written down for our reflection in various lists, the most well-known and complete created by Antipater of Sidon, a Greek poet. The Seven Wonders consisted of the Pyramids at Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Pharos of Alexandria.The list is not dominated by creations of art, such as the statue Winged Victory, nor creations of intellect, like the works of Plato. Instead, what invoked a sense of wonder in Antipater was things that were big; creations that required engineering and manpower out of proportion to the other objects around them.But today, while size still impresses us, we are no longer struck with a sense of awe. We are no longer like Vladimir I of Kiev, the ruler of Russia who in 987, upon hearing the account of his envoys about the Hagia Sophia, the great church of Christendom, ordered his entire country to convert to Christianity. His representatives had explained the awesome size and elegance of the cathedral, declaring “We are at a loss to describe it. We know only that God dwells there.” Even today in Russia, Eastern Orthodox Christianity is still practiced in great numbers because of Vladimir’s awe and wonder of a big building.No, we are jaded by size, by volume, by mere weight. Big buildings still impress us, but we expect next year there will be a bigger one. A stadium that holds 100,000 people? Why not 200,000? Then 300,000.So what does strike a sense of awe in us if not big things? What impresses us to the point we marvel at man’s ability to push to ever newer frontiers? It seems to me the most awe-inspiring creation of the last thousand or so years is the Internet itself. This network of millions of computers, connected by wire and fiber, speaking through a common protocol, has changed our world in ways we can scarcely comprehend. And more astonishingly, it has only begun. We are only beginning to understand the Internet and how this multi-connected web can make our lives better and more meaningful than they were before.Amazingly, the emergence of the Internet, or something like it, was largely overlooked by the community of futurists and science fiction writers who make their bread and butter by speculating on what tomorrow may bring. Ruminations about “Life in 2000” invariably focused on the jet packs that would take us to work and the house that would clean itself. But this small idea, that a series of computers talking to each other could be an instrument for societal change, went unforetold.In the physical sense, the Internet is but a tool – sand, metal and electricity. I would argue the wonder of this tool lies not in the miles of fiber or the terabytes of storage, but in what people do with it that makes life something different.
So in the spirit of Antipater, I am setting forth the “Official” Seven Wonders of the Internet World. My purpose in doing so is to draw attention to how the world around us is changing and hope to share with you the sense of wonder it brings to me.EmailU.S. Postal mail, now referred to as snail mail due to the agonizing number of days it takes to be delivered, can be traced back to its origin over 4,000 years ago. Historical references to a postal system can be found in Egypt and Cappadocia, dating from around 2000 BC. One of the oldest letters discovered is a tablet from the mid-14th century BC containing condolences from the king of Mitanni to Amenhotep IV, king of Egypt (and husband to the famous Queen Nefertiti) on the death of his father. Since then, it remained pretty much unchanged until 1860 when the Pony Express, a relatively slow network that ran on hay instead of electricity, lowered the delivery time of a message from weeks to, well, fewer weeks.Writing letters on paper still holds a certain nostalgic place in our world. But nostalgia aside, e-mail, with its near-instant and near-free delivery has radically changed how people correspond, how they talk to each other.We know this because on average, the U.S. Post Office delivers 212 billion pieces of mail in a year. But in 2003, there were 1.5 trillion emails sent in the U.S. Think about that – seven times more talking that before. What people say in emails, and what they use them for, is completely different from the stiff “very truly yours” in the pen-and-ink world to “what RU doing 4 lunch?” in the off-line, fast and furious world.People quickly learned with email that they could correspond with many more people in a much more efficient way. And in doing this, they changed how they interact with each other, work with each other, argue with each other, support each other, and the list goes on, virtually forever.ChatFor 6000 years of human history, real-time communication with someone far away utilized a technology known as “yelling.” Severely limited in range, it also had poor privacy protocols. Just over a century ago a disruptive network technology emerged called the telephone which should have provided futurists a model for predicting the Internet.Real-time communications could have gone another 6000 years without a meaningful change were it not for the advent of real-time chat. Surprisingly, chat is, for many situations, better that the telephone for chatting. Consider: A ringing telephone is far more intrusive than your chat box flashing. Chat can be latent when the need calls for it: Someone IM’s you, “What are you doing for lunch,” and if you are not there, the message waits patiently for you to return from the restroom and respond. Chat requires less connection time, whereas a phone call requires dialing, waiting, and the requisite small talk.All of this can make chat a better phone for short conversations, which are the vast majority of conversations. But what makes chat strike a sense of wonder is that the conversations are often in parallel and completely fluid. With four chat windows open on my desktop with four co-workers, two of whom are out of state, I have almost perfectly emulated having those people working in my office with me. It is easy for me to say, “Hey Frank, what were the sales figures for yesterday?” and have him answer instantly. The conversation never really ever ends. There are lulls of hours or days, but Frank is always right there. Clearly this can be counterproductive. But just as the existence of telemarketers doesn’t outweigh the benefits of the phone, the fact