Can’t get there from here: Information Backroads

  1. Can’t get there
  2. The New Literacy

“What we are ‘managing’ is a world, not a network, and what is emerging is a way of understanding that world, not ‘information.’”(Thurber and Pope)

There is no information highway. At best there’s an information backroads, but I’d more call it an information animal trail; though even then, I’ve found it easier to track a limping buck than some of the maimed and crippled addresses that pass as Internet sites.

Top Eight Ways That Life Would Be Different If Microsoft Built Cars:

  1. New seats would require everyone to have the same size butt.
  2. We’d all have to switch to Microsoft Gas (tm).
  3. The oil, alternator, gas, and engine warning light would be replaced by a single “General Car Fault” warning light.
  4. Sun Motorsystems would make a car that was solar-powered, twice as reliable, five times as fast, but would only run on 5% of the roads.
  5. You could only have one person in your car at a time, unless you bought Car ‘95 or Car NT; but then, you’d have to buy more seats.
  6. Occasionally, your car would just die for no reason, and you would have to restart it. For some strange reason, you would just accept this as normal.
  7. Every time the lines on the road were repainted, you’d have to buy a new car.

And the number one way that life would be different if Microsoft built cars:

  1. People would get excited about the new features in Microsoft cars, forgetting completely that they had been available in other brands for years.

I remember one year back in high school, my dad and I’d been out deer hunting; we’d spent most of the morning sitting in the spot we’d chosen. He got a little pissed because he missed one, so he left to see if he could scare another one up. No more than half an hour later one of my cousins came by and asked me why the hell I wasn’t cleaning the dead deer lying down the hill. Turns out dad hadn’t missed after all; either that, or some deer felt pity on him and went to die about thirty feet from our tree.

If any animal is the mascot for the Internet, it’s that damned dead deer, lying right in front of two hunters’ faces. The deer’s dead and we’re clueless, and that pretty much sums up the Internet. Everything you want or need is right in front of your face, but you can’t see it until someone else points it out.

Why is the Internet not a highway? One would expect a highway to be driveable at least, oh, three or four days a year. The Internet is a vast collection of numerous computers. In many cases, to get to one computer, you have to get to another computer first. Take Gopher, for example, while we’re talking about roadkill. Here’s how Gopher works on the Internet:

First, I have to ‘connect’ to my Internet ‘provider’. My provider provides a computer on the Internet. It’s my ‘on- ramp’ to the infobahn. How do I connect? I start up my computer. I start up some software on my computer that talks to my modem. The software uses my modem to contact the Internet provider over my telephone line. Once the software connects to the Internet provider, my computer is part of the Internet. There are four links in the chain here, any of which can go wrong: I have to know 1) how to use my computer; 2) how to use the software; 3) how to use the modem; and 4) how to use the service provider. And any one of those four links can go bad; in particular, my ‘service provider’ is the University of San Diego, my employer. When their computers go down, I cannot access the Internet, and thus gopher. Remember Gopher? This is a song about Gopher.

So I’m connected. Now I can start up the gopher software. What’s in a name? Gopher got its name from the mascot of the University of Minnesota, where it was developed, but the image of ‘tunneling’ the Internet fits this software well. First, gopher goes to its ‘home’ site. (A ‘site’ is a ‘place’ on the infobahn.) My ‘home’ site is my personal Gopher site, Cerebus the Gopher.(involved digression) Cerebus presents a list of options; some of these options are other gopher sites. If I choose one of these sites, Gopher will move me to that site, in effect ‘digging’ a ‘tunnel’ between Cerebus and the new site. The new site also provides a list of options, and some of these options may also be Gopher sites (they might also be information files or information folders). I can choose to move backwards through the tunnel I’ve created, or I can choose to dig another tunnel to another gopher site. I continue doing this until I get to a site that has the information I want. I might end up having a tunnel of ten or more sites in between my home Cerebus and the destination. Each of these ‘sites’ is a computer. Each of these computers are using software to serve their gopher site to the Internet public. If any of those computers had been ‘down’ or if the software had ‘crashed’ (both of these are euphemisms for “stop working in a spectacular manner”), I would have been unable to find the site I wanted.

At least, I would have been unable to get there using the path of tunnels that I’m familiar with. If I were desperate, I could blaze a separate trail that reaches the same destination, and there are tools on some Gopher sites that help me blaze trails. Of course, these tools are also on computers that can go down, using software that can crash. And since these tools are so useful, everybody wants to use them. The administrators who provide the tools have to limit the number of people who can use them at one time, so that the computers don’t slow to a crawl. Which means that as often as not, when I try to use one, I get a sign that says “no room at the inn”.

