The Internet will change the shape of history.
We are largely shaped by the way we communicate - our view of the universe around us is changed by the structure of our conversation.
Think of the century after the invention of moveable type: it brought an eruption of social movements across Europe, the end of the Renaissance, the beginning of the Reformation and the wars of religion, the beginning of the great age of European exploration, the explosion of European culture across the world.
Did Gutenberg cause all this? Clearly not. Would these things have been possible without the invention of movable type? Probably not. Certainly not in anything like the shape that they took.
The press required a certain level of technology in metallurgy and machining, but it was a simple device. Within a few decades of its invention every small town in Europe had at least one, and the cost of printing handbills, broadsheets, and posters fell within the means of every rabble-rousing propogandist, and preacher, as well as every businessman.
The great age of newspapers, when every city had at least half a dozen, coincided with the industrial revolution and the great political revolutions - and you can track them together, from England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, France and the United States in the late eighteenth, Japan in the late nineteenth century, Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth, China in the early and mid-twentieth. Everywhere, a plethora of competing newspapers allowed a conversation about ideas to emerge, and news of unrest and repression to spread.
The first half of this century was the great age of dictators: why did Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Tojo, and Franco come to power all at the same time, in the very same years that the U.S. had Roosevelt, its strongest and longest-serving president ever, and the United Kingdom found Churchill? Certainly there were many forces involved, but I don't think it's a coincidence that they all arose in the first decade of the wide availability of commercial radio - a much more powerful, scarce, and immediate "one-to-many" broadcast medium than any printed media ever could be. Certainly Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, and Mussolini were all masters of the new medium, and the other governments made powerful use of it.
The history of our own times has clearly been shaped by television and the television satellite. From the images of the Cold War and Vietnam, to the confrontations in Tienanmen Square and at the Russian Parliament, in Bosnia and in the Persian Gulf, we have played to the cameras. Television's tendency to flatten the powerful, to exalt violent and visible confrontation, its inability to convey subtle and complex ideas, and its difficutly in displaying the less visible bonds of community and family have shaped our time with great power.
The mushrooming size and power of the Internet means that it is likely that within a few decades it will be used by everyone, not just the technological elite, that it will re-shape business organizations, academia, and even government. But more importantly, it will change the way we see ourselves, and change the conversation between us. In the end it will shape the history of the twenty-first century, much as radio and television did for this century. Its peculiar nature - intelligence distributed across a loose and changing network structure, in which each user not only has the power to pick and choose what she receives, but has the power to produce his own content - means that the history of the twenty-first century will unfold in a shape that will be radically different from anything that came before.