that chat can be abused doesn’t counteract the huge advantages it offers.Chat allows people all over the world to communicate with each other, even in groups, in a way telephones never could. Groups of people with common interests or common problems can come together and form connections that never would have happened before.The advantages of groups of people being able to fluidly exchange ideas in this sort of instant environment where it is easy to come and go is truly new and something we still have not really understood how to fully utilize.Google SearchOne could argue that the name of this wonder should be “Internet Search,” but let’s face it: Google is “it.” They are the Sultans of Search, the real Oracle at Delphi. They deliver the goods.Think of the miracle, and I use that term with the full realization of the supernatural implications implicit in it, that is Google. I can type anything, and by that I mean ANYTHING, and instantly, the ten billion pages that are the World Wide Web are scanned for me. Furthermore, all of the results, from one to a thousand, are then ordered in best to worst, a feat which essentially requires Google to read my mind. Were this technology available in an earlier time, it would smack of witchcraft or sorcery. And rightly so, for it is as close to magic as I will ever see in this life and brings to life the words of Arthur C Clark: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”Google isn’t just a technical marvel. That would make it an old-school wonder like the Gardens of Babylon. The wonder to me is how Google has changed our modern world.Think about this: For 6,000 years, education has centered around acquiring facts. You need to know so much “stuff” to be successful in the world. The trick is, you never really know what stuff you need to know to be successful. So people have to learn a whole lot of stuff they don’t need to know just to make sure they have the few facts they truly need stored away in their cranium.But along comes Google. Now, all the facts I ever need to know are a few keystrokes away. Now, education can become something entirely different: Learning how to think, how to reason, how to figure things out. Learning how to think logically, to order your thoughts, to express them clearly.Sure, we never get away from knowing some facts, but now all the facts in the world are at my disposal, seconds away. Whatever I need to know, I can now learn. My mind is free to learn to think, not to memorize. We cannot possibly understand all the ramifications open to humans when they can think and wonder, just as the ancients wondered about the world. This is wonder which has social implications that we cannot possibly understand yet.Google MapsAlright, since there are now two wonders with the word Google in them, I feel I must declare I am neither an employee of that organization nor a shareholder (alas!). But just as two of the Ancient Wonders of the World came from Egypt, fate has placed Google on this list twice.Google Maps is amazing. It is accurate, easy to use, fast, and allows me to overlay a satellite view over my map. How does this compare to those bulky foldout maps we each have still yellowing in our glove boxes? How much better are driving directions superimposed over a map from exactly where I am starting to exactly where I am going? Internet mapping in general has made “getting there” more than half the fun – we no longer need to get lost along the way.But what makes them a wonder? Not simply that they are “better maps.” They strike awe in me because we all live in the real world. And having an infinitely zoomable representation of that world online affords great new possibilities, of which we have only scratched the proverbial surface. Imagine, if you will, all the knowledge of the world that pertains to “place” deposited on this infinitely detailed world map. Imagine everything in the physical world, placed in its proper place on the map. Think about it: Every restaurant menu, every ghost sighting, every historical marker, every bike trail, every building, every city council meeting, every photo ever taken placed in its appropriate nook and cranny. I foresee a map with a thousand filters, each letting you view the same place a different way.Your neighborhood suddenly becomes an unexplored country. You will become aware of your surroundings and what is happening and what has happened in a way we cannot even dream of now. And this is coming, bearing down on us inevitably.MySpaceIt may look like a bunch of teenagers swapping Numa Numa videos, but it’s more that that. The idea is simple and not terribly new: Everyone has a page online that is “Their Space” (hence “MySpace”). And on these pages, these virtual representations of self, people connect – 230,000 new MySpace accounts are generated daily.Call it “Passive Communications” if you will. Person A (call him “Aaron”) make a MySpace page. He tells about himself, picks a song to be playing, posts a blog entry, uploads a picture, and generally tells his story about who he is, right down to his heroes.Person B (“Bob”) comes along to his page. He “visits” with Aaron in the sense he reads what Aaron has written recently. He then leaves Aaron a message. A day passes; Aaron comes back online and adds a blog entry. He notices Bob has come by his page and left him a message. He clicks on Bob’s picture and is instantly transported to Bob’s page, checking out what is up with Bob. He leaves Bob a message. Bob comes online a few days later and checks to see what is up with Aaron. And on it goes.What’s happened here? Well, Aaron and Bob are maintaining their connection with each other, each on their own schedule. The closest parallel to this in the real world is pen pals, two people who write letters to each other over the years. They do not share a connection in either space or time, but each is able to keep up the connection on their own schedules.What is different about MySpace and pen pals is that with MySpace you are able to do it on a grand scale. Ten or 100 or 1,000 people can keep up with you. You are not writing the same letter 100 times. And because of this, you put more into the one letter you are writing for the world to see, and are thus able to keep closer connections to more people. This is good.Some will ridicule this method