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Saturday, March 13, 1999 Published at 13:34 GMT

Our decade: The 90s and cyberspace

How will the last decade of the millennium be remembered? As we approach 2000, the focus has been fixed on looking back over the past 100, even 1,000 years. E-cyclopedia, the guide to modern living, is staying closer to home with a five-part series on "our decade".

The word "cyberspace" has been absorbed into everday English with the upsurge of the Internet over the past 10 years. But strictly speaking, it is not a 1990s phenomenon. It is not even a 20th Century invention.

Although the term was coined in 1984 by the science-fiction writer William Gibson, in his debut novel Neuromancer, taken literally it denotes a fifth dimension, a virtual meeting place, that was born with the telephone in the 1870s.

In the words of Gibson himself, cyberspace is a "consensual hallucination". And a pretty static one it stayed, until the 1990s.

Then came the Internet and with that a million-and-one choices unravelled for anyone with access to a computer and a modem.

[ image: Cyberspace, but not as we know it]
Cyberspace, but not as we know it
The real world - mirrored through cyberspace - could be summoned into an office, bedroom or Internet café just about anywhere on Earth.

It grew with a snowball effect - the more people hooked-up to the Internet, the more it offered to attract new users.

From almost a standing start at the beginning of the decade, an estimated 163 million people were online by March 1999. That figure is expected to leap to more than 700 million in less than two years.

But the Internet was not just another "new medium" in the mould of the printed page or television. The key to its explosive success was its absolute openness.

Feel for democracy

With the late 80s collapse of the Soviet bloc and the bedding down of the New World Order, the liberation of cyberspace reflected a growing quest for democracy and individualism in the real world.

Critics rightly point out that the Internet continues to be an American-dominated resource. A little less than half the current users live in the United States.

Nevertheless, author Indra Sinha, whose new book Cybergypsies is billed as "one man's exploration of cyberspace over 15 years" recounts an example that perfectly illustrates the early freedoms of electronic communication.

[ image: Al Gore: Coined the term
Al Gore: Coined the term "information superhighway"
As a devotee of FidoNet - an early forerunner to e-mail - Sinha recalls witnessing the tense cessation of Slovenia from Yugoslavia in 1991 on his computer screen. Messages were being posted up on FidoNet in the Slovene capital Ljubljana, detailing Belgrade's threatened invasion of the newly declared state.

"It was very important. We felt we were part of the news," says Sinha.

He, like many in the vanguard, was drawn to cyberspace by the anonymity and the open-minded attitude of fellow users.

"A significant proportion of people on the Net in those early days were disabled. They were housebound and probably found it difficult to get a job," says Sinha.

"But on the Net you were equal. Nobody knew what you looked like - fat or thin, white or black, male or female, or what accent you spoke with. What spoke for you was your mind."

Unknown in early 90s

To the man or woman in the street though, in the early 90s the words "cyberspace" and "Internet" might as well have been double Dutch.

[ image: Tim Berners-Lee: Pioneer of the World Wide Web]
Tim Berners-Lee: Pioneer of the World Wide Web
In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at CERN, an international scientific organisation based in Switzerland, began development of the World Wide Web. Its use of graphics and hyperlinks promised a charm and accessibility unbeknown in the so-far primitive world of electronic communication.

At the start of 1992 the team released their text-based Web browser and word quickly began to filter through to the mainstream.

Later that year the soon-to-be American vice president, Al Gore, hitched his campaign bandwagon to the communications revolution and coined the sound-bite phrase "information superhighway".

The next leap forward came the following year with the release of the graphics-based Mosaic browser, similar in appearance to the Netscape and Explorer browsers that predominate today.

[ image: Yahoo!: Worth a cool £22bn]
Yahoo!: Worth a cool £22bn
By the mid-90s the term "cyberspace" had risen to "buzzword" status in Britain, although its associations with "computer nerds" and pornography proved difficult to shrug off.

Only in the last year or two has the Net really taken off, as companies link up employees, universities connect students and big business gets wise to the potentially massive profits.

It is a measure of the Internet's bewildering success that stocks in Net companies have rocketed 600% in the last year. The Internet portal Yahoo!, valued at £22bn, is worth more than Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Online bookseller Amazon is worth £13bn - more than Texaco Oil.

Wise to the possible Net threat, many of the big high street names have migrated to the Web, while a quarter of all personal share sales now take place online.

But while the Internet can look forward to a blinding future in the 21st Century, it seems "cyberspace", or at least the term, is doomed to die-out. Like "information superhighway" already, it is beginning to sound outdated, with its associations of otherworldliness and frontier exploration.

The E-cyclopedia can be contacted by e-mail at

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