Untangling the Web

You've tried to ignore it, haven't you? And at first it was easy: "The information highway" had nothing to do with you. But then the highway became "the Internet," and the Internet, "the World Wide Web." Then your friends started talking about it, talking about "Web surfing" and "Web browsers" and "hot links" and "home pages." Fess up: You're starting to feel left out, aren't you? All the pundits agree: A communications millennium is upon us, a psychosocial revolution, all virtue, truth, and beauty panting to fall into your lap at the click of a mouse, and you're still crouching in the dark like a Neanderthal. But you can't face it again, can you? The ugly reality behind the radiant technodreams, the confusion of more hardware that refuses to cooperate, more software to conflict with everything you've already got, more hours on long-distance waiting for tech support. ... Why, you still haven't got that CD-ROM drive you acquired so hopefully last Christmas working, have you? But all your friends are getting wired, logging on, Net surfing, trading pet Web addresses like baseball cards. You can feel yourself missing the curl, falling behind the wave, out of the loop. What to do, what to do? First (in the immortal words of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy): DO NOT PANIC! Once you have read the material that follows, you will know what the Web is, how to hook up to it -- or whether you want to -- and what you'll find there. So chill, will you? Take a deep breath. Relax. Read on.The Solution There's an easy solution to your dilemma: Hook up to the Web yourself. Yes, we said "easy" -- this time the dreamers aren't talking ahead of their ability to deliver. The stuff you need to use the Web is already here and working; it's easy to find, easy to install, easy to use, and dependable. And, if you already own a fairly up-to-date computer, inexpensive. But there's only one way to find out if the Web's for you: Give it a try. What follows is a guide to the bare basics of getting on the Web: the equipment you need, the software, and some suggestions for places to start your exploration. What You Need: Hardware In order to access the World Wide Web, you need certain things. Fortunately, if you've read this far, you probably have most of what you need already, though what you have may not be ideal for the purpose without a little "upgrading." But only a little. Scratch pad ready? You'll need: A computer. The newer and faster the better, naturally -- really old PCs and Macs may not be powerful enough to make Web access convenient -- but any machine bought in the '90s should have no trouble handling the job. A modem. Speed does count here. Web files, with their elaborate graphics (and, often, attached sound and video clips) are big; so the faster your modem can pump all those bytes into your computer, the sooner your computer can turn them into something you can read and work with. Anything rated slower than 14.4 (14,400 data bits a second) is too slow to make good use of the Web: You'll spend more time waiting for images than perusing them. Fortunately, 14.4 modems (which should also be equipped with error correction and data-compression protocols designated by the mystic labels V32bis and MNP42) come with most computers these days. (If you have to buy one, they cost $100-$150.) Modems running twice as fast -- 28.8 is the designation -- are twice as fast, but right now they cost $300-$500. Our advice: Wait until the price comes down, then if you feel you have to, upgrade. As far as hardware's concerned, that's it. What You Need: A Connection Even with a machine capable of surfing the Web, you need a way into it, a link with one of the hundreds of thousands of machines that make up the far-flung electronic body of the Internet. These ports of entry are called service providers. All service providers charge a fee -- hourly, monthly, or by the minute -- for providing access (expect to pay $15-$30 a month). Once you're signed up for the service, you simply dial a local telephone number, enter your secret personal user code, and you're off -- with the meter ticking (another reason a nice, fast modem is an advantage). What You Need: Software However you choose to connect to the Net, you'll also need software on your own system to make the connection for you, and to help you navigate the Net: a browser. It's browser programs which have thrown the doors of the electronic world wide open for ordinary non technical surfers. They offer some initial choices of direction when you log on, keep track of the "places" you go as you explore, help you find your way back if you get lost, and bring back and store to your own hard disk what you find on your travels. You can buy some browsers in a box at the computer store, just like any other software package; others are 'shareware' (you get a copy by mail or from a friend to try out for free to see if you like it). All the commercial on-line services provide their own built-in browser, as do some direct Internet service providers (Netcom is the big national example). Making the Web Work for You It's so much fun simply poking around the inexhaustible resources of the Web that you can easily end up spending months -- and a lot of money -- doing it. Sooner or later, if only to spare your pocketbook, you have to get organized. Some of the organizing can be taken care of for you by your browser program -- if you're wise enough to take advantage of its powers. Keep in mind that Internet addresses are made for machines to read, not people. it's fatally easy to mistranscribe a single character in their strings of arcane symbols, thereby sending your life-or-death message to Kamchatka (or, for that matter, Mars) instead of Kirkland. World Wide Web addresses are even worse. For this reason, by far the most valuable device built into your browser is the bookmark function. A bookmark is a name or label that you assign to a Web page yourself. The next time you want to visit that page, you don't have to remember (and accurately type) "http://www. physics.wisc.edu/ shalizi/hyper-weird/" on the "Go To:" line of your browser. Instead, you just open your Bookmark list, find "weirdstuff" (or whatever name you assigned the page), click on it, and off you go. Of course, if you bookmark every page you visit, you'll soon be drowning in bookmarks, so be selective. You'll quickly find that 90 percent of your Web surfing centers on only half a dozen or a dozen sites. Those are the ones most worth bookmarking. Of course, when you're in hot pursuit of a particular piece of information, you may want to bookmark the stages of your search in case you have to backtrack at some point. But once you've got what you want, weed out any intermediate bookmarks you won't need again. Even more important in the long run, though not as obviously handy, is your browser's "Save As" command. If