Like most great revolutionary forces, the Internet has fuelled itself by promising the future. To a society rewired by technologies of a dazzling complexity, it is the seemingly limitless data-stream of cyberspace that has seemed the most seductive new technology of all. Borne upon its flow, hackers, big businesses and governments alike have imagined themselves swept towards horizons of glittering possibility.
Such is the rate of the Internet's development that not only has it come from nowhere to be the defining technology of the nineties but it is also continuously changing our expectations of the century ahead. Both a cause and an expression of our age's mutability, the Internet has accelerated our sense of what progress means to such a dizzying extent that the very concept of a present is left seeming precarious in its wake, a fleeting URL on a surf to who knows where?
The Internet has hyped itself in millenarian tones from the very beginning. Perhaps this was only fitting for a system originally designed at the height of the cold war, when computer networks were decentralised to enable them to survive a nuclear attack. Ironically, it was this same lack of centralisation that made the system so attractive to the freewheeling, peculiarly Californian brand of anarchism that gave birth to the personal computer, and provided the necessary hardware for the Internet's initial spurt of growth.
It's not surprising, then, that its early culture should have been characterised by a mistrust of authority, for the very nature of the network made it a natural home for hackers, conspiracy theorists and libertarians of all kinds. This was the buccaneering age that had been foreshadowed in William Gibson's novel Neuromancer, with its seminal vision of cyberspace as "a consensual hallucination . . . abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system".
In the early ideology of the Internet, the digital frontier was identified with freedom and wilderness, and cyberspace itself cast as utopia.
But, as has invariably happened, the opening of a frontier brought exploitation in its wake. Gibson's vision of cyberspace had been so powerful precisely because, when he wrote it in 1984 - and for several years afterwards - there had been no visual expressions of the Internet's abstract data-flows. The knowledge required to negotiate them was therefore highly specialised, and this in turn helped contribute to the sense that users had of belonging to an elite.
But the development of browsers that combined images and texts opened the Internet to anyone with a keyboard, and prepared the way for the subsequent explosion in its use. This growing democratisation of the web in turn launched a gold rush of staggering proportions, as the software entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley began to mine the rich new seam of info-tech.
Netscape, the first Internet company to be listed on the stock market, saw its share price quadruple on the first day of trading, a success which would soon be repeated by hundreds of other companies staking out their own claims to a tranche of cyberspace. From being the plaything of libertarians and techno-shamans, the Internet had gone on to become the largest wealth-generator in history, all within the space of barely five heady years.
Companies stranded in the real economy were soon waking up to the potential of this phenomenon, too. Microsoft was only the largest to have been caught out by the rapid growth of the Internet, but the ruthlessness with which it established its presence in the new industry has been symptomatic of the approach of big business as a whole.
Nowadays, with even the fustiest of high-street names flaunting their dot-com appendages proudly, it seems that the conquest of the Internet by consumer culture is pretty much inevitable. Fenced off and privatised, what had once been the open spaces of the World Wide Web will increasingly resemble a shopping mall, from which even a prime minister will be able to order flowers with ease.
But what still isn't clear is how total this colonisation of cyberspace by credit cards and governments will be. Inevitably, the more commercialised the Internet becomes, the more the pressure for censorship will grow.
Tony Blair's own love affair with the Internet as a totem of futurity is presumably dependent on his conviction that it can indeed be tamed and policed - that modems in schools won't end up as conduits for pornographic filth. Other governments have been attempting the regulation of cyberspace since the mid-90s, most noticeably Singapore's, whose obsession with digitalising its people has been matched only by its authoritarian instincts. As in the old West, it seems, the frontier is to be tamed not only by cattle barons but also by the marms in their schools.
A cyberspace settled in such a way would certainly bring the world together - but only in the way that McDonald's already does. If the Internet becomes nothing more than a tool of first world power, then it's not far-fetched to argue that the consequences will be a disaster for humanity as a whole, institutionalising the gap between the haves and have-nots more completely than ever before.
If access to the web does indeed become the determinant of future knowledge and economic growth, then it's easy to see that, while wealthy countries may soon rival or surpass America's current lead, the poor will be condemned to a helotage even worse than that which they are suffering now.
But it's equally possible that everything about the Internet that attracts the forces of commodification - its fluidity, its speed of evolution, its combination of intimacy with global range - will only serve to frustrate their ambitions. For good and ill, the libertarianism of the Internet's early years remains its dominant ideology; if less so now on the websites registered by Yahoo and Alta Vista, then still along cyberspace's fringes, among the home pages, chat rooms and bulletin boards. In a network of potentially infinite links, totalising claims to knowledge or power are always bound to be destabilised by the sheer plenitude of rival points of view. There's not a website that doesn't exist in the context of another just a mouse-click away.
If this seems like the ultimate illustration of postmodernism, then it's hardly surprising: the Internet is both the technological and cultural epitome of a century to which everything has appeared relative. Perhaps it's in this sense that it will be seen to have had its greatest influence of all, as a system which will not only reflect the atomisation of our society but precipitate a yet further process of fragmentation, of culture, of beliefs and of the individual self - for identity on the net is as fluid as everything else. It is difficult to stay in cyberspace for long and not find one's sense of oneself being redefined.
Whether this should be regarded as damaging or liberating is, no doubt, just one further matter of opinion. But it also suggests that, if the Internet is to remain more than merely a virtual Yellow Pages, then its impact may prove to be at least as powerful and strange as its early propagandists always claimed that it would be.
We should find out soon - and maybe sooner than we think.