Surfing the Net

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, March 1995

Every time I turn on the television these days I see some handsome actor in a commercial enthusing over the joys of “surfing the net.” Of course, the actors look clueless, but the more troubling aspect is this sudden, overwhelming publicity for what used to be the private domain of technophiles. Perhaps it is time for me to move on to some preoccupation other than netsurfing. I am reminded of the wisdom in the old Yogi Berra quote about the restaurant. “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”

I’m sure there are more important things for me to be doing. Get a real life, as they say. There are books to be read, places to travel, and chores to be done -- things like that. But even in contemplating this real life I sense an impending, ominous deprivation. I need the prickly salt wind in my face, the bubbling cushion of the sea below, and the powerful surge of the curling wave carrying me forward towards the very brink of stability. Oh, I need to be back at my keyboard!

I wasn’t always an addict. Once I was an ordinary person, leading the clean and simple life. Occasionally I even did my duty as a citizen and watched television. I know this is hard for the younger readers to believe, but there was a time when there were only three television channels. To change channels you actually had to stand and walk across the room. I didn’t do that very often, partly because of inertia, but also because I had the illusion that you were supposed to watch the shows. I just didn’t know any better.

I remember my first remote controller, which was part of a beloved, now deceased, Heathkit television. A small, clever convenience, I thought. Once again the great idea swept by me unheeded. I should have heard the distant pounding of the approaching surf. I should have felt the first tremor of a sea breeze. But I held greatness in my hand, and I knew not.

At first I used the remote awkwardly. It is difficult to learn these skills as an adult. I would make the novice mistake of tarrying too long on an individual channel. The world was a static place, and the breathtaking idea of 500 channels had yet to be conceived. Things were basically boring.

Now with Internet the world sizzles with excitement and purpose. Who needs 500 channels when the galaxy itself beckons? The phosphors on my CRT display have a pinkish cast. I believe that this is due to the red shift of the expanding informational universe just beyond the serial connection of my yearning PC. The picture on my screen has a slight jitter, due to the instability of the whole web infrastructure that envelopes the microscopic me. After all, looking at the display on my PC is like an astronomer looking back in time with a powerful telescope. Whatever information source emitted the information currently displayed on my screen has probably changed many long microseconds ago. I’m probably looking at the dying light of an information dwarf. It doesn’t matter; whatever this is, I won’t tarry.

The World Wide Web and versions of Mosaic have elevated surfing to a new level. I’m excited about having multimedia on my PC. I show it to my computerphobe friends. “Look!” I exclaim. “It talks! It moves!”

However, they must have a different framework of reference. They look at the small, low resolution quicktime movies with a frown. “You watch this stuff?” they ask.

I feel that the multimedia miracle is under-appreciated. “Well, not really,” I say apologetically. Anyway, I haven’t time to see it. I must be on my way. I have to ride the surf back to the shore. Then I have to paddle out to sea. Then I have to ride the surf back to shore. Motion is everything. If you stop, you sink.

I show my friends the museums and galleries on line, the exhibits from the Library of Congress, the journals and magazines experimenting with electronic publication. They seem disoriented by the long waits for access, followed by the milliseconds of observation I give to the retrieved results. But I have to move along. Nevertheless, I do have sympathy for their frustration -- watching someone else steer is no fun.

I explain about the ten thousand discussion groups. “You mean anyone can post messages and replies?” they ask with a shade of increased interest. I hate to dampen their new-found enthusiasm, but I explain that that is exactly the problem. The voices that dominate the discussion are those that choose to speak the most often, not those with the most to contribute. Anyway, I shrug, it doesn’t matter in an expanding universe. Tomorrow there will be several dozen new discussion groups not yet saturated with trivia. Continuous expansion is a necessary concept in this virtual universe.

I show my friends the services and mail-order catalogs on-line. “How do you know where to go?” they ask.

“There is no where there,” I try to explain.

“But how do you know which on-line stores, among so many, to choose? What differentiates one from another?”

My patience is exhausted. So many questions, so few answers. Tomorrow it will be different anyway. This is a frontier society, without geographic boundaries, without laws or established customs. There is a special feel to it of exploration and freedom. And if you put your ear to the ground you can hear the approaching hoofbeats. The settlers are coming. Millions upon millions of them -- and things will never be the same.

I’d like to say more about this, but I have to run. Gotta keep moving.

Robert W. Lucky