Internet as a social organization

We witness today the confluence of factors that characterize the mental stage - unprecedented political freedom, a global affirmation of the individual and the rights of the common man, abundant and overflowing social energy, an irrepressible drive of mental inquisitiveness, the accumulation and codification of knowledge in all fields, the universal aspiration for and spread of education, a worldwide revolution of rising expectations, a veritable explosion of technological inventiveness, and the accelerating pace of organizational creativity and innovation, which is the technology of social development. These factors coming together in the mental stage have given birth to a new form of organization whose creativity and potential contribution to social advancement rival in importance the role played by money over the past millenium. The emergence of the Internet as a worldwide system of communication, information exchange, education and commerce is opening up vast opportunities for more rapid development. It is eliminating barriers to communication imposed by space and time, leveling the playing field between rich and poor, and making possible universal access to information and services at very low cost.

We have been tracing the evolution of social institutions that developed by a long, slow unconscious process over centuries or millennia. Now we are confronting a phenomenon that is expanding before our very eyes, proliferating globally with a speed that defies even our most sophisticated capabilities for tracking and measurement. For the first time we have the opportunity to observe the process close up at an accelerated rate that enables us to perceive those conditions that make it possible and to experience first hand as participants the social will that propels this development.

Internet was born and grew up in the USA, a social environment in which political freedom, social self-expression and individual empowerment have been elevated almost to cult status; in which widespread prosperity has distributed material comforts to the majority of people; in which higher education has been extended to more people than anywhere else in the world; in which the discoveries of science generate keen anticipation and excitement; in which the quest for information has become an insatiable thirst; in which the productive value of information has become a self-evident fact of life; and in which new technologies are accepted, assimilated and mastered with greater eagerness and facility than at any other time or place in history. Viewed in this context it is evident that the development of Internet is neither a fortuitous discovery nor an inevitable evolution of technological trends. It is a natural expression and embodiment of the aspiration of modern society for unlimited and immediate access to information and unlimited means for individual creativity and self-expression. This aspiration has released a colossal energy in society that is by no means restricted to any single country or form of expression, but rather flows and overflows through every conceivable channel that will lend itself as an outlet.


Internet's Four-fold Infrastructure

Like every major social organization that has come before it, the emergence of the Internet has taken place on the foundations of a four-fold organizational infrastructure. At the physical level, Internet is the product of the creative convergence of two very powerful technology-based systems -- computer networks and telecommunications. The coordination of two or more systems or fields of activity unleashes a tremendous productive power. The linking together of mail order and retailing propelled the growth of Sears to become the largest retailer in the world within quarter of a century. The linking of air transport with a unique system for auctioning flowers has enabled tiny Netherlands to capture 68 percent of world trade in cut flowers.

The initial infrastructure for Internet was established in 1969 to provide a secure and survivable communications network for organizations engaged in defense-related research. Over the following two decades, it evolved into a fast, convenient, low cost means for universities and research institutions to electronically exchange information and messages. The spread of personal computers in businesses, government, schools and homes coupled with the growth of local area networks during the 1980s and early 1990s provided a means for million of individual users to link into the system. These developments propelled the growth of the Internet from a thousand or so networks in the mid-1980s to about 60,000 connected networks in mid-1995. By the middle of 1997, the Internet was available to an estimated 100 million register users worldwide. By 2007, the number had grown to more than 1.1 billion. There were 118 million websites and the number is increasing at a compound 25% annual growth rate. The number of active websites has increased five-fold since 2000. More than seven million new pages are being added daily.

A huge number of incremental technological advances in computer hardware and software, data transmission and satellite communications contributed to the development of the Internet. Among these, the development of a standardized graphic interface language compatible with a wide range of computing systems formed one of the final links that transformed a text oriented information system into a multimedia system for publishing, broadcasting and transactions -- the World Wide Web.

It would be a gross oversimplification and misconception to view the Internet primarily as a technological advancement. All these technologies taken together do not inevitably add up to the Internet. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that had the same technologies been available in an earlier time and under different circumstances, they would not have given rise to a system with the same characteristics. What is new and unique about the Internet, thoroughly in character with the temper of our times, and the source of its unprecedented productive capacities is its organization. Internet is primarily and preeminently a new model and form of social organization with untold power to transform the way society functions.

Even before Internet emerged as a worldwide phenomenon, the shift in computing from a specialized activity carried out in central data processing departments to an activity performed by millions of individual workers at their own workplaces and the linking of these separate computers into vast networks for exchanging information over long distances changed the way in which work was being carried out in businesses, universities and government. Even more significant was the organizational model selected by the U.S. Department of Defense. Rather than a hub of computers under centralized control, the system was designed so that every computer on the network could communicate, as a peer, with every other computer on the network. Thus, if part of the network were destroyed, the surviving parts would automatically reroute communications through different pathways. The result was the creation of a vast organization without central authority or hierarchy.

