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Casting a Web on the WorldBy Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 23, 1997; Page D05
The virtual world is massive, marvelous, surprising, sinister, scholarly, lifesaving. Usually the only way to see this world is with a computer—a clunky calculator/typewriter with a bad TV screen. It's like looking at life through a keyhole. You're privy to only a small, distorted portion of a larger universe beyond the door.
Maybe the best way to understand the scope of the new technology is with an old technology—a book: "24 Hours in Cyberspace."
On Feb. 8, 1996, more than 150 photographers all over the globe took pictures of people whose lives have been touched by the Internet. The result is a wide-ranging gallery of portraits of the humanity behind the machinery. Against a bleak backdrop of cobbled-together shacks and sheds, a group of young South Africans balance the components of a new computer on their heads. Exiled Tibetan monks, with fiery red robes and ceremonial horns, are able to communicate with sympathizers everywhere. A thankful mother who has found an online support group presses her head against the shoulder of her autistic child. In the Egyptian desert a Coptic monk, living in a cave, uses a laptop to send messages to schoolchildren in Michigan.
The provocative project was the brainchild of photographer Rick Smolan, who also orchestrated "A Day in the Life of America" and other productions. "A Day in the Life" reminded me of the old Life magazine books that captured America so beautifully. But the book version of "24 Hours" captures a new world. Flipping through it I feel as though I'm witnessing the birth of a star.
Half of us believe that the Internet is used only for what we use it for, the other half of us don't even know what the Internet is.
According to Smolan, only a smidgen of Americans are using the Internet at all. He says there's a lot of anxiety out there because every car and movie ad now has "www.com" scrawled across the bottom.
"With this book," he says, "I'm trying to give my mother some understanding of what the Internet is all about."
Originally, Smolan says, he was asked to help the Media Lab at MIT celebrate its birthday by pulling together e-mail from everywhere. He broadened the idea, raised money from corporations and, with much fanfare and folderol, staged the round-the-clock, round-the-world extravaganza.
He established a Web site to display the results and in November the book was published. I tell him that I enjoyed the book much more than the Web site, which I found unwieldy and unsatisfying.
He isn't surprised. Though a reader can turn at random to any place in a book, most begin at the beginning and read left to right. This age-old routine, he says, provides a rhythm, an order, a pacing. "In a Web site," he says, "you can just jump around as much as you want to."
Now there is a new Web site, posted by the online book store Amazon.com. The home page is way too commercial. There are ads for companies such as Kodak, Adobe and washingtonpost.com. But Smolan says the book is selling well online. "It's right up there with Michael Crichton's 'Airframe' and 'How to Build Killer Web sites,'‚" he says.
These days Smolan doesn't have much time to spend on the Internet. "I think there are a lot of inappropriate uses of the Web," he says, "and that's okay." He looks forward to more writers and artists getting involved. "The cool thing is to find those little gems."
Smolan's gem has been found by the Smithsonian Institution. The museum asked him to donate his Web site to the museum, to go along with Dorothy's ruby slippers and the original flag that inspired the "Star Spangled Banner."
This evening the 24 Hours in Cyberspace Web site goes into the Nation's Attic. Some 70 photos from the book will be hanging in an exhibit at the National Museum of American History through April. At two computer kiosks, museumgoers will be able to visit some of the Web sites featured in the book.
And Smolan's next project? He says he wants to put together a book about "being 16." That's even more exciting, and mysterious, than cyberspace.
GETTING THERE: The original 24 Hours in Cyberspace: http://amsterdam.park.org/Pavilions/
Cyber24/sitemap/sitemap_home.html; the new "24 Hours in Cyberspace" site at http://www.cyber24.com; and Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company