As the new year beckons, a potent online transformation is under way. Referred to as Web 2. 0 among techies and the second "Internet sea...

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As the new year beckons, a potent online transformation is under way. Referred to as Web 2.0 among techies and the second “Internet sea change” by Bill Gates, it promises myriad services to an always-on, broadband-connected world.

Both appellations are somewhat misleading. Web 2.0 prompts the question: What was Web 1.0 (a term I never saw used)? And whatever the first sea change invoked (I have trouble recalling), this makes it look like a pond ripple.

Hyperbole aside, the new Web looks like something very old.

Before the printing press, people got their information largely through conversation in the town square.

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Certainly there were networks, but they were word of mouth. It was an imperfect system — one reason each disciple’s version of Jesus’ life differs — but without an alternative it got the job done.

Print, and then broadcast, changed the process. Information became more widely distributed, more formalized and, happily, more accurate (within human limitations).

Through the industrial and postindustrial worlds, print/broadcast evolved to an intricate and ubiquitous, albeit increasingly centralized, information network.

Since it went public in the early 1990s, the Internet has been building a parallel but marvelously distinct information network. Flatter, decentralized. Unhindered by time and distance. In many ways, it mimics ye olde town square a lot more than a printed page or newscast.

Mailing lists. Forums. Blogs, podcasts and vlogs (video blogs). Instant messaging. Web conferencing. Wikipedia. All take information into a broader interactive dimension from print and broadcast. Print, it should be noted, remains the jumping-off point for much of the communication, but that’s changing ever more rapidly as well.

Two developments in 2006 should further accelerate the shift. Craig Newmark of craigslist.org, the online classified-ad service, plans to inaugurate a grass-roots journalism venture. If it adopts his classifieds approach, it promises to “relocalize” (a term more popularly associated with “oil peak” and a post-carbon-era economy, but with the same principle) news right down to the neighborhood level.

Then there’s Google Base. Overlooked as a motivating factor behind the America Online deal, Google Base aims to leverage the whole mishmash of everyday information into a useful data source, an ongoing journal from the ground floor up.

Today the listserv-forum-blog-and-beyond world exists as an indecipherable cacophony. Useful information on stuff is all there. It’s just not all there in a useful way.

If the daily Web could be processed, collated and organized, a briefing paper on any topic imaginable could be digitally composed.

If you wanted to find out what happened to the 1960s rock band the Cicadas, or how Japanese dentie really works, it’d be a snap. (Right now, it’s not — even though somewhere, someone who knows has probably posted it on the Web.)

Imagine the entire planet as a town square and the Web as the town crier, the source who can tell you everything you want to know the minute you ask. For better or worse, it’s a new world.

Seattle freelance writer Paul Andrews has written about technology for more than two decades. He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.