of interacting as shallow, but I think there is more to it than that. I think MySpace represents a new way for people in an increasingly busy and spaced-out real world to maintain connections and to make new ones. How this all plays out, I do not know, but I cannot help the sense of wonder that after millennia how people maintain their connections with each other is changing.eBayeBay is a wonder if anything is. And what makes it interesting, is that it is a wonder that no one ever meant to be. No one foresaw it early on, it “just happened.”Since the beginning of civilization, people have owned things. And a big part of life, for better or for worse, is about getting things you want and need. We spend a vast part of our lives working jobs to make money to buy things.For the past several thousand years, the whole operation has been something like this: Abigail makes pottery. She opens a pottery store. Beatrice wants pottery and goes to Abigail’s store. Transaction occurs. Abigail and Beatrice count it as a good day.Along comes eBay where you are both a buyer and a seller. This happens often; the majority of people on eBay have feedback both as buyers and sellers of goods. One’s unused items in one’s attic become one’s store. Or maybe they sell that thing they make in the evenings on eBay to buy that other thing they want on eBay. Whatever the formula, eBay has changed how people buy things. Now, there are many sellers all competing for your purchase. And if you buy something and don’t like it, you turn around and sell it again on eBay. eBay has also become the final arbiter of value. The price of anything can be checked by “how much did it sell for on eBay.” Highly efficient markets, like eBay, have this way of setting value in a decisive way. The whole process has become more interconnected than anyone ever dreamed possible.But this is not all – eBay has also lowered the barriers so that a stay-at-home mom with a digital camera competes with a man living in a mud hut in some far-flung part of the world, and they both compete with traditional brick-and-mortar businesses. It has opened up the goods of the world in a way neither NAFTA nor Marco Polo could have ever done. Where an item is physically located has very little bearing in my buying decision when the shipping cost is a flat $5.95 “anywhere in the world.”eBay has become the world’s biggest and most interesting store. It is a store with millions of booths with literally thousands of items that defy classification. The scope of things in this store is wide; it cannot be comprehended, which is why eBay has had difficulties making a coherent category structure. It is why they have a category called “Everything Else” with thousands of items that defy classification. It is a store with unique items, unique in the truest sense of the word. And it is a store with literally almost everything. Like that line in Casablanca, that “Everyone comes to Rick’s,” sooner or later, everything ends up on eBay, from van parts to Van Goghs.But the change eBay has wrought on the world of commerce is on-going and constantly evolving. How people buy, sell, rent, borrow, give away, and loan things is still in a huge state of flux. I don’t know how it will end up, but it leaves me with a sense of Wonder.The World Wide WebTo wrap one’s arms around the World Wide Web, to understand what is on it, to describe it in a meaningful way is impossible. Directories, which list Web sites (not pages) that are deemed “worthy,” have millions of entries. I do not use these numbers to imply that the number of sites IS the wonder, but simply to say that our ability to comprehend this wonder is hampered by its size. It is just so big.The first thing that gives the Web its wonder is the simple blue text of the hyperlink. The Web is not a collection of 10 billion pages. That would imply it is something like a monumental library, not really different from another library except for size. The Web is special because these ten billion pages know about each other and reference each other in a meaningful way through hyperlinks. It is truly a “world-wide web” of information. No other metaphor describes it so well.But what can you do on this Web? You can buy, sell, complain, learn, teach, consult, correspond, collaborate, plan, evaluate, have fun, and a thousand more verbs. You can work crossword puzzles, look at pictures, watch movies, read books, write, and compose. You can search for a job, get a pet, post a personal, find a recipe, file a police report, run for office, break laws, donate to charity, confess your sins, locate your long-lost sister, explore your family tree, take surveys for money, work from home, broadcast your own radio show, pick colors for your new house, order custom-made tennis shoes, decide what kind of flowers to send your mom, research home remedies, and on and on and on, forever.All of this has changed how we spend our most precious resources – our time and our money. How many errands do I no longer have to run? How many lines do I no longer have to stand in? I have almost forgotten the frustration of being so bound to a place, wasting time running back and forth from tedious errand to endless queues. The Web has freed me from the line at the DMV, interlibrary loans to find a piece of information, paying bills by licking envelopes and a thousand other drudgeries of life.But efficiency alone, while admirable, does not instill much wonder. The wonder of the Web is all the things I could have never done before. The choices it gives me, the knowledge it provides, the ways it gives me to communicate with the world and to be communicated with are electrifying. Never before in human history has anything been so empowering as to open up so many possibilities for a single individual.ConclusionOf the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only one remains: The Pyramids, the most ancient of all of them. They alone have endured the ages. There is an Egyptian saying that “Man fears time and time fears the Pyramids.”So in reviewing my list, I am struck by this humbling truth: that no matter how great our achievements, no matter how much wonder they instill in us, they will most likely all pass away and relatively soon, I would wager.Therefore, the greatest wonder of them all is what will replace them.