Inter-Not

The history of the Internet hasn’t begun yet. What we’re seeing now
is prehistory. But this fun-and-games period will come to an end
when someone comes up with an application that really matters.

Technologies that matter make daily life less obnoxious, and you
can leverage them all the time. The Net is going to start mattering
in a significant way when it relieves people of the burden of
dealing with the garbage inherent in the information flow of
everyday life. The Net is going to matter when I can rely on it to
store the information I now keep on disk, and the computer is a
completely transparent object. I plug in one computer, I see
through it to the object that matters to me, and I have my entire
information life on-line, in chronological order, searchable from
my electronic birth certificate onward. All the documents important
to me are maintained by the Net with sufficient reliability that I
can unplug my computer and smash it with a hammer without affecting
anything. I can walk up to any computer anywhere and focus it on my
own life stream, my own information object. A laptop will begin to
look like a Winnebago; it will be a little eccentric to carry one
around.

The Net is going to matter when all of my information
transactions with the outside world go through it. I buy an object
of some sort and can find the owner’s manual on it; all my bills
and correspondence go through it; I can save snapshots and videos
on it; and it serves as my appointment calendar and electronic
diary. At that point the Net isn’t going to look glitzy. It’s going
to be transparent, like central heating: You can easily forget it,
but it will be hard to picture life without it.

The most important way people are going to make money on the Net
is on the model of utility companies, by providing a service that
you pay for monthly. I’m going to hire a server to manage all my
documents, and I’ll be happy to pay $12.50 a month for an
absolutely reliable storage facility. This company will store my
documents, support all sorts of fancy searches, and make my
documents available anywhere.

We aren’t moving in that direction now. A big transition has to
happen: People need to get over their childish excitement, stop
playing games, and get serious.

A lot of work has been done on electronic newspapers. But
they’ve failed to attract a large audience because they haven’t
given the public anything that’s worth money compared with paper
newspapers. An electronic newspaper has to be designed by someone
who grasps why a paper newspaper is a great technology: it’s cheap,
it’s portable, and it fits in my briefcase. I can spread it out on
a table and read it while I drink coffee and eat a doughnut. A
company that’s going to make money on electronic newspapers will
have to come up with something completely different.

I’d like to see an electronic newspaper that has multiple
translucent layers, each layer evolving at a different rate. The
top layer is late-breaking stuff, and as I delve down into the
layers, I’d get more detailed information. I wouldn’t have to read
it for days or weeks because I could rewind and fast-forward
through everything I’ve missed. And I could read it with my eyes
closed: If I’d had a hard day in the office, I could lie down on
the couch, close my eyes, and listen to audio versions of the
stories I select. Maybe these features are not the ones that will
make a billion dollars for a new company, but whatever it is,
someone is going to have to have an idea different from the product
out there now.

What kind of people use the Net and what are their activities
doing to the country, the world, the culture? It may sound like a
parochial issue that women don’t much like computers, but they
don’t, and the issue is a tremendously important one. It’s a fact
that there are not many women majoring in computer science, and
people are doing handstands to get more women in the field. An
article in Time magazine 15 years ago about the first wave
of video games observed that boys played them and girls didn’t, and
experts were asking how we can get girls more involved. My response
is, Why should they want to be? They’re not attracted to this
world, certainly not to the extent that men are, and that’s one of
the reasons why it’s such a spiritually impoverished world. Most
reasonably sophisticated men are happier in an environment that
includes women. One of the problems with the computer society is
that not only is it an almost all-male society, but it’s a
little-boy society, part of an ongoing infantilization of the
society over the past half century.

Temperamentally conservative people don’t like machines and
never will. These may be very bright people for whom the computer
world is never going to be a completely satisfactory world. In
addition to this 35 percent, there’s another 35 percent who might
be great computer users but now realize that computer software
stinks. They realize that the whole computer world is set up on a
primitive basis: They shouldn’t have to worry about compatibility;
they shouldn’t have to worry about backing up disks or about the
format of a floppy disk. Consumers wouldn’t put up with any of this
if they were serious.

Excerpted from a chapter in Digerati:
Encounter with the Cyber Elite
(Hardwired, 1996.) In this
chapter David Gelertner, a Yale University computer scientist,
comments on the net.

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