Thursday, May 26, 2011

When the World Changed

Fifteen years ago I said to my then boss, "the internet is going to change the world" and he just laughed. He was a very traditional lawyer and as he said he had "no interest in ruining his eyes by reading on a computer monitor" which in those days was not far from the mark. But it was his haughty dismissal of the power of the Internet that got me riled. I wrote the following article which was basically a response to his disdainful dismissal. I just hoped somebody else would read it:

Law Office Computing(TM)

Winton D. Woods

May 1995

It seems that every place you go in the last few months you hear people talking about the Internet. The vast majority of them know very little about it, but the Net's global characteristics are so intriguing that expanded knowledge runs the risk of interfering with the fantasy of a seamless electronic world without boundaries. In that fantasy world the Internet has broken down the walls created by language and culture and nationalism and rendered us instead into a homogenous world called cyberspace.

The fantasy is at once close to the mark and hopelessly naive. The Internet does connect us in many ways, but the protocols for accessing it are often arcane and difficult to use. The arcaneness of the Internet has been the principal barrier to its expansion to the masses of computer illiterates and semi-literates. Just as the intricacies of DOS for a decade kept the masses away from computers, so too have the text-based protocols of the Internet made access highly difficult.

I have spent a lot of time in the last few months thinking about why it is that text-based access to cyberspace has made it into a rather exclusive club. I think I found the answer last week when I returned from a trip to find over 50 messages on my voice mail. One of you, who will remain nameless, left me with an important message, told me you were traveling and gave me an 800 number for your pager. The first ninety percent of the message I got just fine, but when you got to the 800 number you rolled it off in staccato fashion and I was totally unable to get the numbers down. I confess to a foul word or two, followed by a pound on the table and emphatic statement I wished to hell people would slow down when they leave their phone numbers on the voice mail. My thirteen year old daughter happened to be standing next to me and she said, "Daddy, he said 1-800-492-9586" or something to that effect. I was at first shocked, by my shock was followed by a blinding insight into the obvious: for some, text-based access to technology is no problem. But for others like me, it is Masada. My colleague, David Wexler, remembers every telephone number and birthday of every friend he ever had. I had a friend in law school who undertook to memorize the meaning of every word in Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. He did it methodically, a page a day, and when I met him during our first year of law school, he was into the Q's. Not only did he know the meaning of all of those words, he could spell them as well, almost without error. It suddenly became clear to me that the text-based barrier was no barrier at all for many people, while for other people like me it imposed enormous constraints upon our use of computers. I suddenly realized why one of my oldest friends, a man of uncommon brilliance, threw up his hands in disgust and threatened to physically destroy his DOS based computer because he could not remember the commands long enough to even write them down. He really tried, but for him the text-based access system was an absolute barrier, while for others it is a piddling nothing--perhaps even a remarkable efficiency. I am sure the psychologists have an explanation for all of this and it relates to something like right brain, left brain dominance, traumatic injuries in childhood and unrelenting exposure to various noxious substances. Maybe my inability to use text-based systems is a product of too much fine red wine and cigars during the heyday of my youth. But whatever it is, it doesn't make an awful lot of difference. Graphical User Interfaces, such as Macintosh and Windows, have brought computers to the masses and now the same technique has brought the Internet to us as well.

They go by different names, but whether they are called Cello, Mosaic, Lynx or Netscape, the so-called World Wide Web browsers make access to the Internet the same sort of point and click adventure that have made CD-ROM encyclopedias and games so incredibly successful.

Those of you who have been using the Internet in a text-based mode have probably marveled at the prolixity of some of the commands you are required to type in order to access a file on the Internet. The Worldwide Web browsers overcome that problem in two ways. First, once you are given the exact location for an Internet resource, for example, HTTP:// You only need to type it once in order to be able to access it for the rest of the life of your computer. Once you have typed the address, checked to make sure that it works and then discovered that you like what you have found, you are able to save that address as a so-called bookmark. Once marked, it is forever after accessible from a list of your bookmarks. But there is an even more expansive way of accessing resources on the Internet. For example, there is an Internet site called Interesting Places for Kids, (HTTP://WWW.CRC.RICOH.COM/PEOPLE/STEVE/KIDS.HTML) which is a list of hundreds of fun places for kids to explore on the Internet. Once you have typed in that rather long and difficult address and saved it as a bookmark, your kids will be able to access the Interesting Places for Kids site by simply clicking on the bookmark with their mouse. Once they are at the site, they are presented with a very long list of things that kids find fun to do with computers and Home Pages from K-12 schools all over the world. To access any of those things, they are not required to type in anything at all. All they have to do is to place cursor of the mouse on the particular highlighted item that they want to see and click. Through the magic of a process called Hypertext, they are immediately taken to that place, which may be in Geneva or London or Tokyo. There is even a place where you can go to NASA and from there out to the universe. Thus, the computer becomes a virtual spaceship, just a mouse click away from almost anywhere. That's the good news and the true part of fantasy.

The bad news is that getting your computer set up to do this sort of thing has not been easy. I have worked on and off for the last year getting my computer at the office able to access the Worldwide Web in the way I have just described. It has not always been successful even though I have had tremendous resources at my disposal. My computer at the law school is a very powerful Pentium computer that is hooked directly to the Internet, but it still has seemed slow and somewhat difficult to use. Besides, if I wanted to give my children the kind of computer experience that I think they ought to have, it had to be on my home base computer. Several months ago I described to you my discovery that we could use the local Digital Concepts Bulletin Board as a vehicle for accessing the Internet and the World Wide Web. It works pretty well and it is incredibly cheap. But the interface or Web Browser used by the bulletin board is something less than satisfactory, and I frankly found myself using it very little. A couple of weeks ago I found at the bottom of a stack of papers an envelope from Prodigy, the on line service I am sure you have heard about. In the envelope was a disk inviting me to try Prodigy for free. The fact is I had tried Prodigy many years ago and found it to be very weak in comparison to my old standby CompuServe. I had canceled my account and had not gone back. This time, however, I was intrigued by the fact that Prodigy claimed to have created an Internet Browser for the Worldwide Web that is easy to use and relatively fast. I thought I would take them up on their free offer, though my expectation was that their system would be less than satisfactory.

Installing Prodigy on my computer and accessing it with a 14.4 Kbps modem took only a few minutes. The graphical user interface for the Prodigy system has a button to click on for the World Wide Web and that I did. I was taken to another screen where I was given the option to explore the World Wide Web and I clicked upon that. You can imagine my amazement when I discovered that the browser created by Prodigy gave me access to the Worldwide Web in an easy to use graphical interface that seemed to me to be almost as fast in its execution as my powerful Pentium computer at the University. While I am sure from a technical standpoint that the perception must be wrong, the reality is that the Prodigy World Wide Web interface is so easy to use that I was able to accomplish things with it that I had not be able to accomplish using the University computer.

Prodigy's two big competitors CompuServe and America Online say that they too are coming up with a World Wide Web browser interface that can be accessed through their services. But for now the Prodigy service is fantastic, and while I don't think much of the other aspects of the Prodigy network, if you really want to explore the World Wide Web and cyberspace universe, I think this is the quickest, easiest and cheapest way to do it. All you need is a 14.4 Kbps modem and a 486 computer that runs Windows reasonably well.

Have fun on the Web!! And have your kids show you how to get to (for lawyers only!)

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