Cerf and the Net

5th January 1996 at 00:00
The father of the Net revolution guides Chris Abbott through the goldrush year.

Although others have described him as the father of the Internet, Vincent Cerf would be the first to admit that this might be an exaggeration. As he reminded delegates at Tel Ed '95, the recent conference on International Tele-communications in Education in Florida: "Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan."

Tel Ed '95 was the fourth such conference. Like the Internet, Tel Ed has seen rapid growth, and this year almost 2,000 teachers attended to talk about the many ways they use the Internet.

As always, there was no limit to the imagination of good teachers when faced with new technology. A group of Australian children compared the quality of the water in their local creek with similar rivers in other countries and shared their results through the I*EARN network, which runs many projects on ecological issues.

A school in Montana created a Web site about the archaeology of buffalo runs, and NASA Spacelink offered students the chance to talk with a space scientist. Several schools have created on-line exhibitions of African-American art, and the rapid growth of arts and humanities projects was a notable feature of the conference.

Most delegates were American, but there were also groups from Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and several European and Asian countries. The only UK project presented was a fascinating link between Milton Keynes and Las Vegas, a good example of two new towns enabling students to see what unites them.

The other UK session described the creation of Research Mach-ines' Internet for Learning, (a schools Internet service) and also looked at the potential of low-cost video-conferencing using CUSeeMe software on the Macintosh. Those of us in Florida were joined on-screen by representatives of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology in Glasgow and King's College, London.

Vincent Cerf was invited to give a keynote address on how he developed TCPIP, the software language which underpins the Internet and makes it possible for all computers to connect to it.

Aware of all the possible problems, he described TCPIP as a "best-effort communication system". He also portrayed what he sees as the present gold rush stage of the Internet, with more than seven million computers connected, although he was quick to remind his audience that there are 660 million telephones in use - the Internet has a long way to go.

However, with 80 per cent annual growth as compared to the 6 or 7 per cent of the telephone system, he expects the Internet could be as big as the phone system by the end of the decade.

Mr Cerf said that it was now possible to send e-mail to 154 countries, and that two-thirds of them can connect to other Internet services such as the World Wide Web. He gave some idea of the frantic activity behind the scenes as companies register domain names which they may want to use as part of their e-mail addresses. You may, or may not, be disappointed to hear that "pimples.com" and "diarrhoea.com" have already been reserved by a large pharmaceutical company.

It is use of the World Wide Web which is growing most rapidly and contributing to this goldrush year. But as Mr Cerf reminded his audience, it is not the miners of information who make the money, but those who make the tools. Just as the makers of shovels and providers of food were the real gainers of the California goldrush, the providers of software and sellers of computers and modems are currently benefiting most.

Recent figures suggest that 17 per cent of the populations of the United States and Canada have access to the Internet and, more startlingly, that they spend as much time surfing the Web as they do viewing videos they have recorded, PCs and VCRs being used by them for equivalent lengths of time. Of course, the overwhelming majority of surfers - 77 per cent - are male and 25 per cent of them earn more than Pounds 55,000 a year. It's hardly surprising that advertisers are so keen to get on the Net.

Mr Cerf's family illustrates some of the unexpected social effects of the Net. "When I first saw the newly-discovered French cave paintings on the World Wide Web, I wanted to know what the descriptions said, so I woke up my teenage son to help me translate them. With his enthusiastic support we managed to decipher the captions.

It was only much later that I realised that, before the Net, there would have been no way I would have woken my son on a Saturday morning to ask him to do some French translation."

His 79-year-old mother had just returned from a trip to France to visit someone with the same name she met on the Internet.

Multi-user games, encryption technology and synthetic environments were also mentioned by Mr Cerf as being likely areas for development in the next few years.

One environment he demonstrated was World's Chat. Users enter a gallery and choose a visual representation, or avatar, to represent themselves on the Net. They can then enter a World's Chat room where they will see many other characters available for conversation. The three-dimensional images are capable of different kinds of interaction, and the system seems like a first attempt to fuse on-line discussion on the World Wide Web with virtual reality.

Of course, Mr Cerf is aware of the need for educationists to help pupils respond to the new challenges thrown up by these capabilities. In particular, he says, we need to teach young people that "actions in cyberspace have consequences in the real world". It is sometimes too easy to see an on-line chat environment such as World's Chat as a sophisticated computer game, rather than a representation of the real world.

Young people need to know that flaming (bombarding with messages) or inappropriately aggressive or harmful responses are directed at real people, not inventions, and that it helps to collaborate as well as to compete. "Young people," he said, "may not always have the right model in their heads, having grown up with Nintendo."

Other challenges he sees are the need to develop legal frameworks, to cope with rapid growth, to develop real-time services and to create useful educational environments. He invited teachers around the world to take part in Internet 1996, an exposition designed to be an on-line World's Fair and which already involves 28 countries. It will have a Central Park, an Internet Railroad and National Pavilions. Further information on the World Wide Web (http:www.gsn.orggsncfhome.html).

Tel Ed '96 will take place in December in two locations: Tampa, Florida, and Monterey. A third location, probably in Europe, is planned for 1997. With the Internet, UKteachers will be able to take part without leaving their schools.

Further information is available from the International Society for Technology in Education, whose special interest group on telecommunications runs the conference - http:isteonline. uoregon.edu.

* Research Machines stands 313, SN9 * SCET stand 164

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