It is difficult to separate out the mental infrastructure that supported these physical and social components, because it is so closely intertwined with the other elements. Development of scientific and technological capacities and knowledge were obviously central. In addition, the spread of general education, computer literacy and skills have given rise to a society with the mental energy and capacity to readily accept and rapidly adopt this new medium to an infinite variety of uses. A psychological foundation was also essential. Surely a society that feared technology or a workforce that feared being replaced by computers would not have responded enthusiastically to the creation of an ubiquitous system that lends itself to so many possible applications. In actuality, although the system was developed by government and large organizations, its entry into the mainstream of the national life was almost entirely the result of the public's ready and enthusiastic response and wholesale adoption of the new organization.

The very rapid development of the Internet in the West has only been possible because these four foundations have been built up and strengthened during the past few decades. The development of these infrastructures required the prior accumulation of huge surpluses of capital, mental energy and leisure time that could be made available by the society and channeled into the new activity. These surpluses are a product of the maturation of the vital stage of development, which generated the enormous growth of economic activity, productivity, capital accumulation, education and leisure in Western society.


Organizational Power of the Internet

From this perspective, the material circumstances and technological developments that made the emergence of this new organization possible appear less significant than the force that has guided their expression and the organizational structure that makes the Internet unique. It is impossible to predict the magnitude of the impact and all the ramifications of this new system on social development in the coming decades. But even after discounting the hyperbole generated by marketing firms and media coverage, it is clear that the Internet will and is already exercising a very profound influence on the development of the human community.

  1. It provides instantaneous access 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world to a growing wealth of information and knowledge that could soon rival that of all but the most sophisticated libraries and may eventually replace the library as a social institution. Immediate access to information will accelerate decision-making and action across a broad spectrum of activities.
  2. It provides a new medium for commercial transactions that in the USA alone could soon exceed in volume the $100 billion mail order industry. One result will be the weakening of national commercial boundaries and growth of world trade as companies gain easier access to overseas markets. Another will be a reduction in transaction costs by the elimination of some types of intermediate commercial agencies that have been necessary in the past to connect producers from ultimate consumers.
  3. The very low entry cost for setting up and advertising business activities on the Web helps to level the playing field between large and small firms and opens up a new frontier for entrepreneurship.
  4. It provides a medium for financial transactions that could radically transform the way securities are marketed.
  5. It provides a new medium for distance education that will transform the way educational institutions delivery knowledge and instruction, freeing education from the school the way money freed wealth from the land.
  6. It provides a very rapid, low cost means of personal communication between individuals located anywhere in the world, abridging the psychological distance and perceptual differences between societies.
  7. It provides a means for special interest groups to form instantaneously around any subject of common interest and act in unison over vast distances. One recent instance is the linking together of hundreds of small, independent specialty retailers and manufacturers in the USA to achieve economies of scale heretofore available only to mega-corporations.
  8. It offers a low-cost means for any person or group to publish and broadcast views to the world community, providing a practical mechanism for individuals to fully exercise their democratic right of free speech. Internet shifts power to the people.
  9. It provides a medium to offer the best available knowledge and expertise to everyone. Expert medical information on health problems and remedies can be delivered to millions of people on demand.
  10. It opens up the prospect that all citizens may soon be able to participate directly in a democratic system that is no longer determined more by the interests of politicians than by the views of the electorate.

Access to and use of the Internet is heavily concentrated in advanced industrial countries and urban centers today. It is primarily geared to provide the types of information and services sought after by the more educated and the wealthy. However, the Internet has the potential to powerfully influence the pace and direction of progress in less developing countries and regions as well.

  1. It already provides companies in developing countries with immediate access to a wide range of commercial and technical information that is otherwise slow, costly and difficult to obtain.
  2. These companies also acquire a low cost means to reach potential customers anywhere in the world.
  3. New industrial products and processes can now be monitored and examined electronically as soon as they are available.
  4. Reliable information and expert advice can be accessed from outlying areas. Access to the latest scientific information need no longer be restricted by budgetary constraints.
  5. Scientific knowledge and educational programs available on the Internet are equally accessible to people all over the globe. The development of the next generation of translation software will reduce language barriers as well.
  6. The establishment of low orbit satellite links will make it possible for low income countries to establish an alternative delivery system for information, broadcasting, telephone and fax services to vast rural populations.
  7. As the institution of money promoted the development of urban communities, the institution of Internet empowers people everywhere with equal access to information and services and provides a mechanism for maturation of global citizenship and a truly global community.

These are only a few of the most obvious areas in which the Internet will or is already transforming society. But the most profound impact is likely to be in intangible areas that are very difficult to quantify and measure. They can only be vaguely indicated by analogy with the impact of other institutions that have transformed social life, such as language and money. Language is an organized system of sounds and symbols that enables rapid and accurate communication of thoughts and sensations between people. Before language, the ability of two individuals to communicate was extremely cumbersome and limited. Social life was very primitive. Experience could not be shared with others, recorded or passed on to youth. Organized group activities were severely restricted by the inability to arrive at a common set of objectives, plan of action, division of labor, timeframe and agreed basis for sharing the results. The introduction of language made organized activities possible and with it the birth of developing societies and mature civilizations.

