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No. 1352:

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 created them.

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 of information.

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 work.

(Theme music)

I am grateful to Andrew Lienhard, Software Engineer, Children's Television Workshop for his counsel. Many colleagues discussed these ideas and offered critical reactions. Pamela Talene Hale, who manages the electric publications center at the UH Library, forwarded an email from Humor Break that spoofed gullibility on the Internet, and then added a serious list of Internet sources dealing with the maintenance of quality on the Internet. This episode first aired in 1998; and, since then, those urls have almost all gone bad. Then,  ...
... on August 26, 2023, I find myself going through all 3270 episodes to date, fixing broken links -- a Sisyphean task ...

Also, this Episode from 2007 provides a useful sidelight on the subject.