THE INTERCONNECTIVITY of the world s computers has opened a vast sea of information--oceans of raw data and pools of databases. Is it worthwhile to plunge in? What exactly can one discover by surfing the waters of the information revolution? Where can we go and what can we learn? I'll try to answer some of those questions in this brief travelogue.
Readers of the popular news weeklies have been besieged with information about the Internet. Newsweek's "cyberscope" column, for instance, offers weekly tips about hot spots to visit. Through its rhetoric and actions (and a World Wide Web page of its own) the White House has promoted the vision of a happily connected America. But some recent commentators have questioned the value (and values) of a webbed America. Efforts to keep pornography from the unregulated byways have gained the most attention; and, indeed, the Internet includes a great deal of crude and offensive matter.
Other critics have cautioned that the Internet promotes superficial knowledge and dangerous levels of sterile mechanical interaction in place of genuine human contact. In The Gutenberg Elegies Sven Birkerts warns that this revolutionary era of the hyperelectronically connected threatens not just the culture of the book but the soul of the individual. In Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, Clifford Stoll emphasizes the vacuity of most Internet interaction, the abundance of trivial data and the paucity of real information.
The best way to measure the phenomenon for oneself is to cruise the highest of the new high-tech worlds, the World Wide Web. The concept of the Web is simple, especially when explained in the "heart-warming introduction" to Netscape--a browsing software application widely used for navigating the Web:
It's pretty simple: yoU run the program while connected
to the Internet and you look at pages, some with pictures
and art as colorful as any magazine. Links you see
on one page can bring related information that's on another
page. You just click on colored words or pictures
and, zoom, another page, linked to the one you,re seeing,
comes flying into your computer from the Internet.
These interconnected pages are distributed on server
computers all over the world and Netscape is the software
that brings them to you. Colorful, easy to use and pleasant to view, the World Wide Web has exploded in the past year into a vast intersection of commerce, technology, academic information and entertainment. Connecting to various URLs (see Glossary for World Wide Web users), the Web browser enters a never-ending string of links to other sites or home pages.
As the Web has expanded, quasi-libraries have become established to help one navigate through the morass. Netscape, for instance, offers "What's New" and "What's Cool" lists to help the searcher discover new sources. The World Wide Web Virtual Library (see site addresses) conveniently lists Web sites. And countless lists of lists have sprung up. The Awesome List, for instance, offers more than 100 key sites for exploration, suggesting they are "the glory and grandeur of the Internet, the sine qua non of Cyberspace, the main characters in the evolving drama."
ONE OF the best ways to get an impression of the Web is through a random access program. The University of Kansas's URouLette is one of my favorites. As the people in Kansas declare:
URouLette is one of the newest ways to
travel the World Wide Web. Most times it'll work,
sometimes it won,t. Sometimes you'll be taken to an in.
teresting place, sometimes you won,t. Sometimes the
URouLette wheel will spin you to a defunct server or a
URL that no longer exists.... Sometimes it won,t. In
other words, welcome to the Web. We hope you enjoy
In ten random spins of the wheel I gained a good overview of the kinds of Web sites available. …