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

August 27, 2000*: Different strokes
While in North America for a family visit this summer I first succeeded in checking my e-mail at the computer of the son of an old friend of Tzippi's. When I sat down in front of the computer it was in the midst of a couple of mp3 downloads. I've learned to feel comfortable in front of just about any computer, especially if it's online and I'm searching for something or checking mail. But feeling comfortable in front of a computer doesn't mean feeling comfortable gazing into someone else's life, and that's a rather unavoidable side result of working on that computer. But that's basically only an introduction to the fact that, though my host's son knew that I intended to check mail, I asked permission first. He said "sure", and asked if he could watch how I do it, and I of course consented. And then, as I proceeded to check my mail, I discovered how differently we're capable of using, let alone perceiving the internet.

Our friend's son was using Napster to download his desired mp3s, and didn't know how to check Hotmail because he didn't know how to type a requested URL into his browser in order to access a site. He was fascinated as I showed him how to do this. In other words, though this fifteen year old was well versed in using one of the internet tools that I had only read about but had never tried, and was apparently able to locate the songs that he wanted to download with only minimal difficulty, when it came to the best recognized of all internet tools (if not the most useful) he had close to no experience at all.

Which is, I suppose, as it should be. In a supermarket I may go straight to the produce section and feel quite at home, but never stop near the meat. I'll watch the news on television, but not know how to find MTV. The radio has countless stations to which we can tune in, but nobody expects all of us to be familiar with them all. It's not really very different from a library, or from the book review section of a newspaper. Each tries to cover as much territory as possible, but nobody really expects the visitors, or the readers, to taste everything. It's not the same as a restaurant where we order from a menu because that menu is already focused toward a particular cuisine. Few people enter a Chinese restaurant with the intention of ordering pizza. The internet, however, is, by definition, a smorgasbord of almost unlimited cuisines.

Does my search for a metaphor have any purpose? What do we care whether the internet is more like a library, or a television, or a restaurant? Isn't it enough simply to accept the fact that we're faced with yet another example of the Blind Men and the Elephant with each person knowing a different aspect of the whole, except than in this case there really isn't any whole that begs to be known? Today, perhaps the answer is yes. A simple and almost obvious yes. But somehow that answer seems to go against what was considered the vision of the internet only a few years ago.

Hypertext wasn't only a technique. It was also a promise. Just as in the 1970s quantum physics were interpreted in the popular imagination as a validation of eastern mysticism, or as a bit later Mandelbrot drawings became blueprints for an understanding of the chaotic yet logical complexity of our lives, the interconnectedness of all things as expressed in that simple click on a link became a metaphor for how the world should work. It wasn't only the immediate and almost effortless access to information, but the fact that information led to more information that connected to realms of thought and expression that at first may not have appeared to be related. It was less a case of surfing the internet to find a particular snippet of information, than a case of uncovering a piece of a vast puzzle that we were part of. In this metaphor each click somehow brought us closer to being an appreciable part of that cosmic whole. As with the Heisenberg principle, the metaphor was exaggerated, but there was a part of us that wanted to believe.

With today's internet we have no expectation toward anything beyond getting the job done, and often we are able to do that because the job is highly limited and compartmentalized. There are those who still envision the whole, but somehow that vision sees our wholeness in our ability to consume.

So what do people do with the internet? There are still many who use it primarily and almost wholly for e-mail. I know some people for whom the web has replaced television as their sport of choice. One acquaintance has become extremely adept at buying at public auctions. (When I've tried this I've discovered that I don't have the time to both watch the auctions and try and get my work done.) Countless others see the internet as the means by which they find music, though I don't know if they also listen to it once they've downloaded it. Judging by the frequency and the length of the postings I've read in some forums, more than a few people devote all of their online time to participating in these forums. I'm aware of a group of ninth grade girls who chat the entire afternoon on IRC and hardly know that e-mail exists. Each of these uses seem to coexist side by side with almost minimum overlapping. In other words, there's enough out there for people to be online all day without crossing over into another medium's territory. And this is before taking area of interest into consideration.

I can't complain if the internet has become a useful tool for all the constituents of the population. It is, after all, a tool which should be available to all, and for all to make use of as they see fit. I may think that playing games online is a waste of time, but on the whole people are lucky that I don't make the rules. Ultimately, the democratic promise of the internet has been realized, but at the expense of another promise, a sense of community that was expected to develop between those who use it. But of course that was to be expected. The internet has become a conduit. Anything can, will and does pass through it. That means something for everyone. As long as you don't set your expectations too high.

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

Jay Hurvitz

back to the Boidem Contents Page

Return to Luftmentsh