Internet users can become armchair explorers

Personal Computers

July 08, 1996|By Peter H. Lewis

INTERNET USERS OFTEN talk about exploring the World Wide Web, and the analogy is a good one. The Web is a vast, unmapped region with exotic scenery, strange languages and customs, hidden treasures, dark alleys and treacherous technological jungles and rapids.

For armchair explorers, the Web is the most thrilling communications medium since the crystal radios that allowed my father's generation to eavesdrop on the conversations of heroes like the pilot Wylie Post, as he barnstormed the North Pole more than half a century ago.

The Web, along with such relatively recent gear as lightweight portable computers, digital cameras and radio and satellite telephones, now enables us to participate in grand adventures as they happen on land, sea, air and in space.

News of earlier explorations of this century often took weeks or months to reach the public, but now the Web can chronicle expeditions as they happen, provided that someone in the party is willing to tote the computer.

In the last year, Internet and online information service users have been able to join adventurers racing to the South Pole, sailing across the Atlantic, orbiting in space, bicycling through Central American jungles and diving to shipwrecks.

Rather than diminishing the experience by making it common, the Internet enhances it by making it richer.

The power of the expanding Web was never more apparent than in May, when a group of climbers agreed to make the first Internet-linked attempt to climb the world's highest mountain. Day by day, thousands of people around the world tracked the progress reports and personal diaries posted by Scott Fischer's party as the Seattle-based mountaineer prepared to make his second conquest of Mount Everest.

Interested viewers could read about the mountain, join discussions on Usenet news groups, learn about Himalayan culture, listen to sound clips of interviews with the climbers and see their digital pictures only hours old.

An exultant report on a Friday afternoon informed these Internet camp followers that Fischer and other members of the group had reached the summit only minutes earlier. But by evening, the reports turned grim.

A freak blizzard caught several groups of unprotected climbers on their descent. The drama played out on the Internet as word came that Fischer and Makalu Gao, leader of a Taiwanese expedition, were found roped together under the snow, barely alive. Rescuers could carry only one man down to safety, and whoever they left behind would surely freeze to death before they could return the next morning.

The agonizing life-or-death decision scrolled out on computer screens around the world. Scott Fischer had been wrapped in blankets and given oxygen to make his last hours more comfortable. One life saved, another sacrificed to the mountain.

Today, the Web site that was built to celebrate the first Internet assault on Everest (http: //nbc.com/everest/) carries a memorial to Fischer and seven other climbers who perished on the mountain. It is well worth a visit.

Another new site that celebrates the spirit of exploration is National Geographic Online (http: //www.nationalgeographic.- com), the electronic version of the venerable magazine. It is a rewarding place for children as well as adults.

Although it is still evolving, the site will eventually have the same immediate, interactive features as the NBC-Everest site, with satellite reports from explorers, background material, maps, expedition journals, interactive online chats with explorers, and up-to-the-minute digital photographs. Future plans include the opening of a digital research library and a special corner of the Web just for kids, with interactive games and contests.

Pub Date: 7/08/96

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