The Internet Generation
How e-mail and the Web are transforming the College
It's midnight, and using electronic mail (e-mail) feels like pouring cold molasses. This is one of the busiest times on Harvard's network, with the most students connected. Thousands of messages are pouring through the Internet like cars merging onto a highway at rush hour. Yet most of those trying to get on the Internet are not computer science students living on caffeine. Many couldn't tell you the difference between assembly language and Anatolian.
In fact, these students are performing an increasingly common ritual: checking e-mail one last time before going to bed. Not wishing to be behind the times, I open my e-mail account to find several new messages waiting for me. One is from Cynthia Alvarez '97, responding to a survey I had posted on a Harvard newsgroup ("harvard.general" in Internet lingo), which—like a bulletin board—allows users to post messages that can be read by everyone else.
"I'm logged on usually about three to four hours a day," Alvarez writes. "In a typical day, with my main three e-mail accounts, I usually get about 25 messages. This summer, I was gone for two weeks and when I came back, I had over 400!" Alvarez is not a computer-science student but a psychology concentrator. Her story may be an extreme case, but it hints at the dramatic transformation that the Internet has brought to the College. On any given day, more than 130,000 e-mail messages traverse the College's part of the Internet, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) computer services. With such enormous popularity, the Internet has made its impact felt on everything from students' academic to social lives.
Since last year, all of the College's dormitories have had direct connections to the Internet, offering students in-room e-mail and other services. Students without computers may use any of the public terminals throughout campus. As a result, demands placed on Internet services have increased at breathtaking rates. "We have had to upgrade and reorganize our computer systems almost constantly," says Franklin Steen, director of FAS computer services. "The system we had in place last year would have been brought to its knees with current levels of use."
The University provides all Internet services without charge, so students can communicate with friends anywhere in the world without emptying their pockets. If e-mail feels too much like writing letters, "talk sessions" permit participants to hold conversations by typing messages that appear instantly on each other's screens. The Internet has become the communications method of choice for the cheap and the garrulous.
With students spending more time in front of computer screens, one might well ask if the gentle art of face-to-face conversation is suffering in the Harvard community. Harry Lewis '68, Ph.D. '74—McKay professor of computer science, former head tutor of that department, now dean of the College—is more sanguine. He emphasizes instead that "The ebb and flow of classes, study groups, and parties create physical groups that will never be lost from the College experience."
The Internet is beginning to live up to its promise of making research easier for students. With expert advice so readily available, students are finding exactly the help they need for even the most obscure study. "I was doing my senior thesis and wanted to contact the authors of a paper published in Science," says Hsien Wong '96. "They happened to be at Cambridge University. I thought regular mail would take too long, so I tried to find their e-mail address. I finally found it at a World Wide Web site, and within a few days I got all the information I wanted."
Dean of FAS Jeremy Knowles recalls a conversation about the Internet with James Kugel, Starr professor of classical, modern Jewish, and Hebrew literature, who teaches "The Bible and Its Interpreters," the largest class in the College last semester. "Professor Kugel communicated to me two major advantages of the Internet," Knowles says. "It has allowed students to give him feedback on parts of lectures that were unclear, needed elaboration, or caused concern. The responses were rapid and came from more students than could attend office hours. The speed and extent of the feedback allowed him to better adapt his lectures to the needs of the class."
Many other students have also discovered that the Internet provides an informal way of reaching faculty members. Some students do not go to professors' office hours because of their own busy schedules, while others find themselves intimidated by the prospect of approaching their instructors. Asking questions is "much easier over e-mail," admits Ishir Bhan '96. "Without it, I'd ask friends, not go to office hours."
Professors who were once reluctant to use the Internet are signing onto the bandwagon. Increasingly, classes at Harvard are incorporating the new technology into the daily routine. For example, many science courses now place simulation programs on the Internet and require students to use them to do problem sets. With more professors becoming available on the Internet, students find that the quickest and easiest access to a faculty member may be the nearest computer terminal.
E-mail is not the whole story, however. Software of increasing variety and sophistication has transformed the Internet itself. The World Wide Web (WWW) allows not only text but also pictures, sounds, and movies to pass through the Internet. Students may even create their own home pages on the WWW, replete with personal information, sound recordings, and pictures. Says Steen, "In only two years, the World Wide Web has become the most-used service at Harvard, surpassing even e-mail."
