SURFING THE INTERNET





SURFING is the word you find everywhere the Internet goes, these days it goes everywhere and everyone is riding the crest of the Information-Wave of the Future. It all came together in a flash ---- the communication tools and pathways, the elaborate techniques of ultra-fast and ultra-ubiquitous programming, and a public awareness that SURFING is a good thing to be doing. Man is a social animal par excellence, and if one person surfs, everybody starts to do it right away.

When you ride a wave in on the ocean surf, you concentrate on the moment with all your skill, but you are unaware of the vast realms of ocean beneath and beyond. The currents, ocean plants, plankton, fish, coral reef, undiscovered life-forms --- this is not your business as you ride the foam into shore. And it is not far different with the internet surfers, who move from one wave of new information to new waves with the touch of a button. It is easy to become impatient, to move on after a glance, since there is so much more to glance at. Perhaps the word GLANCE is what I am worried about, you cannot take in deep things at a glance, and once you are tuned to moving fast over the tops of packets of information, you become de-tuned from the slower pace of perceiving, mulling, cogitating, and above all evaluating.

But it is not just the internet. In the TV world everything goes by seconds, an ad is split into the minimal perceivable parts which flash at you second-at-a-time. And sometimes it is half a second. This does get the message of a new car, analgesic, or shampoo across in least time at least cost to the most people. You are left with impressions, without the time to consider them, which from advertisers' point of view is smart ad-biz indeed. But it is dangerous. It removes that short time in which you can think and evaluate, as you become habituated to being a target rather than a client.

Then that new word Interactive comes in to cure the situation, but it is very limited, although it offers options, even a great many options. But again you are not given the option for stopping to think, you become the receptor in real-time with your big brain and your infinite curiosity and your vast random-access memory.

Everything on the web seems to be racing toward a 500 MHz world, designed to engage your complete attention. The nearer you get to a significant dollar purchase, the faster and more complex the devices become, coordinating sight, sound, image and a good dose of business psychology. Above all the pace is maintained at peak speed, because they know you are surfing and not planning to stay long on any one spot.

The Internet can be used for other things. It can use plain, old-fashioned TEXT loaded with significant content, which you read at your own pace, stopping as long as you want before touching the spacebar. You can have an evening's reading if you want, come back after dinner and read some more, or if you prefer the ancient luxury of reading in your favorite armchair, you can print out what you want to read later, at a fraction of the cost of a book, and savor it quietly or keep it to mull over.

If there is little content in what you are glancing over, surf on. If there it much content it will probably be in a text format, with pictures as illustration as we have done in printed books. Or the pictures can be the content and the text the secondary material. But you cannot ride your surfboard on the crest of a wave reading a book. And you cannot read a book with real content of fact or art, while surfing over continents of assorted information.

As a teacher I always felt that the hardest part for a student in writing a good term-paper, was the searching in the library for ideas and for materials, without either of which the work could never be any good. Then follows the stage of thinking it over, and waiting for things to fall into place, and THEN the paper could be written. The writing was the easy part.

But a student might think that the size of the library holdings would guarantee a good paper, pick and choose and there's the term-paper all by itself. So here with the Internet the size of the web's library might give the impression that you have access to so much information, that by merely choosing intelligently, you will come up with views which are coherent and worthwhile.

Not so at all. Here is where the serious interactive part comes in, you begin to relate to the material you have found, and find that it engages your mind in subtle ways which you cannot exactl define. Every serious piece of work in art or science involves a halt, a jammed-up point at which nothing seems to fit. Too much material, too little coherence, lack of intellectual digestion and resulting mental dyspepsia. But when by some mysterious alchemy of the human mind, the clouds thin and light shines through, then you have accomplished something real and worthwhile. It may be a simple term-paper on a poem, or it may be a mathematical statement which solves an old problem, but it will be entered into the world's inventory of thinking about something new, the result of an individual point of view being elicited out of undifferentiated materials, by means of careful thinking.

Surfing and skim-reading get you over the top for a second. It is only when they become widespread social activities, and start to crowd out materials which have CONTENT, that the alarm goes up. I am much alarmed by the surface treatment most of us give to the world we live in, prodded by flash displays in seductive ads, skimming easily read wording which says little, and hearing political talkathons which have true political glitch, lacking fact and substance.

This discussion which I am writing is put together electronically on a computer for widespread web dispersion. But it is constructed word by word in the ancient tradition of written language, and it turns out that I have written a long paper, one which you will have to go through slowly and thoughtfully, if you want to get my point. You can sense me at my terminal from the wording, what kind of a person I am, and you can interact by thinking if I am right or making too much of a point.

But you CANNOT surf this paper, and if I get through to you, you are going to have to think about this later, deal with it as idea, just as you deal with me as a person putting words down on a screen. Of course there is an escape route, like your computer's OPT+COM+ESC option. You can quit anytime and not waste your time here, just go surfing for the rest of the evening, and ride the crest of a lot of interesting waves. Do that long enough, you will probably lose the ability to stop and read, and the world will have one more surfer on board the good ship Internet, and one less thinking individual minding his own thoughts, with his feet on the ground.




POSTSCRIPT

Reading the above over a few days later, I thought it might seem odd that I question the Internet while using it extensively for my own purposes.The wonderful uses of a world-inter-communication system are so obvious that no comment pro or con need be made. The dangers I note are ones which may come from indiscrimate use, a fear which was probably widespread at the time of Gutenberg's invention of the mass-printed book. But what I find really disquieting is the change of the internet in barely two decades from its ARPA military network, to the indispensible university and research uses which are now part of our working atmosphere, and just recently in a frantic shift to selling on the Internet everything from gadgets, games, pornography and stanard store-wares, to commercial services furthering the Invasion of the Money Snatchers for your business interests.

On the other hand, this farrago of everything on a free and egalitarian basis is a real step forward in representing the thinking of the world's inhabitants. Since there are no limits of space, everything can go into the mix, and increasingly clever searches can sort out the elements. So my last word would have to be sincere approbation, with a caution not to lose personal focus in the rush, or fall into the trap of a commercialism which has set its sights on our Internet as nothing more than a place for a hot sales pitch.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris