Information Superhighway May Be Road Back to Literacy

By Starr, Richard | Insight on the News, November 22, 1993 | Go to article overview

Information Superhighway May Be Road Back to Literacy


Starr, Richard, Insight on the News


Like some 18th century scribe, I have been in the habit lately of spending an hour or so each evening on my correspondence.

I receive mail from around the world on a variety of copies. After I read it, I write maybe a dozen thoughtful replies. I store copies of the correspondence in an archive.

No, I'm not a masochist. I'm just another digital slave, hunched over an ever-expanding file of unanswered electronic mail, tap-tapping at the computer keyboard, in the grip of an absurd passion that's hard to explain to those not yet similarly afflicted.

Doubtless you've heard by now of that gleaming info-future awaiting us all in cyberspace, dead ahead on the national information superhighway, a few nanoseconds past Silicon Valley, shortly before you reach Internet on Channel 483 of your new 500-channel interactive cable TV system.

In the throes of passion -- the condition of most early visitors to cyberspace -- it's all too easy to become a colossal bore. And journalists are particularly prone to hyperventilation about the new information technologies, because these technologies are particularly useful to journalists.

Let me give you an example. Yesterday I needed to collect scads of information about crime as a political issue. I sat down at my computer, which can talk to lots of other computers via a phone line. In some of those other computers were lots of useful documents that I copied onto my computer. Two hours later I had more material than I needed, about 100,000 words in all (my computer counted them).

I had transcripts of every TV interview with Janet Reno over the past month -- her chats with Bill Moyers, Jim Lehrer, Tim Russert and others. (This stuff should be perishable, but alas, it no longer is.) I had blow-by-blow accounts of the progress (or lack thereof) of anticrime bills through House and Senate committees. I had an interesting newspaper clipping, so to speak, about the huge marketing success of The Club, a ubiquitously advertised auto antitheft device (now installed in 10 million cars and counting). I had every word published in the Seattle Times on the subject of Initiative 593, an anticrime measure that was on the ballot in Washington state.

Not so long ago, it would have taken 10 phone calls and two days at the library to compile such a dossier. And some of this material I wouldn't have found even then. This is why journalists tend to hyperventilate on the wonder of computer data bases. I hope I'm not boring you already. Because my intent, rather, is to tell you -- calmly, for once -- about the future, what little I've glimpsed of it in a few months on-line.

It's a lot like the past.

A few million Americans are now just as comfortable using their computers to connect with the world outside as the rest of the population is using the telephone. …

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