Chapter One: What Is the Internet, Where Did It Come From, Where is It Going, and Do I Get to Keep My Books When We Get There?
This is a book about books, reading, and the Internet: how to find books, magazines, newspapers, bookstores, and libraries on the Internet; how to find resources on the Internet of special interest to readers and writers; how to communicate with other readers and book lovers using the Internet; and how to use the Internet to publish your own writing.
The idea of doing this book came to me, appropriately enough, in a bookstore. I had already been exploring the Net for a while and had been amazed by the breadth and depth of reading material available on-line. So I was looking, that evening, for some sort of directory to fill in the gaps in my on-line explorations--a book about books on the Internet. Scanning the bookstore shelves for such a book, I realized two things. First, it occurred to me that the Internet itself was like a large but poorly organized bookstore or library, with thousands of volumes to read but no "Information Desk" and very few labels on the shelves. My second realization (after a prolonged but fruitless search) was that the book I was looking for, that Information Desk for the great on-line library that is the Internet, did not yet exist. Then a little voice said, "So write it yourself," and so I did. (Incidentally, I promised to take the little voice on a vacation when I was finished, so if you haven't bought this book yet, please do so now. I have a plane to catch.)
Whether you're a newcomer to computers and the Internet or you're already on-line, this book is intended to serve as a sort of treasure map of the on-line world, charting a path to the remarkable literary riches to be found on the Internet. But before embarking on a treasure hunt, it's traditional to tell the story of how the treasure wound up where it is, and so we shall. Once upon a time, there was a little global computer network ...
What Is the Internet, Anyway?
Today almost everyone has heard of the Internet. Indeed, it sometimes seems impossible to pick up a newspaper or watch the news without being bombarded by nearly constant references to "the Net" or "the Information Superhighway." Even confining one's reading to the entertainment section of the daily paper is no escape--nearly every movie and restaurant advertisement is festooned with e-mail addresses and the cryptic "http://" hieroglyphics that signify a site on the World Wide Web. Nearly every magazine now encourages its readers to voice their opinions via Internet e-mail, and even the New York City Ballet has established its own toehold on the Web (http://www.nycballet.com). (See Chapter 7 for a complete explanation of addresses on the Internet.)
What makes this sudden onslaught of Net madness all the more remarkable is that the Internet seems to have appeared and captured the public imagination virtually overnight. As recently as 1990, only a relatively small number of people, mostly those working with computer networks or at universities and research institutions, had ever heard of the Internet. A now-famous New Yorker cartoon of 1993, showing two dogs at a computer terminal (one saying to the other, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog"), was probably one of the first mentions of the Internet in a popular venue, and it almost certainly went right over most readers' heads.
So what is this thing called the Internet that has swooped down out of the blue and gobbled up the public consciousness?
Defining precisely what the Internet is has never been easy, and it's getting harder every day. Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that the Internet is not a "thing" at all--it's more of a phenomenon than a physical entity. The Internet itself is actually a network of networks, separate computer networks all over the world that are connected to each other to form a sort of super-or meta-network. Some of these constituent networks are small; after all, any two or more computers hooked together can be called a network. In contrast, some of the networks connected to the Internet are huge--academic and corporate computer networks serving tens of thousands of users.
Because the Internet actually consists of thousands of smaller, sometimes private, networks, exact (or even approximate) statistics on the size of the Net are notoriously hard to come by. But as of early 1996, it is probable that somewhere between 20 million and 50 million people are connected in some fashion to the Internet. The Internet is, in a word, huge.
A Very Brief History of the Net
One of the curious things about the Internet is that it was never designed to be huge--quite the opposite, in fact. Ironically, today's wide-open and immensely popular Internet is a relic of the secretive and fearful atmosphere of the Cold War. The precursor of today's Internet was the Arpanet, created by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and funded by the U.S. Department of Defense in the late 1960s. Arpanet was designed to be a defense-oriented nationwide computer network capable, among other things, of withstanding a nuclear attack. The feared nuclear attack, thankfully, never came, and as the network grew over the years, it was gradually demilitarized, becoming a largely academic enterprise tying together researchers and students at colleges, corporations, and research institutions around the world.
Some of the features designed to permit the original Arpanet to survive nuclear Armageddon actually contributed to its gradual transformation into an extraordinarily versatile peacetime network. The durability of the original ARPA network was ensured by building in "redundancy"--data traveling from one computer to another could take any one of many routes to its destination. If part of the network were to be destroyed by a nuclear attack, the network itself would automatically route data by an alternate path. This clever little feature, carried over to today's Internet, makes effectively censoring the Net a daunting task: the Internet interprets censorship as a form of damage (who says computers are dumb?) and simply routes around it.
