Before the Internet was a medium for exchanging Eminem MP3 files, it
was an information medium. Not that the change is all bad; we can
still enjoy a global medium that serves as an infinitely customizable
radio station, and a shopping forum, and a junk yard for all sorts of
trivia like the IQ test my daughter showed me recently. But I’ve been
thinking back to when the Internet was heralded, around the 1980s, as
the greatest potential medium for information ever invented.
I know I’m not supposed to post a weblog containing any date that
begins with a “19″ because people view history as irrelevant. They’re
more interested in somebody’s latest program crash or job gripe than
anything I did in the 1980s. But information ruled back then; users of the Internet back then were very excited about it.
We didn’t have MP3, but we did have GIF and even MIME. Mostly we had
information in the crudest ASCII form, and a lot of it was fake, but
there was enough good stuff to propel the use of the Internet forward
to what we have today. So don’t turn up your nose at this information,
especially considering most Internet users have practically forgotten
what real information is. I’m using information not in the sense of
“digital bits with meaning”–which is so broad as to almost neuter the
term–but in the sense of “input that allows a person to make a
conscious change of direction in his life.”
You can still get this sort of information on the Internet today.
Foremost is information about sex. This is critical because
information about sex was hard for the average person to get before
the Internet. The medium for such information tended to be articles
along the lines of “Testosterone functioning as a function of
corticotropin releasing hormone diffusion.”
A few highly progressive researchers wrote easy-to-read books about
sex. But the problem with books is that, to get them, you had to go to
a bookstore. And everybody was too embarrassed for that. So nobody
purchased the books by highly progressive researchers except highly
progressive parents trying to inform their children. And while this is
nice for the children, if you’re a parent when you buy a book on sex
it’s obviously too late for you.
TV shows and movies contain lots of sex, but in the form of
titillation rather than information. Both forms are all over the
Internet, though, with the key result that information can be obtained
by anybody, anywhere, any time, anonymously. John McCain passed a bill
requiring software filters that block the information, but they don’t
work, so people can still get their information
(OK, I admit that here I’ve exaggerated a little bit. The McCain bill
requires filters only in schools and libraries that accept federal
funds. And the filters have to block only “obscenity,” but since
“obscenity” is defined in U.S. law as “anything interesting your child
would like to see, or her teacher would like her to research,” the
effect is basically what I said.)
Next after sex, the Internet provides information on political
campaigns. I find this valuable because a lot of people want
information on these campaigns, and once again the traditional media
provide titillation instead.
TV and newspaper editors are aware that the public is interested in
politics. But not knowing how to cover politics, the media cover it as
competitive sports. (I am by no means the first person to point this
You see, competitive sports make a lot of money for the media, so
they’ve learned how to do sports well. And since that’s where they’ve
developed their expertise, everything else “looks like a nail” and
they try to apply the same sports-tested hammer to it.
War works reasonably well as a competitive sport. The main difference
for the media is that in sports, the bystanders provide the violence,
whereas in war they are the victims of the violence.
Literature and academic publishing, when viewed from the right angle,
can also be covered as a competitive sport. The New York Review of
Books has been doing this for decades.
But political campaigns do not work well as competitive sports. Yet
the media have developed a tradition of covering them this way. For
instance, I’ll find several columns one day in the paper about a
problem John Kerry is having with his campaign staff. This maps in the
newspaper editor’s mind to the problems a sports team manager has with
his players, so it takes up most of a page. But it does not offer
anything about who John Kerry is or what the article has to do with
anything else in the world.
I happen to know who John Kerry is because I live in Massachusetts
(for all the rest of you, John Kerry is a senator from Massachusetts)
and because I am interested in where we get illegal drugs, and Kerry
has helped to explain that. (Try, for instance, entering a combination
of “Kerry” and “contra” into a search engine.) Drugs, like sex,
represent an example of a taboo subject where the Internet makes
information more available than ever.
Meanwhile, politics in the traditional media consist more of campaign
logistics than of issues, which is as if sports stories reported more
about personnel problems than than about the games. So we’re lucky we
now have the Internet and all the sites that offer information as well
as citizen participation. (The
League of Women Voters’
Rock the Vote
are just two of the many sites that show the diversity available.)
The Internet didn’t seem to have much effect on the recent California
recall election, but I suspect that’s because the voters didn’t treat
it as an issues campaign, but as a personality campaign. A California
resident told me that, in this case, the TV stations came through and
aired some good debates.
The reason Arnold Schwarzenegger won, in my opinion, is that the media
decided early on that his candidacy was the only dramatic story they
could make out of the campaign. And so the news covered mostly
Schwarzenegger from then on. The other hundred-plus candidates found
that they’d be covered only insofar as they interacted with
Schwarzenegger’s campaign. It got so extreme that many candidates
piled into whatever vehicles they could get and followed the
Schwarzenegger campaign around the state in the hope of getting
noticed. Since this chase turned into a competitive sport, it got
reported in the newspaper.
So the Internet doesn’t seem to be doing much for John Kerry or Gray
Davis. Nor did it do much for John McCain, but that’s to be expected
because, as I said, he’s not an Internet-friendly guy. But the
Internet is doing a lot for Howard Dean. It’s not the best way to
reach a large part of the country’s ethnically and economically
diverse population, and the Dean campaign is aware of that. But the
Internet is a good way to rally early and highly committed people who
can provide both money and volunteers. O’Reilly & Associates published
a book about using the Internet for political organizing back in 1996,
but it’s getting really interesting only now.
I mentioned trivia and tests earlier. The Internet successfully
combines serious politics with the human urge to play. Try calculating
and see whether that doesn’t induce political action.
Another topic where the Internet has useful information is cars. The
ability to check many prices from one’s desk gives the consumer much
negotiating power. This also goes for air travel and other big ticket
items where pricing is elastic.
Of course, the Internet is a great source of information concerning
other people, but I won’t comment further on that because it’s
distasteful to me and it’s already gotten plenty of publicity.
The final kind of information I find it particularly interesting on
the Internet is information about the Internet itself. You can get
to the actual software that lets you use the Internet and run servers
on it. (I can’t resist a plug here for my company’s own resource, the
because it also functions as a source of information about the
It’s a novel phenomenon, researching the Internet on the Internet. You
couldn’t build the Panama Canal using other canals, or build the
transcontinental railroads using other railroads. But previous work on
the Internet is directly supporting people building its next
phase. While most of us are seeking Eminem or porn or the Howard Dean
site, there’s always some outlying individual asking, “How can I
develop new J2EE software in a way that’s easy to subclass?” And that
geek will draw everything else along into the future.
Does the Internet change our relationship to information?