And Gopher is one of the more reliable, easy to use Internet services. There are other, more demonic services, such as WAIS. Dave Barry summed it up pretty well when he called WAIS the “Pinto of the Information Superhighway.”(Dave Barry) WAIS was written by some programmers at a business, and thus didn’t get named after a cute mascot. Instead, its name is an acronym: Wide Area Information Server. For some reason, WAIS simply hasn’t caught on as much as Gopher. Software for using WAIS is buggy--that is, it crashes more often than it should. It is not user friendly--you really have to know what you’re doing to use it. And it’s not particularly rewarding. The theory behind WAIS is that you give your WAIS software a topic, and the software goes and finds the names of all the WAIS sites that have information about that topic. In practice it doesn’t work. There is a central site that has all the information about the individual sites, but the central site’s information is usually long out of date: the sites it lists are either no longer at the ‘addresses’ it lists, or they no longer exist at all. And unlike with Gopher, when the central information is wrong, there isn’t any way to find a different ‘path’ to the desired site.

In many respects, the means for “normal” people to use the net still aren’t in place. If you’ve heard anything about the net recently, you’ve heard about the “web”, or “mosaic”, an interface to the net that makes it “easy to use”. The designers of the web “language” came up with great ways of using pictures to convey information and act as “links” to other net locations. But they also claim that this web language is for writers, when what they really mean is that writing is dead. With all the ways of displaying graphics, they still haven’t moved many of the obstacles to displaying text on the net. “Curly” quotes, for example, remain a foreign idea to the geeks on the net, who continue to use "straight" quotes, or, even worse, ``fake'' curlies that look like a drunken typist created the text.

There’s another service on the Internet that has taken over from WAIS (although some of the individual sites use WAIS in the ‘background’, where users can’t see it), and that’s the World Wide Web. W3 resembles spider webs in that it is very pretty, fragile, and doesn’t really hold together when you blunder into it. The Web is meant to combine Gopher, WAIS, and other Internet services that I haven’t mentioned, such as FTP and finger. The Web is also meant to make the Internet look a lot jazzier: other Internet services present their information as text only. Web sites can present pictures and sounds. Web ‘pages’ can almost look like newspaper pages, with pictures and text displayed together. Web pages can even have ‘buttons’ that the reader can press by moving a computer arrow and pressing a computer button. (Computer Mice)

These features come with a price, however: for all of its impressiveness, the Web is still running on the Information Backroads, and pictures and sounds are a much heavier load, often hundreds or thousands of times heavier than simple text. To continue with the highway analogy, using Gopher to transfer information is like filling your pickup truck with a load of firewood; the Web is a fleet of flatbeds loaded down with cement bricks. Until the infobahn gets paved, the Web will continue to bog down in the mud and tear up the Information Backroads.

The best comment on the net I’ve received came from a guy named “Darwin” who was reading my role-playing pages:

This might not be the person to ask, but I have the gamne spycraft and am stuck in a mile deep pit of honey. please send me a small collection of hints or people to help me. thanks!!

Well, Darwin, I can’t help you with Spycraft, but if you want to find the dead deer in that mile deep pit of honey called the Internet, read on.

  1. Barton D. Thurber, Jack Pope: “Text, Internet: InterText”, Proc. INET 93.
  2. There’s an involved story about how Cerebus the Gopher got its name. I’m writing this book, so I’m going to tell you. So there. The University of San Diego is a private Catholic institution. Each of the personal computers in the computer labs has a name, and the name is a past Pope. When I received my Macintosh on my desk, it was named ‘Fabian’, or something equally obscure.

    There’s this guy named Dave Sim who lives up in Canada where it’s cold all the time and you have to make up really bad jokes to keep warm, and bad jokes are serious business. He writes a comic book about an aardvark named Cerebus, who became Pope. So I rechristened my Macintosh in honor of Cerebus the Aardvark, in keeping with the ‘Pope’ motif. Later, when I put a gopher server up, it became Cerebus the Gopher. Eat this stuff up, folks. It’s Internet lore.

  3. I grabbed this quote off of someone’s signature on Usenet. That is not a reliable source. Usenet is a collection of discussion groups. Signatures are ways of signing Internet messages; the common signature is

    Full Name
    electronic mail address
    Cute quote by someone more famous than yourself.

  4. In most cases, the computer arrow and computer button are controlled by a device called a mouse. The mouse is a small device that you move over a flat surface; as you move the mouse, the computer arrow on the computer screen also moves.
  1. Can’t get there
  2. The New Literacy