Having delineated in this magazine last summer what the Internet is not [Computers in Libraries, June 1995, p. 22], 1 have now been asked to attempt to define what it is. To do this without getting mired in metaphors or lost in a sea of similes is no easy feat. Writers, teachers, and librarians love figurative language, competing to describe the Internet in exceedingly fresh and clever terms. But even the best analogies break down, metaphors wither into cliches, and the hottest buzz words pass away like annoying flies.
The best definition is the term that stuck: Internet. The prefix "inter" means between, among, and within, as well as mutual and reciprocal. It accurately describes the networks of networks comprising the Internet, a structure that is becoming less obvious but more significant. Thousands of individual and institutional contributors have created a gestalt in a constant state of flux. The consolidation of text, pictures, and sounds brought to the user's computer at any one time is virtual. It is an illusory fragment of a whole that can only be imagined.
A product of immense creativity, the Internet that we created is in turn changing us. Because the relatedness of humankind's knowledge has changed forever, our thinking has changed. The ability to manipulate one's perspective with the click of a mouse is fast and fluid. Pre-computerized, pre-networked searching restricted people to a largely linear approach, whereby topics and sources had to be examined sequentially in fixed formats and locations. But the Internet is omnidirectional, geographically and chronologically. Separate categories of sources and differences in format are merging.
Explore Where No One Could Have Gone Before
The opportunity to explore previously divorced kinds of sources frees the mind and reduces practical restrictions on research, namely time, money, and travel. For example, prepublished electronic papers, news groups, and e-mail discussions of the invisible college never used to be the starting point of a quest, nor could they have been. Now, one can begin with the fuzzy sets of propositions and hypotheses of the entire globe (the networked parts of the globe, mind you) and then proceed in any direction to other electronic sources or back to traditional ones. The best source on a topic may still be a brittle-paged book whose text is unavailable online. But the sign pointing to that book may be a colleague's Usenet posting.
This flexible research progression is not only for advanced scholars. Now, even elementary school students can experience open-ended, lateral thinking. So, the Internet has changed research. But what about teaching and learning?
How Can We Teach People How to Learn on the Internet?
Teaching for transfer remains the highest hurdle in education and librarianship. Understanding subjects in and out of context, applying knowledge, and grasping interdisciplinary effects are difficult objectives. On the negative side, rapid technological transformation and information overload have confused many students. A cohesiveness that was once held together by memory, pattern recognition, generalization, and reasonable pacing has been scattered. Just as electronic weapons accelerate warfare beyond the limits of human control, so the pace of information exchange overpowers the sharpest minds. Data flies while wisdom dies.
On the positive side, the Internet rebuilds the big picture because it crosses more boundaries than any other information storage and retrieval system. The key to enjoying its benefits is a human and humane rate of absorption. For patrons to use the Internet successfully as a learning tool, librarians must still do their jobs. Tidy hardware connections and glossy graphics belie the scattered mental processes of the user. For example, The Library Corporation's universal index on NlightN is one of the boldest moves yet to an all-encompassing retrieval mechanism. …