Reflections of a ModemJunkie

Life Before the Infobahn

by Leonard Grossman
February, 1995

As I watched my daughter struggle with a traditional research assignment and her frustration with the fact that needed books were missing from the library, I got to thinking how ubiquitous computerized research has become. At work, I use Lexis. At home, we use a CD-ROM Encyclopedia (Groliers) and a number of other computerized sources.

I am quickly learning how to find information through the Internet as well. The world is changing fast. Perhaps one day we won't have to worry about books being off the shelves. We'll just log on and download what we need. I was just thinking about this when the following fantasy appeared in the mcs.general newsgroup on the Internet.

"Grandpa Andy, tell me about life before the Infobahn!"

"Well, it was pretty rough. We used to have these things called 'newspapers', and they were like newsgroups, except that they were printed on paper! And we had books. They were like big FAQs, but also on paper. And there were these library things, where they collected these books and newspapers..."

"Kind of like a big FTP site?"

"Yes, Johnny, kind of like a big FTP site."

The vignette was written by Andy Lester a regular in the old newsgroup who also had an interesting home page [back then].

This glimpse of the future made me truly appreciate Jim Coates' suggestion for new P.C. owners in his New years Day column in the Trib. After they spend a month intensively breaking in their new computers and trying out all of the multimedia features, he suggested that they should:

"Find a quiet place somewhere else in the house and curl up with a nice old-fashioned book."

Sounds great. But I think there is some e-mail waiting and a new WWW page on micro brewing and another to save "My So-called Life," and another . . . and George just added a new game [to the BBS I was addicted to in the early 90s] and . .
I guess that book will have to wait until next month.

But just when I think the world has been overtaken by cyberspace something happens that brings me back to Earth. The other day I had a discussion with a friend who is a professor of mass communications at a State university. He told me he has never been on the NET or used an online service. He is going to teach about electronic media next semester. Go figger.

Something else brings me back to Earth. We are moving very fast and neither the software nor the hardware nor the support is up to all of the hype. Those of us read this newsletter have some experience with computers. We enjoy tinkering with hardware and software. Yet we all know the frustration of trying a new peripheral or some new software and trying to make it work. Sometimes it takes a little patience-- sometimes a lot of patience and cash, too.

But what must it be like for those who are not so addicted. Americans are used to buying toasters and televisions and plugging them in and expecting them to work right-- the first time. The multimedia world is far from that day. No two CD-ROMs use the same interface. The set up programs are frightening even to those of us with experience. Last week a friend bought a new 486-66 multimedia machine. When he plugged it in all he got was a c:> prompt!! Another brought home her new machine and the monitor blew out in five minutes. Another's simply refused to boot at all.

The home user isn't alone in his frustration. A government agency recently received a shipment of 50 new machines. The CMOS had been set to the wrong parameters by the contractor. To save time a tech will be sent out to replace all of the CMOS chips and to reformat all of the hard drives. That's alright. There was no rush. The network they were to be used on hadn't yet been upgraded to work with the ethernet cards in the new machines anyway.

The Internet is even farther from ready to wear. The software we use is experimental. Alpha and beta releases. Regular GPFs and disconnects are not unexpected. Indeed, the other day, I saw a posting in which someone was praising a new configuration which only crashed after a few hours on line. Today I helped a friend set up his Internet software. I still see "Can't Locate Host" flashing before my eyes.

And the Internet world is far from hospitable to newbies. In recent days I have seen angry flames trashing those with the temerity to ask for help or to suggest that the newcomer be given greater warnings that some of the software is experimental.

Another poster blasted this writer for using terms like "infobahn" and "cyberspace". Well, to long time users of the Internet who struggled along at the Unix command line we must seem like spoiled brats with our point and click interfaces. But the old timers are reacting as though we were a massive wave of foreign immigrants. Perhaps they are right in this one sense. There is a new wave of immigrants brought on by new software and media hype. And like any immigrants as we become absorbed into a culture, the culture will change. But even though the French Academy laments the incorporation of English into French, the French still shop at Le Drugstore and Le Supermarchet in increasing numbers. (Still, wasn't it somehow comforting that EuroDisney bombed).

The newbies are on their way. Those who find ways to make life easier for them will succeed, the rest will wallow in the backwaters. But whether it is hardware or software, there is a long way to go.

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