Web Informant #393, Survivor: Internet Challenge




I have an idea for a new reality TV show: take a dozen families and cut off their Internet access for two weeks. See how long it takes them before they have to use the telephone to talk to their friends, check the local movie listings in the newspaper, and have to go to the mall to do their shopping. Soon, this will be like watching the PBS reality shows where we watch how people lived in the 1880s and had to beat their clothes with rocks to get them clean. In my show, we would ask each of the players to keep track of their Internet-less moments and show cute video snippets of them sitting looking longingly at their computer screens. Maybe we should even pay them for their participation.


This sounded like a great idea, until I realized that someone has already beat me to it: a research study that was funded by Yahoo and media agency OMB at the end of September.



Surprise, surprise, the average amount of time that participants could go without their digital connection was five days. Most of the participants felt, well, disconnected. Like many of us, they developed their social networks, shopped, made plans, and got their news from online sources. What I found amusing was that the participants were allowed brief moments of connectivity, called "lifelines," to do specific tasks (out of the 35 moments, 25 were money-related and most of the requests occurred about 10 days into the project).


So much for my idea. I guess Al Sharpton (yes, that Al Sharpton) and The Donald are safe for the time being with their own reality shows. But here are a few other data points to understand how pervasive the Internet is to our lives. The Pew Research folks have found that 88% of online Americans say the Internet plays a role in their daily routines. And while we can debate exactly what this role is, clearly the Net is here to stay. And in another study Pew conducted in February, 55% of American Internet users have access to broadband either at home or at work.



The Net has definitely crossed over from oddity to necessity by now. As if there were any doubt: just ask my teenage daughter, who complains when her wireless network goes away for a few seconds while she is in the middle of 47 different IM conversations. 


The downside of the more connected world is that the stakes are now higher to stay more connected, and our thresholds for what is connected are getting higher. I can't remember the last time I had to use a dial-up connection, and we have come to expect broadband everywhere we go. I remember the first time I was in Thailand many years ago and came across one of the first cybercafes a few blocks down the street from my hotel. Back then I thought it was rather unusual. Now I don't even need to check where these cafes are: I just assume that I will be able to get connected wherever I go.


Another example of higher stakes is what Lycos Europe is doing this week. Many of you have seen those SETI-At-Home screen savers that process interstellar radio signals in the hopes of finding intelligent life, or cracking some protein, or some other large distributed computing problem. Lycos has come up with a screen saver that will send annoying Internet pings to known spammers, in the hopes of clogging up their bandwidth and getting them to cease and desist. Because they don't completely crash the intended machines, apparently this technique is legal.



The other downside of the all-broadband world is that the bad guys are also counting on your cooperation to help them do business. I am talking about the lack of protection for your computers when you hook up. Those of you that are still operating without any firewalls on your home (or office, for that matter) networks should take heed of this experiment, conducted by the marketing firm AvantGarde and Kevin Mitnick (yes, that Kevin Mitnick). They placed brand-new, out-of-the-box computers on random networks and measured the amount of time that it took before the PC was compromised by some hack over a two-week period.



It took just four minutes before the plain-vanilla Windows XP PC with SP1 was compromised. An XP with SP2 and a Mac received numerous attacks, but weren't compromised. What was impressive about the Mac was how many times someone tried to reach out and touch the machine. But because the exploiters were looking for Windows PCs, they couldn't deal with attacking the Mac. Also interesting was how effective either SP2 or Zone Alarm was in keeping the wolves at bay: neither machine was compromised during the study.


Granted, this study was about as scientific as my proposed reality TV show, but what is telling here is the four minute metric. If a new machine can be so easily compromised, imagine how easy it is for one that has an actual user attached.


Life in the broadband world has its challenges. Maybe it is time for all of us to turn off our PCs for a few minutes each day and go outside for a walk.


Entire contents copyright 2004 by David Strom, Inc.

David Strom, dstrom@cmp.com, +1 (516) 562-7151

Port Washington NY 11050

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