William Gibson Slept Here

Stanislaw Lem, the brilliant Polish Science Fiction writer, proposed in his collection of short fiction Imaginary Magnitude the concept of an "extelopedia," a sort of hyper-encyclopedia whose contents were kept constantly updated at a "nominal charge" to the owner of said tome.

Steve Case, owner, CEO and so on of America Online, offers a similar service, except that the charge is not so nominal -- $2.50 (US) per hour after their five hours free per month.

Bill Gates, owner, CEO and so on of Microsoft Corporation, offers something not too different via Microsoft Network (or whatever they're calling it this month), but again, at a "nominal" charge. (I don't know what their charge is). A host of other Net access providers offer something similar, at varying monthly rates.

It seems that we've uncovered a recent trend in online information providers: the ability to connect quickly, easily and expensively with the vast expanse of that new and phenomenal aspect of the brilliance at CERN, the World Wide Web.

What's so great about the Web? Well, once you're connected (getting connected can be quite an adventure in itself, believe me), getting to the information you want -- or searching for the information you want -- or just surfing -- is as simple as point and click. When Steve Jobs and Steve Wozinak first developed the Apple Personal Computer, this may have Benares they had in mind. Information, make available by everyone who had it to everyone who wanted it.

They had a vision: one household, one (at least) computer. At the time they held this vision, the industry was dominated by the Big Iron giants: IBM, AT&T/Bell, Hewlett-Packard, Xerox. They changed all that

And where has this revolution gotten us so far?

Pretty far, overall, if you think about it. Computers are accessible now to just about anyone, which is most certainly a mixed blessing. Mixed because there are literally millions of people out there who are using computers not because they want to but because their jobs require it. There are millions more buying computers because their kids work with them in school. This means that there are millions of potential connections to the Web -- and perhaps thousands who really understand how to get connected to the Web. And only a few really understand its full potential.

Lem had an inkling. So did William Gibson, when he first proposed the concept of `cyberspace,' said concept now a linchpin in many SF stories, novels, and movies. Gibson first proposed the concept of cyberspace -- where the Web lies -- in the 1980 short story "Burning Chrome." He was writing on a manual Underwood typewriter at the time.

This enormous information resource is something which is so new that there are still no copyright or publication laws in place to quantify it. If you publish something in the Web it is not, so far as I know, the same as printing it on paper. First Amendment rights do not cover the transmission of digital data -- which is what the Web is.

We have so much available to us, and we as a species still for the most part have no idea of what we can do. A common Air Force ad states that the world's knowledge will double every few minutes by 2000 or so. Well, if it will or not is not really the point of this article -- I personally believe that there si a ceiling to the amount of knowledge H. Sapiens can assimilate in a given generation -- but, if that knowledge does increase, it will not be via the channels of Phil and Oprah and their ilk except as third- or possibly fourthhand information.

The cutting edge of information is here and now, a setup and a click or two away. It started with CERN. It's carried on with the SEDS homepage http://www.weds.org. There are literally gigabytes of images available there, and the page is well-enough put together that it got a writeup in the september 1995 issue of Wired magazine, the de facto standard reading for cyberpunks everywhere. The SEDS homepage is something of which its creators are justifiably proud: it uses the full potential of the Web, disseminating the factual information in one readily-accessed space.

Granted, working in the Web can be intimidating. Hiding behind that friendly point-and-click interface is basically a UNIX command-line system, and, as with anything related to UNIX boxen, some of the entries can look a bit opaque. There are plenty of people on the Net who have no real clue what they're doing. This can make such things as, say, USENET pretty irritating, and it also makes for some pretty ugly and poorly-designed homepages. I suspect this will change with time -- at least I hope it will -- as homepage designers begin soaking up the look and feel of the cool sites that are out there. Add to this the fact that there are still many people without the skill or the ability to design a homepage in the first place, and by and large what you see on the Web is pretty much universally cool. But, to paraphrase Orwell, some pages are more equal than others.

It is truly astounding what can be found out there now. Five years ago this was impossible. It was science fiction. Now it's a part of the everyday reality of a growing number of enthusiastic users. Make yourself a part of this reality, too. It's a big world out there -- but somehow, it seems to be shrinking.

Warren Ockrassa

(Warren Ockrassa is a multimedia composer for Thinking With Computers, Inc., in Tucson. Email him at macadamia@seds.org. Check out his Web page (it looks best with Netscape v. 1.1 or better) and criticize to your heart's content at http://seds.lpl.arizona.edu/~macadamia)