Arpanet was also designed to break the data stream transmitted over the network into little "packets" of information, like dividing a long letter into hundreds of individual postcards, so that if one packet failed to arrive at its destination it could easily and quickly be sent again. This method of sending data, called Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (abbreviated TCP/IP), is the "language" spoken by every computer on the Internet today. This common language allows all sorts of computers--from PCs and Macintoshes to huge mainframes--to exchange data over the Internet. TCP/IP also makes it possible to transmit many streams of data over the same network simultaneously, a capability that comes in handy when there are millions of people on-line at the same time.
The Internet grew gradually over the 1970s and 1980s but remained largely an academically oriented, strictly noncommercial network until the early 1990s, when commercial Internet service providers made it possible for the general public to access the Net. The boom in home computer ownership in the late 1980s had already led to the enormous growth of "on-line services" such as CompuServe, Prodigy, and America Online, as well as thousands of local "computer bulletin boards," but these services remained completely separate from the Internet until about 1993. When the gates to the Internet finally opened to the general public, what had been a slow trickle of interest turned into a torrent of new Net users, then swelled into the tidal wave of public fascination with all things Internet we see today. And that, dear reader, is how your local dry-cleaning establishment ended up with an e-mail address and a Web page (if you think this is an exaggeration, pay a visit to Tuggeranong Carpet & Upholstery Dry Cleaning at http://cibc. anutech.com.au/new/103/).
But What Does All This Have to Do With Books and Reading?
Oddly enough, an aspect of the Internet that has been largely overlooked in all the media coverage is one that newcomers notice immediately: the Internet is almost entirely text. The Internet is words, millions and millions of words. The unique riches of the Net, what a visitor can find on the Net and nowhere else, are, for the most part, things to read. The Internet brings together an enormous amount of textual information on nearly every topic under the sun, much of it either too arcane or too ephemeral to be easily found off-line. The Net can enhance your enjoyment of nearly any field of human endeavor--from cosmology to cosmetology, from rock music to foreign policy--but only if you're willing to read what the Net has to offer.
True, the cutting-edge technological wonders of the Net (pictures, movies, sound, etc.) may grab the attention of the mass media, but at their best they amount to little more than pale (and oddly pointless) imitations of television and magazines. Visit one of the Web sites maintained by the major movie studios, for instance, and you can download a 90-second video file promoting the latest blockbuster--but why bother? If that same promotion appeared on television, chances are you'd change the channel. Visitors to one of the virtual art museums on-line (the Louvre is a popular destination) spend long minutes waiting for masterpieces to appear on their computer screens, only to be rewarded with fuzzy, colorless parodies of great art nowhere near the equal of the reproductions found in the most inexpensive magazine or paperback book. The same is true for the tinny sound effects and primitive video currently available on the Net--television already does all that, and does it better. And although the interactive multimedia capabilities of the Net are bound to improve dramatically in the near future, the question for many of us will still be "Why bother?"
What makes the Net unique, what it does especially well, is the presentation of written material. There is a strong case to be made for the proposition that the people with the most to gain from the Internet today are readers--those of us whose leisure time is most often spent with a book, magazine, or newspaper, rather than in front of a television set or at the movies. For us, the Net offers what television, and even traditional books and magazines, cannot: a nearly limitless library of writings of every kind, most of which have never been published and all of which are now, miraculously, at our fingertips. For readers, the Internet is an enormous book, written by millions of writers all over the world.
The Internet itself, in fact, resembles a book more every day. The most revolutionary technological innovation to hit the Internet in the last decade, the World Wide Web, uses programs called "browsers" to present information to the viewer in the form of "pages" that look, lo and behold, just like the pages of a book or magazine.
Book Lovers on the Net
For the book lover in particular, the Net offers a vast array of resources, many of which are only available on-line. The world of literature on the Net is much more than just "books on-line," although there are plenty of those. Project Gutenberg (http://www.promo.net/pg/), one of several "e-text" (electronic text) projects, has set itself the goal of putting 10,000 e-texts on-line by the year 2001. They may well meet their goal--there are already hundreds of classics in the public domain (not covered by copyright) free for the asking on the Internet. Along with the well-known favorites of your school years, you'll find some of the more obscure works of famous authors on-line, making the Net's vast e-text archives a valuable resource for both the researcher and the casual browser.
