Net.Dern: "WHERE'S THE CYBERBEEF?"


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In Which I Find Hamburger All Over the Information SuperHighway

by Daniel P. Dern

Copyright (c) 1996, 1997 Daniel P. Dern

"COPYLEFT/COPY'MIDDLE'":

Permission is hereby granted to link to, repost or forward this piece of my copyrighted work to free-for-access Web sites, online discussion groups, Newsgroups, forums, etc., so long as a) My name, copyright information, and this permissions notice are included, and b) No modifications are made to the text without my approval. If possible, I would appreciate being told of any such re-uses in any case.

HOWEVER: If you want to make any use of this piece where you are earning revenue (e.g., on a Web page with banner ads, or a service or site that charges user fees) or where you should be paying me (e.g., in a magazine) or at least obtaining my permission, contact me at ddern@world.std.com.


A version of this article appeared in NetGuide magazine, as one of my Net.Dern columns. I may have made a few very minor update changes to this, usually indicated by [being in square-brackets]. - DPD

by Daniel P. Dern

I can report that there is, indeed, hamburger all over the information superhighway. I know because I put it there.

I put it there hamburger as the title of the keynote speech I gave at DCI's InternetExpo in Boston this past December [1995]: "Hamburger All Over the Information Superhighway."

It was a lot of fun -- I love show business.

Since the show was local enough to get by car instead of flying, I even got to do one of my favorite homegrown magic tricks, the "Cut And Restored Assistant." (The props are too cumbersome to casually bring as luggage -- but I do have a miniature version that fits in my sidepack).

What I do is saw in half my Dressed-In-A-Slinky-Outfit assistant. With a real saw. (And put her back together again. Don't try this at home or work.)

Anyway, getting back to the hamburger ... Since I'm not CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company, I couldn't spend the hour talking about my vision of where the Internet was going in which my products would play a key enabling role in. So I figured I'd better talk about something I knew - being an Internet user.

"Hamburger all over the Information Superhighway" is (of course) an Internetized allusion to a quote from the Firesign Theatre "...and there's hamburger all over the highway in Mystic, Connecticut," which in turn was based on an actual highway accident involving a meat delivery truck. (The Firesign Theatre was a comedy troup from the late 60's and 70s -- they started up about the same time as the ARPANET. See http://mtritter.jpl.nasa.gov/firesign.html and/or alt.comedy.firesgn-thtre for more about them.)

I wanted to be the first person on record to actually give an Internet speech with this title. (I think I succeeded.)

To establish some Internet relevance, my subtitle for the talk was: "How to Use the Internet Productively In Times of Change." I finagled linkage between this topic and the Firesign Theatre by using quotes from Firesign Theatre albums as my talking points, e.g., "Isn't that bridge built yet?", "He's no fun, he fell right over," "Wow! It's a tropical paradise!" and Law: "If you push something hard enough, it will fall over."

(And I'd like the thank the several dozen "fireheads" -- Firesign fans -- who attended in response to my requests on Usenet, and who dutifully yelled out my talking points from the audience in return for assorted prizes.)

My thesis (and the description I put together for the brochure) was that getting "on" the Internet and using "Internet tools" may be easier than ever -- but being an effective user is arguably harder than ever.

As I've recounted in previous columns, resources we'd counted on move, change or are too busy. Our favorite Newsgroups and mailing lists are being destroyed by spam and other "noise." Half the "exciting" new services can't be accessed by the tools we're already familiar with. And the REAL solutions we need to use the Internet productively -- directory services, URNs, global search, and real help sites -- still aren't here yet.

How, faced with all these, can today's users cope, and remain productive?

The main answers, which came to me at two in the morning the night before my speech, were (are) as follows: Time and Tools. (Kind of a nerd's remake of Laura Nyro's "Time and Love" song.)

TIME, because time is, IMNSHBCO (In My Not So Humble But Correct Opinion), the most valuable resource on the Internet. I don't know of anybody who's got a meaningful amount of unused time at work.

So all the "valuable" Web sites, mailing lists and other net resources must compete not only with each other, but with whatever your time has already been allocated to doing. To deserve five or ten or more minutes, a Web site has to offer clear new value (unless you're "surfing" just to see what's around), or be a good replacement for something else you were doing. (Such sites better be time-efficient to use -- responsive servers, no excessive unnecessary graphics.)