Money has played a similar role as the basis language for commerce. Before money, the ability of two individuals to interact economically was extremely cumbersome and limited. Money provides a common language in which economic goods and services, property and privileges can be expressed, valued and exchanged. The introduction of money has made possible the exponential growth of production, trade and consumption. Now Internet is establishing a common language and a readily accessible mechanism for the rapid exchange of information and ideas between virtually everyone who has access to the system. Development is a function of the velocity of social transactions. Money has immensely increased the speed of transactions. Internet is making many transactions instantaneous. Intellectually, this will exponentially increase the opportunities for exchange and dissemination of ideas and information for business, education, governance and research. The increased velocity and better quality of information, better because more current, will dramatically increase the speed and quality of decision-making. Practically, it will dramatically increase global access to goods and services.

In addition to speed and access, Internet also provides a mechanism for infinitely expanding the interactions between users and for customizing services to meet individual needs. Before Internet, the primary delivery systems for information have been one-to-one such as the telephone, fax and post, which like barter are limited by the need for a double coincidence, or one-to-many mass broadcasting systems such as newspapers, radio and television, which cannot discriminate between users or provide customized services. Internet makes many-to-many relationships a reality. By so doing it increases the potential number of interactions and transactions infinitely. It also enables either the source or recipient of information to control content and customize it to meet specific individual needs. As mass production has made more sophisticated products available to more people at lower cost, Internet will make customized and personalized services affordable and accessible.

Money increases energy in society and enables that energy to be utilized more efficiently. Before money, people had little incentive to produce more than they could consume. Money provides a means for individuals to save the fruits of their labor, store them indefinitely, transmute them into any form, transfer them to others or exchange them for any other social commodity. In so doing, money releases people's energy and encourages them to work harder. Similarly, Internet allows the intellectual work of any individual to reach a far wider audience than is otherwise possible and to be more fully utilized by society. It releases mental energy, encourages mental creativity, and makes the results of creativity more widely available.

This new social system derives its unprecedented productive power from the same attributes that have made organizations effective since the dawn of society, but the similarity may not be immediately obvious. Organizations acquire power from their capacity to exercise authority and direct the energies of people. Internet is an organization without any discernable center of power or ability to direct anyone or anything. It is the first organization that anyone can access, but no one can own or control. Authority exists on the Internet, but it has been impersonalized and internalized. It is impersonalized in the form of strict technical standards, communication rules and language conventions to which all users must conform in order to participate in the organization. It has been internalized in the sense that usage of the system is strictly voluntary. The force that drives the growth of the system is the self-directed motivation of individuals and organizations to use it in the absence of any external compulsion. The enthusiastic interest that the Internet has evoked around the world is a measure of the determination of society to fully explore and exploit the potentials of this organization.

Organizations also derive power from systems, which we term the skills of society. The Internet is a very complex organization of systems for the generation, transmission, distribution, reception, and cataloging of information. As the Internet becomes a more common and accepted means of carrying out activities, it will equip society with an entirely new order of skills to raise productivity, increase convenience, improve quality and accelerate actions.

The power of an organization increases with its complexity, with its ability to coordinate and integrate a wider range of activities. Cities became centers of intense energy and high productivity by maximizing physical coordination between different activities concentrated in one location. Money derives much of its power from its ability to relate to every type of social activity, convert one into the other, and coordinate each with all the others. Internet has a parallel capability to cross-reference any subject and create meaningful linkages between previously unrelated topics. Every new social organization spreads gradually until it enters into relationship and integrates with every other social organization. The development of car travel has supported the growth of fast food, hotels, transport, commerce, industry, education, suburban communities, tourism and recreation. The development of television combines and integrates entertainment, educational programming, news, advertising, direct marketing, politics, sports and public service. Internet combines and integrates the functions of mail, telephone, fax, motion pictures, television, radio, newspapers, libraries, schools, conferences and discussion groups. It makes it possible to interrelate political, commercial, financial, educational, recreational, scientific, medical, religious, cultural and personal activities, stimulating the growth and increasing the productivity of them all. It creates the maximum number of potential synaptic connections between different subjects and activities.

Ultimately organizations derive their power from the values they embody and express. Although some people decry the absence of values on the Internet, by which they mean the lack of control over the suitability of content, the Internet actually embodies high and strong values from which it derives an almost irresistible strength. These include physical values such as speed, timeliness, efficiency and productivity; organizational values such as standardization, systemization, coordination, integration and communication; and psychological values such as equality of access, public service and empowerment of the individual.

As money empowers the individual with unlimited access to economic goods, Internet empowers the individual with unlimited access to knowledge. It enables a person to do what previously only an organization could accomplish. It makes people more competent and less dependent. It increases freedom of choice. It may soon bring a time when no book need ever go out of print and every student can choose his own teacher. Internet reduces the limitations imposed on humanity by space and time. It helps elevate people from the physical to the mental stage. As money has become a symbol of private property, individual acquisition and self-affirmation, the Internet is a symbol of our collective accomplishments, shared inheritance and human unity.