One man’s enthusiasm about the Internet is tempered when two tutors are unable to find for him on it when Thomas Jefferson was an ambassador in France. The Internet is undoubtedly a highly useful tool, though the sheer magnitude of it may actually limit its usage eventually.
Once in every decade, I have pledged, I will publicly recall that many years ago I asked the question, in this space, Of what use is a computer to the individual American? Since I framed that profound thought, a hundred million computers have been bought, and no one became more dependent on a computer than such as me, working journalists and book writers. Professor Arthur Schlesinger, whose manners and habits are in every respect traditional, quite matter-of-factly gave his opinion that the word processor is the most valuable invention of his lifetime, not counting the New Deal. Only those dispute this who, 150 years ago, would have declined to use the typewriter.
And now, of course, we are hearing about the Internet as jubilantly and expectantly as, back then, we were hearing about the computer and word processing. With appropriate humility, given the last prediction, I — wonder.
There is no doubting that the material is there, even as we recall the scientist a generation ago who ventured that every decade the sheer volume of factual data doubles. That would mean that there is 16 times as much information out there as in 1956. Librarians are bowed down by the weight of it all, but cheered by the diminishing problem of where to store it. One futurist, over the weekend, estimated that before too long the entire contents of the Library of Congress — some 16 million volumes — would fit onto a single disk the size of a CD. So maybe, in so buoyant a season, it’s time for a little skepticism. The key question is of course: How do you find what you are looking for?
Eighteen months ago, apropos of something or another, I needed to know what were the years Thomas Jefferson spent in Paris as ambassador. It happened that before I could rise and walk over to the encyclopedia, the expert arrived at my door who had generously scheduled an introductory hour of tutoring with the Internet. After we had installed the software I said to him: Please show me how to find out when Jefferson was in Paris.
One hour later, we still didn’t have the answer. I dismissed the problem as an individual shortcoming: there was something about my tutor that declined to fuse to Jefferson-in-Paris. But then one year later I was in similar circumstances, taking a quickie lesson at the Cyber Cafe in New York City. It was opening day and demonstrations were being made, and I asked my expert, himself an entrepreneur in the Cyber Cafe, to show me how to find out about Jefferson in Paris. . . . A half hour later, without a fix on the years, he had to turn to concerns of his other clients.
Then last winter, en route to an assembly, I listened to my host who quietly but enthusiastically spoke about the uses to him of the Internet. I broke in with my story about the search for Jefferson and he was downcast, as if he had heard the whisper that his daughter had become a bachelor sport. He expressed muted surprise and when, two hours later, I returned to my hotel, I found a note under my door. On it were scratched the years Jefferson was in France as ambassador (1784 – 1789); and, attached to the note, a printout of the exercises the Internet had gone through to find this out. The procedures did not seem complicated, but then if you hit successive notes slowly, one after another, you can with one finger tap out Liszt’s ”Hungarian Rhapsody.” The trick is fluency: to know almost instinctively where to put down your fingers.
I asked my friend the following day how he had acquired his skill, and he told me he had taken a course on how to use the Internet. It comprised sixteen hours of coaching, in two fortnights of eight hours each. He pulled out, he said, at the end of the first fortnight, on the grounds that he’d learned everything he would want to learn. But that was a great deal, and in his profession as a banker, he used the Internet four or five times every day for sundry purposes. He classified it as the brightest star in the innovative galaxy.
What are we to make of this? It’s entirely possible that there are more Internet subscribers today than there will be two or three years from now, even if, a generation from now, almost everyone subscribes. The glamor and the publicity bring people in in droves, even though for many of them (many of us) the on-line services we dutifully install lie dormant, week after week, month after month. The reason for it is simple fear. Not only a fear of complexity (a pencil is relatively straightforward!), but a fear of the instrument’s seductiveness. Suppose that a genie touched down a wand on your head and suddenly you could play anything on the piano. One result of that endowment would be the prospect, in the years ahead, of hundreds and hundreds of hours being spent at the piano, during which you would not — be doing what? Waal, all those other things that keep us busy.