Student organizations have been loath to miss out. While the University does not maintain computer accounts for these groups, students in the Harvard Computer Society (HGS) have helped their peers set up and run e-mail accounts, home pages, and other necessities of the information age—yet another example of the Internet community's ethic of those who know helping those who don't.
HGS president John Stafford '96 answers my questions by e-mail. "The demand [for HCS services] is phenomenal," he marvels. "We have not advertised our service, but word-of-mouth alone has brought over 60 groups to us. This year, we plan to get the word out and expect over 100 new groups by the end of the year." The formal prose of his responses reminds me of this medium's limitations: gone are the unpolished chiselwork of deliberations, the uncertainties of discourse, and the unrehearsed responses. "Perfect reproducibility" is the oft-mentioned blessing of e-mail, but not even this technology can reproduce all the nuances of personal contact.
The dramatic growth of the Internet has created a miniature generational divide among students at Harvard. Last year, 97 percent of first-year students had e-mail accounts by the end of the year, compared with 88 percent among graduating seniors and 61 percent among graduate students. Many first-years come to Harvard with some knowledge of the Internet. As these computer-savvy students move through the College, they bring a tidal wave of increasing computer use along with them.
Impressive as the Internet's growth may be, its future is uncertain, says John C.B. LeGates '62. LeGates is managing director of Harvard's Program on Information Resources Policy, a group that researches problems and issues created by new communication and information technologies. "The Internet should be viewed within the context of a larger explosion of information access. It's changing the way we get information and where we look for information," he notes. While the trend of increasing demand for communications will not likely disappear any time soon, the Internet itself may.
"There are very strong forces pushing the Internet-to shrink and perhaps equally strong [tendencies causing] it to grow," LeGates explains. The chief obstacle may be simple economics. Most people who use the Internet believe it is free because they pay nothing for the service. "At Harvard, the user is typically a student, faculty member, or staffer," LeGates observes. "The payer is the [FAS] dean's budget, but the dean doesn't see a line item the way a health insurance company does. Instead, it's buried in the overhead of [many] different government research grants. Incentives and mechanisms to evaluate or control these costs are minimal But the Internet is growing and so are these mysteriously buried costs"—which cannot be ignored much longer. The College's deficit-reduction program and the Internet's rising costs are already in conflict. Dean Knowles's latest financial statement for FAS shows a net growth of 3.5 jobs in 1994, despite attempts to cut 10 staff positions. "This growth (and the failure to achieve further net reductions) was primarily driven by the demand for computer support personnel," Knowles reports. He cites the use of FAS computer facilities, which "has quintupled in the last 18 months" to over 12,000 accounts.
Even if the Internet thrives, many questions remain unanswered. Sticky issues like pornography, privacy, computer viruses, and information ownership are fodder for years of debates. Harvard's guidelines regarding issues of harassment and privacy place the same rules on Internet use that apply to telephones.
Information overload and the proliferation of bad sources of information are also becoming real concerns. "One of the roles of the traditional media is as a gatekeeper, because old methods [of publishing information] were capital-intensive," LeGates observes. "The ability to produce and distribute information has now moved down into a greater number of providers... .This raises the question of reliability. Users [of the Internet] have to check out their sources with more care. It's like shopping for information."
And the threat of being inundated with information is an old problem in a new mask. Just as we cannot read every book in Widener, we cannot answer all e-mail messages or process all the information that we get from the Internet. Knowles warns, "All of us, faculty and students alike, face the challenges of developing ways of putting this information in context and assessing its quality."
There can be no doubt that the Internet is transforming the college experience for many Harvard students. Whatever its future, the Internet has become a fixture in the life of the Harvard community, allowing students to reach out well beyond the familiar gates of the Yard. Rather than being disoriented in this new world, we may yet find that we are welcomed and strangely at home along all its small back roads, major thoroughfares, and highways still under construction. Not all is new. As Knowles observes: "In many ways, the college community has come full circle. When I was an Oxford undergraduate, there were four mail deliveries a day. You could write little notes that could be answered in hours. The Internet has made this possible once again. The Harvard community is being drawn back together."
Ledecky Fellow Thinh Nguyen, a chemistry concentrator, lives in Quincy House.