Electronic Design

A Contrarian View Of The Internet: Newer Tech Is Not Always Better

First, two small corrections: The "information superhighway" has actually been with us for almost a century. Thousands of telephone and telegraph circuits have shared wide bandwidths on coaxial cables, microwave links, and now satellite radios. Second, computers are NOT in "cyber space." (Cyber is the ancient Greek word for steersman. Cybernetics is a word coined by Norbert Weiner for servomechanism theory.)

The telegraph has been carrying purchase orders, questions, love notes, and military orders since 1840, and has used the page-printing teletype machine for many decades. The telephone has been a parallel medium for over a century. Pardon me for mentioning postal mail and express mail. E-mail does the same things cheaper and more conveniently, but it changes the number of such messages needed in no significant way. So, it should have little effect on the volume of business done.

On the other hand, automatic telegraphy of business data reduces the time delays in business feedback control loops and thereby reduces the oscillation called the "business cycle." For example, consider what happens to bar code data read by laser at the supermarket checkout counter.

At present, web sites compete with printed mail order and other catalogs. They eliminate printing and mailing costs, can be changed quickly, and can be called up quickly. Neither print nor web allow for viewing in 3D, handling, or trying on physical merchandise, so mail order never eliminated retail stores. Neither replace face-to-face communication with live sales representatives for either consumer or industrial products, and there's no reason to believe that the web will increase the total purchasing of products.

The web shines as a marketplace for information businesses rather than physical products: securities trading, travel prices and reservations, gambling, auctions, and the everyday, newly invented "dot com" businesses. Most merely improve on, and replace, the same operations of the phone, rather than create new activities.

"Web surfing" and "chat rooms" are legitimate recreations, as are special interest mailing lists. For frequently used reference books and papers whose addresses are known, the web and computer present them on the desk, up to date, with little space or cost.

But the real damage done by the Internet is in the grade schools. Of course children should learn to type and operate a computer just as they should learn to drive a car. Placing a computer in each classroom accomplishes only a distraction from real learning. This is done just to satisfy the hyped ignorance of those in charge, soothing the social guilt of those who wish to break down the divider between the people who can and cannot afford a computer at home.

The Internet in the classroom provides three things. It replaces the video tape TV by showing exactly the same videos at slightly less fidelity and on a rigid schedule. (The video TV is of enormous value because it is more convenient to use than the old film projector.) It also shows up-to-the-minute news just as TV could if the teachers allowed this waste of time in a classroom intended for learning.

And, the Internet provides the slowest and most junk-filled source of library research imaginable. It should be taught as just another information retrieval tool along with all the other library tools by professional librarians. The list of research sources is too long for this essay.

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