Chapter One: How Do We Get On?
A Nontechnical Technical Explanation
Here is the truth: there is no Information Superhighway, though it pretty much already exists.
Consider that a Zen koan.
In point of fact, Information Superhighway is just a bureaucrat's buzz phrase. No one is even sure who first used it, though many people have accused Vice President A1 Gore. The term Information Superhighway is applied with stunning abandon these days, often erroneously, to mean just about anything linked to a wire--your telephone, your cable television, your doorbell. This is part of the confusion many people face, and surely part of their apprehension.
Moreover, the term Information Superhighway is meant to sound exciting and fast, but to many it seems distressingly ominous, like a place the average man might get run over, and seriously hurt.
There is no Superhighway, never was, and there may or may not ever be one. What exists is something else, a vast global network of computers sending messages back and forth. Some call this network the Internet, though that is not entirely accurate either. The Internet is only a part of the whole. Beyond the Internet, there are commercial services such as CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy, and others, which are, to varying degrees, linked "on-line" to the Internet. Beyond those, there are thousands of smaller entities, often called BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems), some of which are linked to the Internet, and some of which are not. Sound confusing? It is.
Many people just say Internet and leave it at that, since the Internet is certainly the area where most of the activity takes place. Others have begun to use an abbreviation of sorts, "the Net, to indicate the whole shebang. Many people just throw up their hands.
Even the experts disagree on terminology, I'm afraid, but here is what you really need to know:
A network is two or more computers electronically connected so that they can communicate back and forth. The Internet is made up of an estimated twenty thousand of these computer networks, all networked together, mostly by phone line, linking millions of individual computers and resulting in one big, unruly network of networks.
Think for a moment of an enormous lace doily, like the one on the back of my aunt Philomena's Victorian sofa, but this one is draped across the planet, with each knot representing a different computer. Now imagine that the lace doily conceals a billion tiny wires, and these wires can send words or pictures back and forth between the knots at breakneck speed, almost as fast as we can type them in.
The Net is a little like a gigantic lace doily that glows. The Net is what most people mean when they say Information Superhighway. The Net is the home of the electronic culture, if such a thing exists. The Net is already in place, and working.
But then there are the futurists, those people who can't stop living for tomorrow. Having perhaps read that little white card in the Smithsonian, the futurists envision someday linking up these communicating computers to your cable television wires, adding connections to the ATM programs at your bank, splicing in the major airline reservation systems and all those pesky shop-at-home catalog companies, and eventually tying all of this into your electronic garage-door opener. That would require a very large and intricate doily indeed, and whether it will ever really happen is anybody's guess, and many a person's nightmare.
So who is using this Net, and what are they doing?
The Internet, this amazing new thing, is actually over twenty-five years old. It began as something called ARPANET and was for quite some time the exclusive domain of research scientists, most of them housed in big universities, many of them working for the Department of Defense. The network grew, by leaps and bounds, eventually going overseas, pulling in more and more scientists, then graduate students, and eventually just plain people.
Today, many of these same researchers are still around, still on the networks, as are their colleagues and many of their former students. If you have a technical question about software or physics or molecular biology, the Internet is still a very good place to ask it.
But the balance is shifting.
Mike Miskulin, a regular contributor to an electronic discussion group focusing on physics, notes that "the average discussion has plummeted. Where at one time you could find a number of 'serious, discussions, now [the physics group1 is a haven for crackpots and endless [conversations] on faster-than-light travel"
Everyday folks with plebeian interests are more the norm now. Part of this is due to the popularity of commercial "access providers" such as America Online and CompuServe--these firms are doing for the Net what McDonald's did for the cheeseburger. Part of it is simply word of mouth--access to the Net can be interesting, and it can be fun. The number of current Internet users is estimated to be jumping fast-to 20 million, or 30 million, or 40 million--as with any worthwhile statistic, no one can really agree.
What everyone does agree on is that the number of users is rocketing skyward. More and more newcomers are using the Internet to find an enormous amount of information, some of that information crucial, technical, or fascinating, much of it just silly. They look at pictures on their computers, sometimes pictures of comets crashing into distant planets, oftentimes pictures of distant women without any clothes. They join other computer users with similar interests--gardening, ice cream, destroying the earth--and then trade messages about that topic. They send one another electronic letters, some angry, some friendly, some short, some long.
The Internet and the related networks that make up the greater Net are used for just about everything under the sun--from mere socializing to support and therapy, from chat about hobbies to serious research, from commerce to crime. What is done on the Internet simply mirrors what is done off the Internet, the only difference being that on the Internet it all happens electronically, and very, very fast.
How do I get on?
Shouldn't you finish this book first, see if you really want to get on?
Well, I was impatient, too, fighting my way onto the Internet before I was even sure how to spell it. I don't do scientific research, so that was certainly not my reason. Mainly, I was curious. It seemed more and more people were talking about this Net thing, and I didn't want to be the one person who got left behind.
So I bought a modem (a piece of computer equipment that I really don't understand) and held my breath as I hooked the modem into my antiquated computer. I plugged a cord from my modem into my phone jack, then held my breath again. All in all, it took me about a day and a half before I could get it to work.
