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The web as Luther, the Net as Widner.

For me there were two high points during last month's Harvard conference on the Internet and Society: (if you don't count the end of it, as the organizer for the technology track I was happy to see it finish with a bomb scare and a bit of rain the only major disruptions) The first was an insightful talk by Neil Rudenstine, the President of Harvard (and I'm not just saying that to curry favor with my penultimate boss) likening the impact of the Internet on the world of education to the development of the library infrastructure in the major research universities towards the end of the last century. The second was a keynote by Intel's Steve McGeady in which he likened the Internet's impact to that of the Reformation brought about by Martin Luther (and I'm saying that in spite of the fact that Steve will be spending the next year at MIT.)

For a number of years now many people have been searching for some way to describe the potential impact of the Internet on this or that (business, telephones, society, education, the guy down the street, his mother, etc.) One of the more common ones used by the believers is to say that the impact will be like that of the Gutenberg Press (I'm guilty of using that myself in this space a few weeks ago). But McGeady points out that actually the printing press by itself had little impact since less that 5% of the population of Europe was literate at that time. It was Martin Luther, by translating the Bible into German and encouraging people to read and interpret it for themselves rather than being subservient to the pronouncements of the Church, that had the main impact. Luther gave the people a reason to learn to read, when they did so they had the tool they needed to explore the written word, that drove the publishing process and helped change the power structure of the world--people could reason for themselves.

During the late 1800's many of the major Universities, including Harvard (or should I say, especially Harvard) developed very large research libraries. (Harvard's library system, based in Widner Library, now has some 12 million volumes.) The availability of these resources fundamentally changed the structure and method of education in those institutions which could afford them. Rudenstine points out that none of the other technological advances of the past century, from the telephone to television, including the more recent developments in computer power and flexibility, have made much of an impact on the process of education. But he suggests that the Internet may be a "moment of real transformation". (He also notes that the large libraries were the target of some of the same laments now directed against the Internet including "what was to prevent students (and even faculty) from disappearing into the stacks for days on end, pursuing a subject from book to book, shelf to shelf, unable to discriminate easily among the unlimited number of volumes, or to absorb more than a small fraction of the information available on a given topic? And what could possibly prevent less industrious students from simply browsing their lives away in sweet procrastination?")

Could the web be our Reformation, could the 'Net be the global library for the non-well off? Take a look at these talks, the past just might tell us where we are at.