Similarly, for "consumer" and other personal use of the Internet -- non-business activities, in other words -- ask yourself the musical question, "Would I rather invest the next hour of MY TIME browsing stuff on the Web, or watching an episode of _Babylon V_ on television, reading the latest issues of Icon and The Flash, sleep, etc." Discretionary personal fun time is a limited resource; revisiting Web sites or sloshing through Usenet can rapidly hit the point of diminished return.

So to remain productive, it's important to consider what's worth doing with your net time....and when to zoom down the off-ramp back to offline reality.

TOOLS FOR THE INDUSTRIOUS

TOOLS is the other answer to the question, "How can I remain productive?" Your tools should serve you, not you them. Many people failed to learn this lesson as PC owners, spending endless hours playing with fonts, icons, and "desktop layout," or trying to get new operating systems working. Now we get to relearn this lesson for protocol stacks, browsers, toolbars, players, bookmark managers, and other Internet-related doodads, gizmos and doohickeys.

Internet tools that force us to spend endless hours reloading, configuring, tweaking, upgrading, re-installing, and working around are bad news. Pick tools that are good enough and stick with them; don't upgrade casually, and if the computer your Internet tools are on is also your primary production environment (i.e., where you do your work), don't upgrade or add to tools unless you have at minimum a full data backup, and if possible, a spare computer with copies of your essential programs.

In one of his poems, e.e.cummings said, "He who things of love will never wholely kiss you." Similarly, for us computer users (including but hardly limited to Internet activity), focussing on the tools, whether to keep them working or obsessively buff them, distracts us from the point, which is to get tasks done, on behalf of goals.

At our COMDEX session in Atlanta this past spring, my friend David Williams (williams@world.std.com), President of NetSites capsulized it all like so: "What's a good tool? One that you can install, and can use -- or de-install without disabling your system or network. If your telephone only worked 90% of the time you picked up up, would you consider that adequate reliability? What if using your television made your phone stop working?"

How you relate to your Internet toolkit strongly determines your Internet experience, and the overhead you will or won't dedicate to staying a user.

The flip side (or perhaps to contradict myself) is that it is important to be ready to spend some time trying new tools.

If all you can get is a shell account, before SLIP/PPP's unavailable or unaffordable, you should be exploring SLIPknot, I- Comm, SLiRP or The Internet Adapter. (Which one depends on your computer and host constraints.) If you've got GUI access, is there a better browser?

You should also be learning more about the tools you've got. Do you know how to ZIP and UNZIP files? Uuencode and uudecode? Insert and extract files MIME attachments to email? Save Web bookmarks?

Also, look for high-density, high-quality sources of Internet updates that cover areas you care about. (If you can't find one you want, that may become YOUR next business!)

Let's close out with a few of the Firesignisms as they apply to the Internet:

  • "Isn't That Bridge Built Yet?" The Internet still doesn't connect me to lots of places and info-sources I want, nor does it serve all the communities it needs to...yet.
  • "Let's Eat!" Enough with the small talk -- the Internet has become sufficiently point-and-click that even new users can quickly achieve near-instant gratification. At least they think they can.
  • "If you push something hard enough, it will fall over." (Fudd's Law). We're pushing the entire net -- servers, sites, backbones and underlying services (DNS name serving, etc.) -- pretty hard. Expect pieces to begin falling over.
  • "Let's Stand Him On His Head." Too many people are trying desparately to turn established paradigms upside-down, namely use the Internet -- especially the Web -- which is a distributed application and data environment on an unreliable, unreservable WAN, as if it were an multimedia CD-ROM on an 8,000-mile-wide LAN. No wonder using the Web is so frustrating.
  • "Not Responsible! Park and Lock it!" Especially with Win95's gaping security holes, your workstation is now at risk...don't rely on vendors or MIS staff to protect you from password- guessing intruders, attached viruses and macro files, or other perils of the networked age.
  • "In the next world you're on your own." Decreasingly, ISPs and other key Internet organizations are dropping the ball in terms of planning, training and help. Don't look to anybody to help you; everyone's too busy selling ads and hotlinks. Care for some Gray Cyberpoupon?
The challenge is to make the best possible use of the Internet...which includes not letting it overwhelm our jobs and lives. Now, "back to the Funway already in progress!"

-- Daniel P. Dern <ddern@world.std.com>


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Last modified: Tuesday, 16-Oct-2001 11:08:15 EDT