you're connected to the Web through a commercial service provider, you're paying for every minute you spend on-line. So once you find the material you're looking for, whether it be the text of House Bill 135 or the cover of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue, don't look at it while the meter's running; download it onto your own hard drive, log off, and look it over at leisure. Another way to save yourself money, time, and hassle is to think a little bit before logging on. Just what kind of information are you looking for, and where would you look for it if you weren't using your computer? Is it the sort of information you find in a reference book like an encyclopedia or an almanac? Well, where do you find such books? A library, right? Most likely, an on-line library will have the same info. Suppose what you want is a record of prices for a particular stock over the last three months. Where do you ordinarily find stock prices? A newspaper, right? Preferably a paper specializing in business news. Hmmmm, wonder if The Wall Street Journal has a page. . . . How about information about the painter Matthias Grenewald and his work? Well, paintings end up in museums, and many museums have pages on the Web; some even offer downloadable reproductions of many of the works in their collections. So start out by searching for "MOMA", or "Louvre" for that matter: Why not think big? And in Conclusion, a Word of Caution The World Wide Web, combined with the software technology that has made it accessible to ordinary citizens all over the earth, has the potential for being just as revolutionary as its most wild-eyed advocates claim. The operative word there is "potential." Whatever the advocates of artificial intelligence say, machines don't think; people do. Thinking is not the same thing as data processing; thinking is something that occurs deep along the darkling boundaries of feeling, observation, intuition, calculation, and need. Without a mind attached, the Web is nothing but a lot of large, gray boxes full of transistors and aimlessly circulating electrons, a filigree of wires and radio waves, clunky hardware and inert data. You profit from the Web, as from a book, a conversation, a walk in the woods, in exact proportion to what you invest in it. On a less cosmic level of expectation: Expect frustration and irritation along with amusement and enlightenment. The Web as we see it today is less than three years old. Hundreds of thousands of new users are logging on to it every month, attracted by commercial, informational, and entertainment facilities that didn't exist 12 months ago. Demand for service is increasing faster than providers can upgrade their host computers, software, phone lines, and radio links. This means that for the foreseeable future there are going to be times when you get a busy signal, a "can't connect" message, a slow download, or absolute dead air -- always at the very moment, of course, that the information you're after is immediately needed. There's nothing to be done about this. In its weirdly incorporeal way, the World Wide Web is spreading, ever spreading, like printed books across 16th-century Europe, like the railroads across 19th-century North America, with consequences as impossible to predict. One thing is certain: There's no turning back. All aboard -- and hang on for dear life."SIDEBAR (BY ROGER DOWNEY)What is "the Web"? Once upon a time, every computer in the world was an independent machine, isolated from every other computer. But government agencies, mainly military, needed a way to have their computers communicate with each other. They spent a great deal of your money -- think billions, a lot of it from secret intelligence accounts -- to create a tissue of phone-line and microwave connections between the 1950s and 1980s. Scientists working for the government found that these fast, efficient, inexpensive connections doubled or tripled their own productivity. No more waiting months or years to see your research results published in a peer-reviewed journal: With the Internet, hundreds of colleagues could be reading your discovery of yesterday over their first cup of morning coffee today. They started lobbying their universities, institutes, and think tanks to hook up, and make the hook-up available to all faculty, employees -- even students. In the early 1980s came the personal computer. Now people didn't need a university workstation to connect to other computers and computer users; they could hook up to all the power of their mainframes at work with nothing more than a cheap microcomputer -- all they needed was a modem and a phone line. Though it started as a link between a few dozen mainframe computers at major research stations, the network now connected millions of sites. Scientists in other countries started lobbying their governments to hook up to the system. This worldwide network, ever expanding and putting out new tendrils, is "the Internet." At first, only people willing to spend months learning how could get much use out of the Internet. (UNIX, the operating system of choice on the Internet, is flexible, powerful, and able to adapt to new challenges, but easy to learn and understand it isn't.) And once you learned your way around UNIX, you still had to learn your way around the Net: You had to find the place where the desired data was stored, find out what machine it was stored on, find out what directory and subdirectory contained it, and then download it to your own machine. Only to discover, likely as not, that the data was formatted for a Mac, and you had a PC. The World Wide Web, created at the European Nuclear Research Center (CERN) near Geneva, Switzerland, was developed to make the Internet and the information more accessible, and more usable when accessed. Web protocols require that all data be is organized into "pages," each page with its own unique computer-readable address. Each page also contains "links" to pages containing related information, which in turn provide further links of their own. Tracking down the information you're looking for -- be it text, pictures, charts, equations, sound bites, or film clips -- is just a matter of narrowing the search as you leap from link to link. All you need to access the electronic wonders of the world is a brain and the ability to click a mouse. Once data was neatly arranged in "pages," it was only a step to lay down rules for formatting the data: type styles, type faces and sizes, etc. The first program to harness these formatting rules was called Mosaic; all the browsers on the market today are based one way or another on it. Here was a frame, a container for the terabytes of data on the Internet -- a way of organizing data in clear visual fashion, requiring no technical knowledge at all. Think of it as the Internet with a human face.

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