Real Internet novices

A rite of passage in a geek's life used to be explaining "the Internet" (in practice, the Web) to parents and grandparents. Nowadays there's enough of a critical mass of email and Web usage that even computer-free grandparents find their buddies talking about emails and photos from their grandchildren at college / abroad, and possibly even exchanging Facebook tips. The youngest generation now grows up with interactive touch-controlled LCD displays (e.g. tablets) and the concept that you can communicate, navigate and send photos from nearly anywhere is taken as read.

There is one group of middle-aged Western people who really have no idea what the Internt is: lifer Federal prisoners since Federal prison regulations forbid Internet use. If you take the year 1998 as the point where the Web and email really went mainstream, anyone who's been in Federal prison for over 15 years as of today has likely had no real experience of the Web:

A handful of San Quentin prisoners took a class about the internet and startups. Through books, presentations, and printouts, they gained a theoretical understanding of the web, but not a practical one. While they still haven’t been online, this basic understanding made it easier for them to articulate just how far off their first impressions were.
We forget just how transformative and mind-blowing the Internet really is, because we have grown up with it - and it has grown up with us. The first real search engine, Archie, actually predated the Web; it was used to locate information in ftp sites. It didn't really index content as we understand it today, rather it was like an efficient directory of hundreds of FTP sites, updated roughly monthly. You had to have a good idea of the likely filename that your required content lived in; once you had that, you could see what FTP servers had that file and where it lived. Because it was a monthly index, there was the perpetual frustration of going to the listed site and finding out that they had moved files around or cleaned them up.

Consider what Internet search can do now, efficiently locating and ranking web pages relevant to your search topic, automatically using synonyms and spelling correction to work out what you actually mean rather than what you're asking for. The number of web pages with meaningful content is staggering; and yet search engines can automatically spot and index updates in days if not hours. We can search images as well as text - sometimes even automatically recognising basic content information of an image without reference to the text around it. The physical location of a website in the world is almost irrelevant: South African sites are indexed side-by-side with Korean, Welsh, Canadian and Tuvalan sites.

In terms of how it has changed human behaviour, "wondering" is usually a very short activity. The answers to "I wonder if it's safe to eat flour with bugs in it," "Why do cats hate dogs?" and indeed a staggering range of things that people wonder are now a few keystrokes and a fraction of a second away. Of course, it has meant that people seeking information have had to learn to apply critical judgement of the quality of the answers. "Go not to the Internet for answers, for it will tell you 'yes', 'no' and 'you suck'." On balance, I think that the increased scepticism of the accuracy of any printed or electronic report, and the consequent death of trust in the traditional news media, is perhaps no bad thing.

I agree with the article's author that we need to do something about Internet access for lifer prisoners. Banning it completely is like banning books completely; you don't want to give them completely free range of access, and preventing inappropriate communication is certainly an issue, but if you plan to ever let a prisoner go free again then equipping him to use the Internet is the very least we need to do if we hope to reintegrate him into society.

I did like prisoner Jorge Heredia's comment though; I'm not sure he realises how accurate his original concept was:

I was completely in the blind about the purpose [of Internet sites]. I thought they were just sites for people to socialize and spend their idle time.

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