At Sea on an Information Ocean

September 03, 1994|By M. WILLIAM SALGANIK

I am trying to get onto the information superhighway, and I feel I am losing control on the learning curve.

The only thing that is clear is that the highway metaphor has become worn down.

Someone once said the highway metaphor gives the wrong idea anyway; what we really have is an information ocean. I think that's right: Not only does it stretch in all directions with few landmarks, but most of what's there is invisible below the surface. I'm sure that I could use the Internet to find out who coined the ocean metaphor, but (like most other things on the Internet), I don't know where to look or how.

This is the week I became an Internet subscriber. Or user. Or whatever you say to describe gaining the right to grope around the computer information network. For reasons beyond our control, ''This Week in Baseball'' is unavailable, so what follows are highlights of my Internet Week.

I log on for the first time, and there is already electronic mail for me from an old friend. ''Glad to hear you're plugged in,'' he writes. ''Welcome to one of the world's great time-wasters. Just spent half an hour browsing through the WWW frog page -- an entire on-line publication devoted to frogs.''

E-mail is easy. I send a message to the congressional hopeful who got himself on Page 1 of this newspaper as ''the Internet candidate'' for creating an electronic campaign brochure. I ask how to access his position paper on education. No reply. Would you want a congressman who doesn't answer his e-mail?

I try newgroups, a sort of electronic bulletin board organized by subject, with names that contain lots of periods and begin to make sense after a while. There's lots of computer stuff (comp.databases.theory), but there's a range from scientific (bionet.photosynthesis) to educational (k12.ed.math) to hobbies (rec.folk-dancing) to political (talk.abortion) to the kinky (alt.clothing.lingerie).

I browse through rec.sport.soccer and rec.pets.dogs, and while I have some interest in the subjects, I find nothing that engages me enough to justify the time and effort.

There seems to be a penchant for software with cute-pun animal names, such as gopher (get it?) and lynx (get it?). The "ABOUT LYNX" screen helpfully tells me, "Lynx clients provide a user-friendly hypertext interface for users on UNIX and VMS platforms, and allow information providers to publish infomation located on any platform that can run a Gopher, HTTP, WAIS, FTP, or NNTP (USENET NEWS) server.''

Of course, I don't know what any of those initials mean.

Lynx takes me to WorldWideWeb (the WWW in my friend's e-mail greeting), and the screen explains, ''The WorldWideWeb (W3) is the universe of network-accessible information, an embodiment of human knowledge.'' Hmmm.

I crawl along the Web until I see: ''Tele-Informatics Open Systems. Welcome to the World Wide Web server of the Department of Computer Science of the University of Twente in the Netherlands. This is an experimental server, so things may change without notice or even don't work at all.''

A menu tells me that the people at Twente (or the machines at Twente) are offering a hypertext course in Esperanto, a would-be world language, with instructions in Dutch or English. I press the key for a demonstration, and am told:

''If you see this page, it could be that your browser does not implement the ISMAP feature that is needed for this demo to work.

''Please have a look [again?] at the demo here, and try [again?] to click on something. If you get this page again, I'm afraid this demo won't work for you.

''Informatie verzorgd door de Esperanto HyperKursus Maintainter als onderdeel van de Esperanto HyperKursus.''

So, where am I? In a week on the Net, I have alternated between feelings of being cool and powerful and feelings of being helpless and dumb.

It certainly doesn't seem like I'm on a superhighway. There's a lot out there, but much of it is boring, and much of it -- for the first week, anyway -- is hard to find.

I'm no longer afraid that direct public access to press releases and texts of legislation will eliminate the need for reporters and editors. Our work may take different form, but someone still needs to find out what's important, to summarize, to organize, to explain, to select. I'd rather spend 15 minutes with The New Republic than two hours browsing talk.politics.misc.

M. William Salganik is editor of The Sun's Perspective section.

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