Backpack

Information overload

WARREN CARAGATA September 19 1994
Backpack

Information overload

WARREN CARAGATA September 19 1994

Information overload

TECHNOLOGY

It takes a full 40 minutes by Internet to receive an electronic copy of War and Peace, probably about the same time required to hop on a bus, visit the local library and sign out Tolstoy’s epic novel of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. It would take far less time simply to go to the living-room and take the book off the shelf. And if the book has never been read, it is unlikely that having a computer version taking up a good chunk of one’s hard drive will make it seem any more accessible. The Internet, the much-heralded network of computer networks, is like that. It can put the world at your fingertips—whether the purpose is to read War and Peace, available through the electronic text archives of the Australian National University in Canberra, or to scan a thesaurus from Rutgers University in New Jersey. That these things can often be done

in other, less technological ways, at less cost and usually with less hassle, becomes irrelevant, overshadowed by the digital wonder of it all. It is reminiscent of the early days of personal computers a decade ago, when amateur programmers would spend hundreds of hours creating fully indexed computer listings of their record collections, all to shave a few seconds off the time it would take to locate a favorite piece of music.

Despite that, the Internet has become the electronic Hula-Hoop of the 1990s. David Bradshaw, marketing manager for HookUp Communications, a Waterloo, Ont., company that sells Internet access, says that businesses are going on-line in increasing numbers, sensing a market to be tapped. Others, having heard ad nauseam about the information highway, are just curious. But the main reason for all the fuss is that the Internet is intriguing,

fun, fascinating, interesting, addictive and challenging. Sometimes, it is even useful.

What the Internet is not is organized, easy to set up and easy to use. And while the network itself is free, it is still necessary to pay for a connection—available from scores of companies across the country for fees that average about $200 or $300 a year for moderate use. Access is only truly free for those whose Internet accounts are paid by their employer or school.

Although the Internet is still not a place for the computer illiterate, gone are the days when only those with a knowledge of arcane computer commands could use it. Many adult education programs, colleges and universifies offer introductory courses, and Internet seminars sponsored by commercial firms abound. Freenets, the burgeoning community-operated networks in a growing number of cities, allow some limited access that can provide what amounts to an Internet test drive. While Internet still requires a reasonable amount of cyber-sawy, it absolutely demands a fast modem. It was, after all, designed for people with terminals hooked to dedicated telephone lines, so signing on with a 2,400-bits-per-second modem, which two years ago would have been considered fast, is almost like driving an old East German Trabant down the autobahn: perhaps not as dangerous, but every bit as slow.

All the publicity about the Internet has not made it any easier to describe. It is a place to exchange opinions on a bewildering array of subjects, receive electronic mail (e-mail) from people oceans away, share research and ideas, obtain data from Statistics Canada, access the catalogues of hundreds of libraries, download audio recordings of CBC Radio broadcasts, give free rein to the most bizarre fantasies and even build libraries of pornography. The Internet, in other words, can be almost anything its users want it to be. “The Internet is not one thing,” says Terry Kuny, an Ottawa technology consultant and an Internet veteran of eight years.

The joy of exploration is what makes the Internet so much fun. Because the information is poorly organized, a search is akin to setting out across the Pacific on a raft. Sometimes you reach land, sometimes not. “It’s a data swamp,” says Jim Carroll, co-author of Canadian Internet Handbook, a useful introduction for people interested in getting a connection. But to make it work as a research tool requires knowledge, skill and an iron discipline that will not be swayed by a beguiling menu item that can throw a search wildly off course. “The biggest problem is separating the useful information from the useless noise,” says Kelvin Cookshaw, a Calgary software developer.

How much actual value the Internet delivers is an open question. A determined user

The Internet is fun, but is it useful?

could, with some effort, download a list of hotels in Bucharest, Romania, but many travel books contain the same information in a more accessible form. People without computer skills who want an Internet account simply to help their kids with school projects would probably be better off with a library card or an encyclopedia. Kuny, a librarian by training, ridicules the idea that the Internet can function as an international electronic library— “pure bunkum” in her words. “The Internet is to the virtual library as a flea market is to the Library of Congress,” she declares.

What the Internet does best, and without peer, is act as the world’s newest and fastest postmaster, relegating stamps and envelopes to the dustbin of history. “Snail mail just doesn’t do it any more,” says Carleton University psychology professor Tim Pychyl, who uses the Net to keep in touch with people he has met at conferences.

The Internet certainly has its shortcomings. Its peculiar, sometimes sophomoric codes of behavior—particularly the hostility displayed by some veterans towards new users—can be grating and tiresome. The information tangents and dead ends can be frustrating. Mercifully, though, the Net is never static, and never boring.

WARREN CARAGATA