Down to Navigation Controls

Life Online

by Reva Basch

"What do *you* do?" used to be such an easy question to answer. Our parents were teachers or lawyers, barbers or salespeople or homemakers. The categories were self-explanatory, the roles well-defined. Then came computers, and the advent of Knowledge Workers, and life suddenly got a lot more complicated.

What do *I* do for a living? Depending on my mood and who's asking, I answer that question in one of several ways: I may call myself a researcher-who-uses- computers, an information broker, an electronic librarian, a database rider, an info-surfer. After that, I usually pause, waiting for a glimmer of recognition or interest, or the dreaded MEGO (my-eyes-glaze-over) effect, the same one that afflicts *me* when someone starts discussing economics.

Terminology aside, what I do is this: From my home office in Berkeley, I tap into the electronic equivalent of several thousand books, magazines, scholarly journals and newspapers, plus wire stories and other info-goodies for which there is no print equivalent. Through my modem -- a translation device that lets *my* personal computer talk to the humongous computers that house these publications -- I pose questions about almost anything my clients want to know and will pay me for finding out. As long as it's legal and seems do-able, I'll look for it: Male-female differences in color perception, the designer-sunglasses market, current research on Alzheimer's disease, the first recorded use of the term "guerrilla marketing."

It's a highly interactive process, a game of wits -- woman against machine, human intuition versus raw bits and bytes. Sometimes, when skill and luck combine, everything flows like a dance: my fingers on the keyboard, initial results scrolling up the screen, a little refinement, a tweak here and there, and voila: *information*: statistics, directory listings, articles that will answer my clients' questions or point them in the right direction. When it's bad, though, it can be very, very bad: too much data with no way of narrowing it down, or parts of the puzzle but not the crucial pieces, or nothing -- I mean *nothing* -- at all.

Computerized research is almost always an intellectual challenge, from finding out what the client *really* wants (what we librarians -- and I used to be a more-or-less conventional one --call a reference interview), to deciding which of the hundreds of databases on which of the dozens of mega-computer systems is likely to contain the nugget of virtual gold I'm looking for, to designing, testing and refining the terms and tactics of the search itself. I can never tell, when the phone rings, what odd request I'll be faced with next, or what bizarre resources I'll be called upon to use. There is, after all, an entire database with over 22,000 references devoted to *coffee*.

Doing research this way is called *going online*. I've been doing it since dinosaurs walked the earth (actually since 1975 or so, the Information Age equivalent of the Cretaceous era). I've also hired and supervised online researchers, and have discovered that the most important qualification isn't experience, but a creative intellect and an addiction to the thrill of the hunt. It has to be *fun*, and for me it's always been.

This is powerful stuff, the ability to find in minutes what might take hours, even days, to track down in the library, assuming it's there at all. Unfortunately, no Andrew Carnegie came along in the early days of the online industry to ensure that database access would be free; electronic information retrieval costs serious money, anywhere from a dollar to three or four dollars a minute. That ticking meter has a lot to do with the adrenaline rush I feel when I go online.

But "online" has come to mean other things as well. The same modem and communications software that makes it possible for me to tap into giant databases also lets me send research results to clients by electronic mail, keep in touch with family, friends and colleagues, and participate in ongoing discussions of both professional and personal interests. When my brother, a marine biologist, was in Antarctica for five months last year, we discovered an email path through the University of Miami that allowed us to exchange messages on a daily basis. When a client in Australia needed research results overnight, I forwarded what I'd found to his electronic mailbox; he had it when he got to the office the next morning.

Email isn't just a convenient way to transfer important data, or a faster alternative to what onliners call "snail mail." It occupies a niche in human communications somewhere between a casual comment and a phone call. I use it to banter with colleagues, to lend support, to discuss privately something that's going on elsewhere on the network; in other words, to build and maintain relationships in an ongoing, conversational way. With few exceptions, I can reach anyone with an email address anywhere in the world, regardless of their home system. I've been spoiled, I admit, by the spontaneous and instantaneous quality of email. I find myself thinking that being "off the net" is like not owning an answering machine, that it's simply *inconsiderate* not to be reachable online.

The other major component of my life online is computer conferencing. That phrase sounds awfully dry and technical, but what it really means is participating in a virtual community, a rolling group conversation that has no geographic boundaries, that doesn't depend on its participants being in the same room with each other, or even online at the same time. I belong to a professional group, the Association of Independent Information Professionals, that conducts its business in a private conference on CompuServe. I visit another system, GEnie, for its continuing discussions of information brokering and online research techniques. And I hang out, with work as the justification and socializing as the reality, on a system called The WELL. There, I dutifully check into conference areas with names like Information, Telecommunications and Writers, but my visits are interspersed with forays into Sex, Restaurants and The Grateful Dead.