Some of the resources awaiting readers on the Net mirror those available off-line, although the worldwide reach of the Internet can make it far easier to use them. It's possible, for instance, to order almost any book from dozens of on-line bookstores, whether you're looking for a current bestseller or a long-out-of-print rarity. Better still, thanks to the Web, you can now easily browse, and order books from, the catalogs of bookstores all over the world. Most major publishers also have Web pages, where you can search and order from their catalogs and often even read sample chapters of current best-sellers.
The evolution of on-line editions of general-interest magazines provides an especially interesting glimpse into the future of print publishing and the Net. After a tentative start on-line via The Electronic Newsstand (http://www.enews.com/), which allows visitors to sample an article or two from a variety of magazines, The Atlantic Monthly (http://www2.theatlantic.com/Atlantic/) has taken the plunge and put most of the content of each issue on the Web for free, even adding special "on-line-only" items for Net visitors. It is likely that many more magazines will make the jump to full Web editions in the near future, supported by revenue from advertisements on their virtual pages.
The Net also offers a wide range of genuinely new resources for readers to be found only on the Net--Web-based magazines and journals, on-line book discussion groups and mailing lists, Web pages devoted to literature and authors and discussions of their works, on-line literary and book reviews (many of which are listed in Chapter 7), and, behind it all, a remarkable community composed of fellow book lovers and readers.
Many of the Web pages devoted to books and reading are treasure troves of information (and obviously Herculean labors of love on the part of their creators). A page devoted to the works of Mark Twain, for example (http://web.syr.edu/~fjzwick/twainwww.html), offers biographical and bibliographical information, links to electronic texts of Twain's works, information about mailing lists devoted to Twain, and links to other Twain resources (journals, archives, etc.). In the communal spirit of the Net, almost every such page also includes links to other pages on the Web devoted to the same or similar topics, plus often dozens of links to more general literary resources. Some of the most valuable pages for book lovers on the Web, in fact, are the indexes of resources, meticulously cataloging hundreds of links by author and genre. The page created by Piet Wesselman in the Netherlands (Book Lovers: Fine Books and Literature at http://www.xs4all.nl/~pwessel), for example, is a simply extraordinary collection of well-organized links to literary treasures around the world, and it rewards the visitor with hours of fascinating browsing.
Elsewhere on the Net, the emergence of serious Web-based magazines with built-in discussion areas, such as Salon (http://www.salon1999.com) and The Utne Reader's Cafe Utne (http://www.utne.com), heralds the advent of Web content unavailable anywhere off-line. With these experiments, the Net has given readers something genuinely new: the ability to peruse a journal or newspaper on-line, then immediately participate in an informed discussion with other readers around the globe.
Literary journals and book reviews have also sprung up by the dozens on the Web over the last few years. Some of these are on-line versions of print publications, giving readers a chance to sample a variety of views not always available at the local newsstand. Others are entirely on-line; some produced by university English departments, many the work of small groups of dedicated individuals.
Similarly, the ability that the Web grants nearly everyone to publish his or her own writing in a highly visible venue has already produced highly creative personal Web sites showcasing poetry or prose, as well as intriguing experiments in collaborative fiction.
The dozens of literary discussion groups, e-mail mailing lists, and newsletters on the Net have brought the kind of in-depth discussions previously found only in literary salons or university seminars to a worldwide audience. Some of the Usenet discussion groups devoted to books and reading are probably visited on a regular basis by 50,000 or more people, and many of these groups have developed into on-line communities in their own right. It's not unusual for a single discussion topic in rec.arts.books, for example, to garner 35 to 40 contributions from interested readers in a single week, and discussions of a controversial topic can sometimes last for months. Rec.arts.books is also the place to find periodic postings of FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) files on a wide variety of book-related topics, including genre lists (such as The Arthurian Booklist, for devotees of Camelot) and the encyclopedic lists of bookstores in cities around the world compiled by Evelyn Leeper, who also maintains the extensive FAQ for rec.arts.books itself. Of course, rec.arts.books is only one of many Usenet newsgroups devoted to books--there are many other groups devoted to specific genres, such as science fiction, and to particular authors, from Anne Rice to Shakespeare (see Chapter 7 for a complete list of such groups). Each group brings together newcomers and longtime fans, casual browsers as well as serious scholars, in an atmosphere of lively and informed discussion.
That the Internet has proven a fertile medium for readers and book lovers is not really surprising, given its history as a largely academic network intended to facilitate communication between researchers and scholars. Years before the first "newbie" (new Internet user) from America Online dipped his toe in the waters of the Net, the Internet was being used every day to exchange scientific information, to communicate between libraries, to discuss literary theory and cultural trends, and to share research data between institutions thousands of miles apart. Consequently, there was already an enormous reservoir of often highly sophisticated literary resources on-line before the Internet "went public." Behind the glitz and silliness of the "multimedia extravaganza" view of the Net touted by the mass media, this "old Internet" is still chugging along, growing every day.
The Culture of the Net
Not only did the Internet exist long before it was discovered by the average citizen, but the inhabitants of the Net had developed over the years a distinct, genuinely intellectual culture embodying many of the best (and, yes, a few of the worst) traits of its academic origins.
First among the virtues of the culture of the Net is a respect for the free dissemination of information and knowledge. Almost all Net users are passionate defenders of the principle of freedom of speech--so passionate that most of the great debates that have taken place on the Net have centered on attempts to muzzle speech on-line, either by other Net users or by governments. Even offenders against the peace and sanity of the Net as a whole--such as the obnoxious "net kooks" who blanket the discussion groups of the Net with their rantings on a variety of imaginary grievances--are granted, by and large, the right to do so.
The Internet community is also a fairly remarkable experiment in democracy in action. Because the Internet is arranged as a network of networks intersecting at a variety of points, there really is no "center" to the Net, and certainly no "Internet Central" running the show. The government gradually gave up its central role in the development of the Net in the late 1970s, and even the National Science Foundation, which had funded the development of the primary network "backbone" of the Internet, has now bowed out of the picture. The Internet today is a largely self-governing community. In place of regulations legally governing what can and cannot be done on the Net, there is "netiquette," a framework of unwritten common law generally agreed upon by Net users that keeps things running fairly smoothly.
A Few Principles of Netiquette
The basic principles of netiquette are simply Internet-specific elaborations of the Golden Rule:
Perhaps the most unusual facet of Internet culture, and the characteristic in which it departs most markedly from off-line culture, is the spirit of communalism that prevails on the Net. The governing ethic of the Net has always been that the resources of the Net should be free whenever possible and that one should not take from the Net without giving something in return. The Net itself was built largely by volunteers, and historically many people have viewed the Net (and some still do) as a grand experiment in Utopian Communalism. Without delving into the ultimate practicality of that vision, it is still possible to be struck by the amazing amount of hard work that has been freely given to the Internet community by its citizens. It's not just a question of "free stuff" on the Net (although there's plenty of that). Many of the best sites on the Net, especially those having to do with books and reading, show an extraordinary love of knowledge, an eagerness to share it, and a willingness to spend months and years contributing to the commonwealth of the Net.
The Internet, of course, is just a mirror of society as a whole and becoming more so every day. Unfortunately, some of the less attractive aspects of both society and the Net have worsened of late, fueled at least in part by the opening of the Net to anyone who can afford or otherwise obtain a computer and a modem. What is called the "signal-to-noise ratio" (the proportion of content versus nonsense) sometimes seems to be dropping precipitously on the Net. The dominance in some areas of the Internet of a flamboyantly antisocial mentality, as well as a sudden influx of Net users who evidently view the Internet as just the latest incarnation of CB radio, has reduced some Net discussion groups to brutal and pointless shouting matches. The same yahoo factor has rendered Internet Relay Chat (the real-time chat facility on the Net) nearly unusable. And although pornography is not nearly as widespread on the Net as the mass media would have you believe, you'd never know it to judge by the number of "newbies" clogging some Net discussion groups with their requests for, as they put it, "nude pictures."
The World Wide Web, which has contributed enormously to the popularity and development of the Net itself, has highlighted another development on the Net in general and the Web in particular, which might best be called "the crisis of content." The sad fact is that much of what has been put up on the Web in the past two or three years is not worth the time it takes to access. The enormously democratic technology of the Web permits nearly anyone, anywhere, to put his or her thoughts and creations on the Net for the whole world to see. But this wonderful potential has led, sadly, to a global tidal wave of pointless, sophomoric, and downright boring "personal home pages" competing for attention with vacuous commercial Web sites promoting everything from Hollywood's latest blockbuster to rug shampoos and dog training emporiums. The prevalence on the Web of such cultural detritus has become intense enough to earn the Web an unflattering but sadly justifiable comparison to public-access TV ("Wayne's Web," or simply "the World Wide Waste of Time").
