From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

March 23, 2000*: on becoming an anachronism
If the pundits are correct about the reasons for the recent spate of cyber-terror, I've lost the battle. It wasn't only Yahoo! that was raided of late, but a number of major internet sites. They weren't hit with a virus, their hard disks weren't wiped out or reformatted, and nobody spilled blood on their computers, or caused permanent damage to any information. The attack was much more playful: they got more hits than they could handle. But why should an attack of this sort represent a loss for me?
These cyber-attacks were apparently acts of protest at what the web has become. Today it seems rather final: the web is not developing into the virtual community that has been promised us by the champions of the more democratic and loving society that was supposed to result from the web. Instead, the powers that be in cyberspace seem determined to convert it into one vast shopping mall, a virtual copy of the physical entity in which we already reside. These protests were more the final, death throe, cries of a soon to be extinct species than a rallying cry of an animal that has decided to defend itself.
I tend to cling to my metaphors. If they've served me well in the past, I'm not going to throw them out too quickly. I became an internet junkie when it was still popular to compare the web to a vast library with free access to everything (and where you were permitted to yell instead of compelled to sit quietly). The handful of people who still cling to that vision can probably still make up some sort of community, but they're very far from being mainstream.
Were we ever? Strangely, for someone who has traditionally expected to find himself in the minority, for one brief shining moment, I think we were. And if not mainstream, then a beacon, a direction that commanded attention, a hope that spread through the collective psyche. Even a rather cursory glance at the topics of the articles that the press once devoted to the then burgeoning internet phenomenon would suggest that we were dealing with a social phenomenon that held the potential for affecting vast social changes. Admittedly, not infrequently the not-connected public looked upon internet users as strange beings unable to communicate via traditional methods, but internet use was also seen as a promise of possibilities that would change our daily lives for the better.

Today, it seems that the only change that's taking place is that we're able to buy more from the comfort of our homes. One-click shopping, even if it's patented by, is the act that everyone wants to get into, and opportunities to buy virtually (by today's standards that's a poorly chosen word) jump out at us. And though I suppose that I can think of numerous positive uses for wireless internet access, I have to admit that on the whole the information that I might want to access via the internet is of the sort that can wait until I'm sitting quietly in front of a traditional computer screen.

Wireless access seems intent on realizing the promise of the information superhighway. The problem is, that I'm far from convinced that what we need is its realization. Quite a while ago, in a discussion of the metaphors that focus our use of the internet, I quoted a critique of the superhighway metaphor. But it bears repeating.

The internet today is business. E-commerce is what makes the wheels of innovation and development turn. Even the possible educational uses of the internet are becoming concentrated more and more in the hands of companies that put profit first and knowledge at best a poor second. Mega-sites maintain homesteading sections where individual users can build their own window to the world not because they believe in a vision of the internet as a means of connecting people, but because they believe that they can turn a profit from making free disk space available. Even when we're dealing with new innovations that might have a positive effect on the people who use them, the newspaper accounts, instead of informing us of the possible wonderful ramifacations of the invention, focus on the millions of dollars that changed hands in the business transaction.

Things, of course, never stay put. Change was to expected. But I enjoyed the adventure more than the destination, the trip more than the arriving. Hypertext was for me an organizing metaphor for how we approach the world around us. Finding links embedded in the flow of a text and choosing to follow them, unsure of where they'll lead, was as pleasurable as reading a well-constructed novel. Entering a site somewhere in its middle through following a link from another site to a particular bit of information, and discovering that I'd fallen upon a wealth of interesting writing, was a special treat. Today, links are used primarily as road signs: click here if you want to know about..., and here if you need.... They keep you found, when what I really love most is getting lost. I'm not the only one who bemoans this shift in the uses of the internet and in the focus of hypertext. But I'm in a community of losers, of people who clicked on what seemed to them to be the right links, but discovered that the public was captivated by something else.

I will, of course, continue to use the web. I'll continue to be impressed with new tools that appear that make using it easier, more interesting, or more productive; I'll continue to conduct searches that will never make it to the top ten terms searched this week. And I'll continue to occasionally fall upon a fascinating article, or captivating people, or a motherlode of information that I didn't know about. The sort of thing that makes all of this, despite everything, worthwhile.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:
Jay Hurvitz

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