I am among the lucky ones actuary, because I get free Internet access through the university where I teach. You see, to use the Internet, your own computer has to be physically connected up somehow--usually ova the telephone. It than has to call a place that lets you hook into the Internet directly, or through a "host" computer--some other computer somewhere that is already deaf in--and that computer connects you to the Net. Think of the host computer as an old-fashioned switchboard operator maybe, the one who used to patch through your call
Frankly, the way it all works gets dull and technical, but here is the bottom line: you need to find someone who will let you hook on, and there are numerous ways to do this.
You could get a university account simply by going back to college. Almost every college and university of any size is linked to the Internet now, and increasingly they are linking up all their students. Depending on the tuition, this might be an expensive option, but you would also get to skip classes and drink enormous quantities of beer.
Short of that, however, and assuming you don't work in a big government office, or at Hewlett-Packard, IBM, or some other high-tech firm with a big computer and free access for all its employees, you will probably need to look for an Internet "access provider."
These access providers come in all different sizes and shapes. Your main choice will be between one of the major national services, such as America Online, Prodigy, CompuServe, or Delphi, or one of a host of usually local, smaller, lower-cost access providers. They offer a range of services, and differing levels of Internet access, and this all changes from month to month, so your best bet is to ask around.
For now, know that the big difference between the major national services and the low-cost, no-frills local providers is often the "interface"--you will have a choice between a "command-line interface" and a "GUI." (GUI is pronounced "gooey," because it is sweet and probably addictive; it is short for Graphic User Interface, just one of an approximate 216 million intimidating bits of technical language invented by those who program computers for a living--one more reason why computer dweebs can't get dates.) Translated for the common man, GUI and command-line interface are just fancy names for "the stuff you see on your screen."
After you connect with a local, low-cost access provider, for instance, you might see this:
This is a command line. In other words, you will need to type a "command" (Hint: either type "menu" or "help," or shut off the machine and go get coffee.)
The major on-line services such as Prodigy and CompuServe, on the other hand, are quite different. They are not the Internet, strictly speaking, they are simply companies with big computers that are willing, for a fee, to connect you to the Internet, or to one of their other fee-based information features--many of which are like the Internet, only tamer. The big commercial providers will even send you free software and information, and give you free time to fool around on-line (a tactic they learned from drug dealers maybe?). They are very popular and profitable. When you connect with most of these firms, instead of a vague command line, you will see pictures on your computer screen, and these pictures, known as icons, will have labels like "Go Shopping, or "Go Read Sports News," or "Go to Jail, Go Directly to Jail, Do Not Pass `Go,' Send Us $200." All you have to do is point your computer mouse at one of these icons, click a button, and wait for things to start happening.
And if even that seems too difficult, the newest trend in GUIs is little pictures. Apple's e-World, for instance, presents pictures of buildings (a bank, a shopping mall, an "Arts & Leisure Pavilion"), and you can just point at the picture. This will allow people who can't even read to use the Internet, though what the will do when the get there is entirely unclear. (And a bit frightening.)
I know, I know, it all sounds daunting. The jargon is thick and new, the hardware and software commands can be confusing, no one agrees whether it is better to pay one of the big guys, save money with one of the small guys, or stay on the sofa and just watch television. The good news, though, is that the people who do know how to hook up modems, how to make those modems dial up a big computer, how to wade through-the command lines and the GUIs and actually find the Internet, tend to be very eager to show other people. Perhaps your brother-in-law knows all about it and will hook you up for a beer and a sandwich? If that fails, buy one of the many technical guides in your bookstore's computer section. There are a kazillion of them, and probably one that is specifically written for your computer and your situation.
Yes. but if I do get on, can I ever get off?
This is a deliciously ambiguous question, given the extent to which sexual and erotic issues are discussed on the Internet, but the simple answer, for the moment, is "of course " All you have to do is reach along the side of your computer, find the big red power button, and push it down. That gets you out of there very fast.
In the future, the answer may become more fuzzy. Right now, the Internet is a habit and habitat of choice. Ten years from now, however, you may ultimately need to be connected to do your banking, to watch the five hundred new channels of future television, or to do your job. lust as the average employer would probably give you one of those funny sidelong glances right now if you announced that you didn't have a telephone, it may be true in the very near future that not having Information Superhighway wires running right into your living room will be akin to living like Fred Flintstone.
The pressure will likely be on you to be wired and if you believe the doomsayers, those wires will be linked directly to major marketing firms and the government. They will know what you read, when you read it, what you watch and how often, what you buy and what you spend for it, to whom you send electronic mail, when you last visited a doctor, your college grades, ant perhaps what is in the electronic letters you send. This &sure scenario worries libertarians, privacy activists, and paranoids a great deal.
It would probably worry Thoreau.
As for myself, I don't really know what the future holds (though I would like a three-week vacation). What I do know is that, whatever happens, the future is likely to be very interesting. And for many people, including those you are about to meet, it is already here.
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