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Why the Information Superhighway Isn't

by Dear Jon
July 21, 2009

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Around seventeen years ago then Vice President Al Gore described the emerging internet as an "information super highway." Today we still speak of the "world wide web" and "the internet," but Gore's "information super highway" has not stuck. For example, we speak of "websites" rather than "exits" and these websites have addresses that begin www, for "world wide web" rather than "ish."

Gore was trying to help many non-computer users see that the revolution in communication would be as dramatic for the way Americans worked and relaxed as the automobile. In that limited sense the analogy works. The internet HAS changed the way that we write, publish and sell books, for example. The internet makes it possible for you to purchase the Dear Jon Letters: Tips On Dating and Mating from the comfort of your desk. I even kept the price low so that you would be encouraged to buy multiple copies as gifts for all your relatives, and, not worry so much about the shipping and handling.

However, there are several important reasons why "information super highway" never entered the language.

First, there is the notion of "information." It is true that great quantities of valuable information can be found online. News organizations, political organizations, legitimate businesses and governments have put a lot of content on to the world wide web, so that a person is just as likely to attempt to navigate the automobile registration rules of their state by surfing the government's website first, before calling up and talking to a live bureaucrat. Many businesses now tout the efficiency of bill inquiry, complaints, service cancellation, and other services available on the internet, by expressly encouraging callers to get off the phone and go to their computers instead.

However: For every website administered by a government agency, credible news organization, business, and not-for-profit entity, and for every website dedicated to the advancement of refinement, civilization, and art, there are ONE HUNDRED websites and blogs and services that are utterly worthless and patently harmful. For example: Internet pornography is not "information." If the world wide web functioned like an information super highway, about half of it would be a runway. This super highway has plenty of alley parking available.

For another example, try typing a search-string into your browser: "Holocaust Studies and Testimonies." You will find a cesspool of worthless and harmful misinformation by groups purporting to be telling "the truth"--the truth being, according to these hacks, that the Holocaust is exaggerated and overblown and maybe never really occurred. If you want to research the current administration's effort to reach out across the ecumenical spectrum of religious communities, websites will surface that will tell you that Rick Warren, the evangelical preacher who brought the invocation to President Obama's inauguration, is New Age and liberal. If you want to look into NASA's discoveries from its probing of Saturn's moons, websites will invite you to review your horoscope, or will rehash for you the whole mythology of Area 51 and extra-terrestrial life.

So this super highway is worse than any freeway stretch even through Missouri; it is full of potholes, red lights, wrecked and abandoned vehicles, and poor or missing directional signs. A person can take hours following detours before they arrive at a helpful destination, when it would have taken them five minutes to find what they needed if they had opened a printed, hard-copy version of dictionary or an almanac.

Remember how Dear Jon does not have any time to look anything up? It is also true that my knowledge is always expanding, because I do things like read books on my own time, and not because someone has demanded that I look up something that I am not interested in knowing for myself. When I started this column nine years ago I insisted that I already knew everything worth knowing, so that anything I needed to look up for the sake of someone else's curiosity was not worth knowing and ergo not worth my time. After nine years of explosive internet expansion, I am still convinced of this wisdom in my own conceitedness. I trust the "information" from the internet about as much as I trust a twelve year-old to hold my bag of popcorn without snitching.

Second, computers are not to the internet what cars are to the road. Today I went down to a BEST BUY to register my 6 year-old lap-top for a diagnostic/repair, and memory upgrade. This is the home desk for the "GEEK Squad." I was told, very professionally and politely by a young man in a polo shirt, that what they could do for my computer would hardly be worth doing for the money it would cost. That money would be better served going into a new computer.

(Thank you, GEEK Squad. You "GEEKS" need to know something. MY generation, which invented the mosh pit and crowd-surfing, also brought the word "geek" to bear on computer-absorbed hackers. This is because, in the 1980's, the kids who were computer savvy on any console requiring more than a joy-stick, also tended to be socially inept and marginalized. Nowadays they would have been diagnosed and medicated and given restraining orders signed by a judge, and then sold fire-arms by a gun dealer who frequently forgets to log in to the FBI database. Oh well.

The point is that today the computer savvy kids are not the same kids as 25 years ago, because about twenty years ago something happened: Jeff Goldblum became a huge box-office draw movie star with one mega-hit after another, in which he played the same guy over and over. "I'm Jeff Goldblum, the hip scientist/mathematician/computer engineer with the pithy sense of humor and wry grin, calmly and self-assuredly being far and away both the smartest and the coolest guy in this movie."

Now Jeff Goldblum started off as the world's biggest nerd, as in the movie The Big Chill where he ends up being the only guy at the end of the movie who isn't getting any. He is hardly less nerdy in Silverado. But with the first Jurassic Park, that all changed. Then there was Independence Day. Doubtless you have watched the deluxe DVD versions of these films.

By the mid-1990's geek was cool, and the Dilbert comic strip either described your life, or you were a lame loser whose name appeared at the top of Id-10t work report forms filed by the guys in tech support.

And, AND, this morning when a small line formed, who comes to help at the GEEK Squad desk, but an attractive young women with highlights in her hair? Are you KIDDING me? You GEEK Squad 20-something youngsters have professional manners, styling haircuts, clear complexions, and FEMALES who stand to be in the same room with you, wearing the same fashions as you because they are your colleagues. In short none of you know what "geek" used to mean. You all should change your corporate name to "The Post-Mod Squad.")

Then this idea struck me, an inspiration so stirring I had to write about it for the Partial Observer. Computers are not like cars!  About 80 years ago or so, cars began to be built for highway speeds rather than old wagon-tracks. So suppose that you compare a full-sized sedan from 1959 with 2009. Compare it for storage space: If anything, due to bucket seats and a shorter length, there will be LESS storage space now than in 1959. Speed limits were actually reduced on the so-called super-highways. Cars are now fuel efficient and can tell you the weather and your exact position given to you by a satellite, whereas in 1959 you only knew it was cold outside if you could see the snow for yourself, and the only satellite was Russian. But in general, you could drive to the supermarket in a 1959 Buick and in a 2009 Buick and get there at the same time, driving the same speed limit, to pack groceries into an adequate trunk.

This is why it is almost always better to fix the car you have, then to buy a new one, even after your car is already six years old. But a computer?

First of all, let us talk about storage. A computer's memory is not like the trunk of a car. The amount of information that can be stored in the same chip-space is growing exponentially.

Second, there is no speed limit on the information super highway. Computers need to be upgraded for speed and storage space, because the entire infrastructure changes. What is available to download becomes that much larger and more complex.

So it pays to fix a car, because the speed limit was 35 miles per hour fifty years ago to drive through a commercial district to get to the grocery store, and it is 35 miles per hour today. It does not pay to fix a computer, if it can only accomodate a minimal upgrade and still function, when you can buy a new computer with 8 times the amount of storage and 8 times the speed.

Therefore, since computers are not like cars, their network is not like a highway.

Computers are more like spiders, each spinning part of the web until larger, poisonous spiders come along, pretending to want to mate, only to kill them and suck out all their blood. When that happens you know it is time to get a larger, faster computer.

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Dear Jon Letters: Tips for Dating and Mating
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Published July 21, 2008

Our advice humorist turns his attention and trademark wit to affairs of the heart in his first and very affordable book (only $8.95!).

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