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Web Has Inverted Access to Information


Arif Husain

Column by A. Arif Husain
Opinion Editor

The first presidential debate this election year has been noted as the only public political forum in history ever to close with the words: "dot org," as Bob Dole announced his campaign's World Wide Web address. Big deal. There are lots of words to end on.

The reason this fact has stayed in my mind is that to me it demonstrates a very different approach to how public figures and the media have begun to dispense information. Instead of the usual down-the-throat push, the recent trend has been, "I'll tell you where to find it - if you dare to look." And as the millions of Web surfers in this country can attest: We dare. Incidentally, Dole actually forgot to say the dot, but we know what he meant.

In early 1994, as a freshman, I can remember my roommate introducing me to a very new an unheard of phenomenon called the World Wide Web. In about an hour, I learned the dozen or so phrases that composed the HTML language - in which documents are written - and over the next few weeks I assembled a humble set of pages which I served from my dormitory computer. To me it was a novelty, and outside of a small group at MIT, and perhaps some in Switzerland, the acronym "HTTP" was as unknown as chitlins in Minnesota.

Back then we used a program called Mosaic, and there were only a few hundred, maybe a few thousand Web sites across the globe. To put things in perspective, the individual web servers of The Tech and of the Student Information Processing Board here at MIT, both of which were opened in 1993, I believe, were among the first hundred to go online in the world.

Since then, the Web has exploded. Just in the last two years, after stumbling across a new program called Netscape and then seeing it completely eradicate its predecessors and take over the market, we have seen the Web drastically change. The documents of old contained mostly text on a monochrome background with an occasional graphic plopped in squarely. Documents today can incorporate full-motion interactive video, sound, animation, multicolor everything, and an assortment of formatting features. For better or for worse, that's technology, and that's expected. What has been so shocking to me, though, is how rapidly the technology has become a staple part of household life.

Today, every television ad, every newspaper, radio, and retail store seems to have incorporated Web site addresses into their marketing schemes. Consumers no longer have to parry advertisers' relentless assaults but instead are now lured into searching out advertising themselves. I bet Tom Sawyer would have gotten a kick out of the whole scheme. The adage, "don't call us, we'll call you" has now become, "don't call us, check out our Web site."

I must admit that in the beginning I felt the Web explosion was a bit of a jip. My naive perception of a network novelty was not ready to include exposure on national headlines, discussion in syndicated talk shows, and addresses as far as the eye can see.

Since then I've become more understanding about the whole situation. After landing a summer job or two based on Web findings, completing numerous research projects, and basically accepting that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, I've come to terms with my Internet myopia. As it is, you the reader may well be in that position as a result of the Web (The Tech's server gets close to a 100,000 requests per day), which all in all can not be bad. The Web has been good to me, but like all good things, I take it in moderation.

With this new outlook, I've decided to take more advantage of the benefits of Web-based information depots. Never shall a short answer exam go incomplete in my future. Nope, not anymore. Underneath the scrawl of my fabricated filler statements, my Web-savvy grader may be pleased to find the note: "For a complete essay, please see http://web.mit.edu/~arifh/exam2-husain-answers.html."

Aaah, yes. Happiness is a warm mouse pad.

This column is the second in a short series on the topic of informational computing.