Today, an Internet update. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
As we pass the middle of
1998, it's a good time to ask once more, where is
the Internet taking us? It'd be foolish to think
the smoke has cleared, yet certain patterns of
change are evident. And the future, whatever it
looks like, will flow from those changes.
Most dramatic is a startling rise in both the
extent and quality of information that can be found
on the web. Information has improved far beyond
anything we expected. One repeated criticism of the
web has been its lack of critical controls. Now
natural controls are proving to be effective in
ways we hadn't anticipated.
When a book is released, it's unchangeable. When
material goes up on the web it can be
changed, and it is changed. No author likes
to live with errors and misjudgments. If it's
wrong, most people want to fix it. That means the
electronic information maelstrom is in constant
flux, whirling and changing about us.
That fact brings with it a special discomfort.
Those among us who want things settled find all the
flux appalling. Yet the unchanging book
seldom holds revealed truth. Books are loaded with
imperfection, and there's nothing to do about it
but complain. The Internet makes obvious what's
true of any information source: it must be taken
with a grain of salt. For that reason, web users
(faced with a still-vast amount of junk) are
rapidly turning into critical, and even wise, users
In many such respects, the Internet is becoming the
opposite of what we'd first thought it would be.
We'd thought it would drown in low-level material.
In fact, it breeds new levels of sophistication in
dealing with all the junk. We'd thought it'd be
cold and inhuman. In fact it's renewing our
fragmented sense of community by drawing us in and
giving each of us a franchise. Upwards of forty
million Americans are now on-line with thousands of
new domain names appearing daily. What do all these
users and contributors want? We want community as
well as content. And the Internet is providing it.
We once thought that school courses would go
online. That expectation has been fed by people who
think learning can be broken down into modular
units. But that kind of education has failed us.
The National Academy recently complained (rightly,
I think) that such thinking makes students into
receivers instead of inquirers.
The web, with its hypertext format, is perfectly
suited to inquirers who want to sew their own
thread through knowledge. Few bright students will
follow preset modules on computer screens. They
want to see Internet facts supplemented by human
mentors who'll guide and temper their inquiries.
Electronic information is reshaping old
expectations based on old models. It's reshaping us
along with our expectations. The process is taking
us to far different places than we thought it
would. The good news is: the organic synergy
between person and machine is yielding positive
results none of us saw coming.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds