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

September 23, 1998*...and to get to school we had to walk through...

Frankly, I don't recall my parents every telling me this sort of thing, but it's the sort of thing that's become part of popular folklore: how hard life used to be before the advent of the wonderful technological tools that make our lives so "easy". I guess it's sort of like a distant cousin to "finish your food, children in India are starving" which I doubt that I ever heard either. Parents tell their kids that in order to get to school they had to trek through kilometers of snow, carrying heavy school bags; or that instead of playing computer games all afternoon they had to mow the lawn and perform various other household tasks. I don't know about this, but I get the impression that when we talk with our kids we convince ourselves that we really had unhappy childhoods. But that's not the subject of this column. The subject is what we had to go through a few years ago (how many computer generations is that?) in order to find information on the internet.

It all started with a bit of desk cleaning. That sort of thing always uncovers treasures of one sort or another, and this time it was a couple of very dated internet items. The first is a 132 page booklet (in English) reprinted and distributed in Israel by MACHBA - the university computing center. It's titled Internet - Accessible Library Catalogs & Databases and is dated May 21, 1992. Six years ago isn't exactly ancient history, though in this case it certainly seems that way. In the introduction to the booklet we learn that it contains:

Back in 1992 compiling a booklet like this was apparently a formidable task, and there's no question that what we have here is a significant contribution to the academic community that has always been in need of access to professional information housed at remote sources. But what's most fascinating is the fact that the methods available for accessing the information are, to today's eyes, so primitive. Almost every library has a unique system and a special code for reaching it and retrieving the information that can be found there. An example should shed some light on the subject.
Alright, it's not really that difficult. Most of the libraries are accessible via telnet, which though still readily available isn't very common among internet users today. Today we either browse the web or send e-mail. But telnet? I admit that I use it to access the TAU library, or to search for titles at other university libraries in Israel, but whenever I tell people that I do this sort of thing they can't understand why someone would want to look at a black and white computer screen and click his or her way through primitive looking menus. There are, it seems to me, two reasons for that sort of attitude. First, we're talking about locating information, but not necessarily accessing the information itself. I can find that a book is on the library's shelves, but I can't read the book itself, and the web has made us so used to getting information served up on a platter that there's no attraction in simply finding that something is available.. And second, and perhaps more significantly, using the internet has become an experience - a state of mind. We expect something to always be happening on the screen; we want to be able to freely click away. Thus we resist the idea of meeting only black and white text on a stationary screen. (And by now many, if not most, of the catalogs have been put on the web and are thus much more readily accessible.)

The second item that gave impetus to this column was from two and a half years later: October and November, 1994: a printed out set of the now famous Roadmap to the Internet sessions, and a digital copy of the same lessons. By the end of November, 1994, the internet was already well on the way toward becoming a well known phenomenon. In his introduction to the first Roadmap lesson Patrick Crispen writes:

One third of the adult population actually sounds like a rather large percentage for back then. And "back then" is probably the only time when adults were more aware of the internet than children. Truly, connecting to the internet was very different then, as this snippet from lesson 3 suggests: Put fairly simply, the internet wouldn't be what we know it today without PPP and SLIP connections. And it certainly wasn't what it is today back then.

Roadmap was a series of introductory (27 in all) lessons about the internet sent via an e-mail listserv to thousands of readers throughout the world. (Since then undoubtedly thousands more have read archived copies of it.) Those 27 lessons covered a great deal of territory: listservs, usenet (newsgroups), anonymous ftp sites, gophers, and even ... (two, count them, two lessons) the World Wide Web (the name Mosaic gets thrown in a few times). Browsers were truly in their infancy then, so it's perhaps not surprising that much of one of the WWW lessons is devoted to: How to access the Web by telnet. Though the Web got only two lessons, the Roadmap guide was quite aware that something special was in the works.

Make no mistake about it: Roadmap was cutting edge then. Yes, that's five years ago, and I've already admitted that five years can be a number of generations for computers, but still, a bit of retrospection can be a fascinating thing: This is the way our ancestors went about trying to find information?

But as interesting as this stroll down memory lane might be (and I have to admit that many of them belong more to collective memory than to personal memory - when I started getting involved with this tool the first version of Netscape had already been released), the question begs to be asked: what's the point in all this? I think that there are two answers to that question.

First, an ongoing debate that flames up every so often argues the logic and/or worth of search engines. Numerous persons (why is it that for some reason I always get the impression that they're usually part of a previous intellectual elite?), tell us that finding information via a search engine is a tedious and illogical task that makes the internet more or less useless. Of course I have to admit that often, particularly after a lengthy search that produces nothing that corresponds to what I was looking for, I find myself wondering what's the point in all this. But then I reflect on how far we've advanced in such a short time in the realm of accessing information, and I'm convinced that there's both logic and worth.

The other is a more personal answer. I've already mentioned my desk. It's much smaller than the internet, but I can't find anything on it either. I'm always saving something that I trust will one day be useful, but of course when I need it I can no longer find it. My dream is that, with enhanced access technologies, the internet will become a vast reservoir of everything such that I won't have to save anything on my desk. Instead, I'll be able to save everything in the vast messiness of cyberspace, and finally find myself with a clean desk.

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

Jay Hurvitz

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