Plugging In

by Paul O'Brien

I think there comes a magical moment in some people's perspectives when they realize there's something more to this internet resource than meets the eye. The computer you're using --right at this very moment-- is not merely an evolved calculator, or fancy game system, or number-crunching data-processor. Never mind the photo-quality graphics, video imaging, and sound files; those are just the bells and whistles by themselves. Don't get caught up in the speed and storage capacity of these machines, either, because those are just the engines of something greater still.

Maybe for the first time in the history of computers, there comes a moment when you realize that the internet is an extension of you. What was once an oddity is not just commonplace now; what was once a luxury is not just affordable and available. This is a tool that can potentially integrate so tightly and cleanly with our ideas and desires, that it is practically no longer just a tool anymore... at last not any more or less than our own hands.

Though technology driven and dependent, the internet is an information system that will rise or fall due to the power of its content. If it ceases to provide something original, pertinent, and creative --even inspiring-- people will grow tired of it very quickly. But anyone who has surfed the net for any length of time will agree that it's well on its way in meeting this challenge. There are some web sites that link you to information you never dreamt you would find, even sites that are simply beautiful. Newsgroups have more esteemed participants than any mere conference, more diverse topics than ever before, and it's constantly active; people are writing and reading across the world, around the clock, contributing and participating in something that has never been this simple to access.

There's something here that especially grabs my attention. The information revolution --and it does appear to be a revolution-- is not even just the fact that there is this incredibly powerful resource at our disposal. It's introducing a new medium as well: hypertext. I'm convinced hypertext will not simply be a technological extension of old-fashioned footnotes, or simple links to other locations; an ideologically unique formal system will emerge from this medium. It will change the presentation of ideas into something far less linear and something far more directionally liberated. How deep do you want to go? Click on the word or image of your choice. How quickly do you want to go through it? Keep scrolling.

The self-invented chain will lead in such a way that it winds forth and through related ideas and links, until finally you've read the material in a way you never have before: it will read and follow the way you think. After all, we certainly don't think in a straight line. This doesn't makes it disorganized either, for surely there will be careful, creative architects of ideas that will ensure that no matter where you go or where you come from, the effect and the thesis will be presented. It's just that each presentation will be unique unto its reader, governed by that reader's choices and desires.

Isn't this every writer's dream? How often have we shaved a section to keep it simple, or complicated a passage to reach a subtle point? It can accommodate both directions so easily now, with encumbrance. The spine of the document can be designed for ease of use and clarity of options; a simple link one place will lead to an explanation suitable for a first-grader; a simple link to another place can link someone to ideas both sophisticated and subtle to appease an expert. The ideas can proceed according to the reader's own pace, climbing and travelling only so quickly as they wish.

At any moment a traveller can find ideological guideposts if they become lost; no more backtracking blindly through pages to recapture lines of reasoning. All terms, side-notes, references, indexes, and even off-hand remarks are instantly provided; no more interruptions of flipping to glossaries, endnotes, or bibliographies. Even the style of prose could be chosen from the onset of the presentation from clean and clear to eloquent and poetic.

All roads will be designed to pass through those ideas most central to the author's intentions, but the road to them and through them will be that which the reader finds most suitable. Every reading could become a new tour through the same basic locations. Hitting the ideas from so many divergent angles, the reader gains perspective far more quickly and easily than a linear book. The new "angular" document can be so rich with depth and option that it can provide an experience not much less adaptable and responsive that a private dialogue.

And just as a dialogue forges new connections a speaker would never think of by themselves, so will this document be expansive upon itself, creating new summations far greater than its original parts. The internally networking branches of the document will synthesize in undetermined ways to become liberated from the author's personally limited viewpoint. Rather, the work will transcend him or her, becoming the product of both the author as supplier of ideas and the readers themselves as the ideas' assemblers.

This would call for a radically different author, naturally, one whose grasp of the material would have to be as far-reaching as possible to accommodate the diversity of the audience. Style would no longer be defined as one choice among many, but by those authors able to create as many varying and appropriate styles as possible. Those on-line books with less links and smaller scopes would become less read; those that better fulfilled the potential of the medium would consequently interest more readers. The new medium would call for fresh talents able to create intelligent, complex, and diverse material.

Even so, I know I'm being myopic about the potential for something like hypertext. It's a gnawing hunch of mine that something I have not yet envisioned is going to result from hypertext, and sooner than later. Greater still, I know this is just one innovation of many arriving soon at a terminal near you.

It seems clear to me that this is not a fad, nor just the next rung in the ladder of technological advancement. We're turning a corner, right as we speak, and the path is ripe with possibility. With the Web spinning out new sites exponentially, new information conduits looming on the horizon, Congressional actions moving to curb on- line content, and a media finally vocalizing what has been revolutionizing, there are some people that realize that the air we breathe through these circuits is crackling with energy. We can't just understand that this application is practical, but come to realize that it demands a new consciousness of sorts, one as adaptable, swift, and far-reaching as the medium itself. To be connected is not enough; we must be wired.

Just recently --so recently, it feels like the moment before now-- I've felt myself finally plugging in. I feel very far from the cusp of this wave, but for what I've surfed so far, I feel positively energized. Still, I look around me and realize just how many people have no interest in plugging themselves in. I find myself trying to explain the wonder of it all very awkwardly, like one of the newly converted in a religion. I sometimes feel so convinced that this information revolution is a colossal moment in modern culture, that I want friends of mine to be converted too. Still, the irony of it is that it almost has to be experienced first hand to be truly understood. I would probably do no better convincing a computer illiterate of what I consider an information revolution than a Christian would be convincing me that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light. It makes me realize I shouldn't preach or assume much in such matters.

So though I could be very wrong --possibly overzealous-- there's something in the wind that makes me believe time will tell us soon enough. If this technology expands as deeply and originally as it looks like it will, we're going to want to be as close to the edge as possible. Profit is surely to be made from this (I can imagine homepage decorators and site-link architects already, if they don't already exist), and even the arts will hopefully reach this new multi-media outlet (that promises to be far greater than television could ever be).

But more than entertainment, profit, and data-retrieval, there is something here that promises to raise our quality of life significantly. I can't help but feel that one day soon, the person who doesn't know how to surf the net will not only be like someone who never learned how to drive a car, but like someone who never learned how to read. It will be an everyday, life-expanding component of our culture and world, and we will want to be adept at it as possible.

For now, though, we're still here, still somewhere in between the past and the future of a revolution whose story is being written right this very moment. The promise is here, I believe, somewhere very close to home and very accessible to any one of us. When the wave crashes, we want to be riding it; for now, the key is just making sure we're plugged in.

Please feel free to write to me...