Whether the Net will survive this onslaught of mindless noise, as well as attempts by a variety of media moguls to turn the Web into nothing more than an adjunct of television, remains to be seen. One can only hope that it will, but, in the meantime, the trick to using the Net without having the urge to shoot your computer is to avoid the bad parts and seek out the good.
The good news is that there are true jewels amid the rubbish on the Internet, and there are more of them every day. The thousands of book lovers who engage in serious and civil discussions in Usenet groups are a very healthy sign. So, too, are the emerging cultural resources on the Net devoted to women's issues and the concerns of racial and national minorities. More generally, the increasing use of the Net and the Web to publicize campaigns on behalf of human rights and to oppose censorship around the world bodes well for the development of a global network of mature, responsible citizens, and the growing number of wonderful Internet sites created for (and often by) children augur favorably for the future of the Net.
There will always be a certain percentage of loudmouthed yahoos on the Internet. But the history of the Net has also proven that there is plenty of room for the rest of us to construct a literate, humane alternative community on-line.
Books, the Net, and the Future of Reading
Given the perilous state of literacy in our culture, the prospect of the Internet's becoming yet another vast wasteland competing with television for the attention of a nation of couch potatoes has deeply alarmed some commentators and educators. How can good old-fashioned books, they ask, compete with snazzy computer graphics? After we've all roamed the on-line world from our living rooms, who will be satisfied with a trip to the local library? Isn't the Internet really the final nail in the coffin of the written word? In many instances, these fears have been fed by the breathless predictions of chirping cyber-evangelists who seem to think that a bookless future would be a good thing.
One can hardly blame the critics of the Internet for being alarmed by the portrait of the future cheerfully painted by some cyber-prophets, where libraries are supplanted by computer banks and the printed word exists only as an ephemeral image on a computer screen; where books themselves have been replaced by handheld computerized readers, and where even the need to frequent bookstores is obviated by the instantaneous delivery of "texts" over the omnipresent network; where electronic mail has superseded all other written communication, so that never again will we be burdened with trying to decipher a loved one's idiosyncratic handwriting; where true human memory has been replaced by data storage, and the cultural life of a nation can be loaded onto one giant hard drive; where society itself has fragmented into isolated individuals, numbly clicking their way from one "cool thing" to the next, bathed in the pale glow of a computer screen. One need not be a Luddite to find such a future appalling--as Samuel Goldwyn once said, "Include me out."
No one can promise that such a dire future will not come to pass, and it is true that there are, even today, some disturbing signs of the damage computer mania can wreak on the world of books and reading. Among them is the destruction of "old-fashioned" card catalogs at many libraries in favor of dubious data systems that often make it more difficult to locate a particular title. Alarming, too, is the fashionable but utterly fraudulent practice of rating the educational competence of a school by the number of computers found in its classrooms.
But the dreadful vision of a bookless world is not likely to come true, at least in part because the technological wonders of the future are never quite as shiny and efficient (thank heavens) when they actually arrive as they were promised to be. Electronic books are unlikely to ever replace real books, simply because real books are, and will continue to be, better. Books don't need batteries; books don't wear out; you can take books to the beach or into the bathtub (try that with a computer), and you can write an inscription in a book you love and then give it as a gift that has few equals in emotional significance. Human beings may nor have meant to create something as wonderful and magical as books, and we certainly never dreamed at the time that we were inventing an "information storage and retrieval system" as versatile and adaptable as books, but we love our books and we're not about to give them up. The same goes for handwritten letters, and libraries with real books on the shelves, and bookstores where you can browse the shelves for a whole long afternoon. We have to be willing to fight to preserve these things because we know that they are, and will continue to be, important to human society.
The choice, ultimately, will be ours, because society is built by human beings, which brings us back to the Internet. The Internet is a computer network, largely accidental in origin, built in fits and starts from spare parts, and that's all it is. The Internet is not now, and never will be, a substitute for, or even "a quantum leap" in, reading and education. Anyone who tries to tell you differently is selling snake oil, and trying to pick the pockets of future generations to boot. No one, least of all children in school, "needs" the Internet, any more than they "need" computers in the first place.
The Internet is simply a communication root by which we can expand the experience of reading and learning by bringing resources and people closer together. The enduring contribution of the Net to reading and literacy is likely to be the discussion groups, research resources, and on-line communities of readers and book lovers that will add to our appreciation of, not substitute for, real books and the knowledge gained from reading them.
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