My first column in P&SF was printed in January 1998. Since then, I've published almost 200 articles in either P&SF or other places. There isn't much I would change about my views covered in these publications, yet one stands out as an exception. In a P&SF column titled "Changes and the Future," published in September 2007, I said the following: "The microcomputer industry has been with us for at least two decades. Paul De Palma observes, 'We have poured staggering sums down its insatiable maw. It is time to face an unpleasant fact; the so-called microcomputer revolution has cost much more than it has returned. One problem is that microcomputers are vastly more complex than the tasks ordinarily asked of them. To write a report on a machine with a Pentium II processor, sixty-four megabytes of memory, and an eight-gigabyte hard disk is like leasing the space shuttle to fly from New York to Boston to catch a Celtics game."'1
This observation is probably still true today. However, in my attempt to follow the theme of the 2007 piece, which was that in a lot of ways things really hadn't changed that much, I sold the Internet short. Just for my columns alone, the Internet is an invaluable tool, so this piece is my attempt to make up for that earlier indiscretion.
When I first started writing the column, I was using the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) for my literature searches and readings. As time went on I discovered that the library was changing its journal subscriptions from on-the-shelf hard copies to electronic subscriptions. As an LLNL retiree, I no longer had access to many key journals. Then it became evident that more and more journals were making at least abstracts available on the Internet, and this has continued to the present. So, I can now access most of the information I need quite conveniently via the Internet. Only in a few cases, such as for complete articles in Nature or Science, do I have to go to a library.
Another issue is speed. My backlog for this column in P&SF varies from one to one-and-a-half years. With Internet publications, the backlog might be as long as two weeks but often is much shorter. I publish frequently in Hawaii Reporter, an on-line newspaper. Since Hawaii is two hours behind California time I sometimes see my contribution published almost instantaneously.
Here's what some other folks say about the Internet. Roger Schank notes, "the Internet is by far the most important invention of the past two thousand years, but its influence is far greater than the sum of its parts. There are two reasons why it might not be an obvious choice for this distinction. First, it has become so prevalent in our lives that many people actually fail to notice it. Secondly, its power has not yet begun to fully manifest itself. Information delivery methods already radically affect almost every aspect of how we live. We still go to schools, offices, the post office, places of entertainment or shopping malls. But when we don't have to walk to town to find out what's going on, or to shop, or to learn, why should we go to town at all? Schools will soon transform themselves, as we are able to build better courses on the Internet than could possibly be delivered in classrooms. Shopping malls aren't gone yet, but they will be. For instance, fewer and fewer people are going to stores to buy CDs. Using the Internet, they can listen to samples of music, then simply click a button on a website to arrange for delivery of the CD they want, all the while sitting at home. Any object that needn't be felt or perused prior to purchase will find no better delivery method than the Internet. Newspapers? Not dead yet, but they will be. Pick an aspect of the way we live today, and it will change radically in the coming years because of the Internet. Life (and human interaction) in fifty years will be so different that we will hardly recognize the social structures that will evolve. I don't know whether we'll be happier, but at least we'll be better informed."2
Cass Sunstein in his book Republic.com 2.0 discusses collaborative filtering, "an intriguing feature on a number of sites, one that has now become routine and is rapidly becoming part of daily life online. Once you order a book from Amazon.com, for example, Amazon.com is in a position to tell you the choices of other people who like that particular book. Once you have ordered a number of books, Amazon.com knows, and will tell you, the other books - and music and movies - that you are likely to like, based on what people like you have liked. Other websites are prepared to tell you which new movies you'll enjoy and which you won't - simply by asking you to rate certain movies, then matching your ratings to those of other people, and then finding out what people like you think about movies that you haven't seen. For music there are many possibilities."3
However, Sunstein cautions although there is a lot of good from what is happening, a downside could be that it encourages people to narrow their horizons, or to cater to existing tastes rather than to allow them to form new ones. If new technology gives us unprecedented access to information, it also gives us more ways to avoid information we don't like. What gets lost in these polarized times, Sunstein writes, are traditional civic virtues like civility, self-criticism and open-mindedness. He uses experiments and statistical analyses to back that up. One study of hyperlinking patterns on the Web shows that political bloggers rarely highlight opposing opinions - of 1,400 blogs surveyed, 91% of links were to like-minded sites.3
I don't think this is as serious a problem as Sunstein promotes, since many of the articles I read on the Internet have comments that cover both sides of the issue in question. Regardless, I remain quite thankful for the Internet and all the avenues it has opened up for me.
- Paul De Raima, "http//www.when_is_enough_enough?.com," in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2000, D. Quammen & B. Bilger, Eds., Houghton Mifflin New York, NY, 2000; p. 46.
- Roger C. Schank, "The Internet", in The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2,000 Years, J. Brockman, Ed., Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2000: p. 51.
- Cass R. Sunstein, Republic.com 2.0, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2007; p. 20.