When you communicate online, the constraints of time and space disappear. So do the preconceptions about people that we all develop from physical and auditory clues. I've shared my Swiss Army Knife fetish with a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering who, I eventually discovered, tipped the scales at something over 300 pounds; I've been intrigued by the erotic postings of an individual with a unisex name and a deft way with pronouns who turned out, to my mild surprise, to be a man; I've been moved by the grace and vigor expressed in postings by people who I learned months later were blind or quadriplegic.

The WELL (the acronym stands for Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) is really the substrate, the underpinning, for my life on the net. It's my connection to the Internet, the mother of all networks, the one that let me reach my brother in Antarctica for the price of a local phone call. Although it doesn't host any of the formal databases that I use for research, The WELL *is* the online hangout of choice for an incredible array of experts: multi-media artists, musicians, newspaper columnists, neurobiologists, radio producers, futurists, computer junkies. I can contact any of them directly, through email, or post a plea for information in a public conference and, more often than not, be deluged with insights and informed opinions. Most compellingly, the conferences devoted to non-work issues and to fun and nonsense give me a chance to get to know these folks better, and vice versa.

When my husband and I decided, a year ago, to build an addition to our house in Berkeley, we started a topic in The WELL's Design conference. We called it _It'll be so nice when it's finished: the diary of a home remodel_. We described our progress from the day we filed for the building permit, through framing, trimwork, painting (oh, the painting!) and finally, the housewarming party. It wasn't just our narrative, though; it was an ongoing dialogue with architects, contractors and builders, our fellow conference participants. They gave us useful suggestions and the benefit of their varied experience from beginning to end: when we were left roofless during a Thanksgiving storm, when we came home from a trip to find a set of custom-built windows installed upside down, or when we simply needed to decide whether to put two or three finish coats on the hardwood floors. When the time came, we invited everybody who'd participated to the housewarming (via email, of course). A couple of dozen people showed up whom we'd never met,
but who knew us very well.

Typically, I start my day by checking my electronic mailboxes and answering email on four systems: GEnie, Dialog, CompuServe and The WELL. I try not to fall into The WELL, but mail-check sometimes extends into reading three or four of the almost-30 sub-conferences that I visit regularly. I'll give a "u" command, which shows me who's logged into the system when I am, and perhaps exchange a volley of "sends" -- real-time conversation -- or just a "good morning," with someone I know. This is the home office equivalent of checking your in-box, going down the hall for that first cup of coffee, and chatting with your co-workers; it's the warm- up routine for the day ahead.

Then, when research projects are pending, I log into one or more different electronic library systems -- Nexis (which is physically located in Dayton, OH), Dialog (Palo Alto, CA), Vu/Text (Philadelphia), DataTimes (Oklahoma City) or Data-Star. (Using Data-Star reminds me how global this process really is; its computer is in Switzerland, and they offer North American users a price break, because we're online when Europe is asleep and the system is lightly loaded.) I'll search one or three or fourteen databases, jumping from system to system as my clients' needs and budgets dictate, capturing the results on my hard disk, then formatting them in WordPerfect. Though I use fax and Federal Express heavily, I often send search results back out into the ether, to my client's electronic mailbox; the text on my screen never appears on paper, at least not at my end.

I'm often juggling several projects at once, downloading a search on silicon wafer fabrication while planning the next one on raising rabbits. Throughout the day, I go online to upload search results, check email, read conferences, exchange "sends" with one friend about his root canal work and with another about the interesting conversation going on in the Media conference and with another about whether she still needs a ride to the party tonight.

Unless the phone rings, I may not speak, audibly, to a soul all day. And yet, I've been deeply engaged in something that sure feels like communication to me. After all, I've traveled to distant libraries in search of esoteric knowledge, participated in heated debates on Supreme Court nominations, gathered from colleagues the latest industry gossip, and downloaded what may be the definitive recipe for tiramisu. Now I'm ready to go out and dance, to move my *body* as well as my mind. And maybe I'll log in once more, just to check my email, you understand, from the laptop in the bedroom...

I know that my experience isn't typical and that, as a result, my perspective is skewed. I didn't realize how *much*, though, until I got my copy of my high school graduating class' 25th anniversary directory. I'd sent in an entry saying, among other things, that I work in a home office equipped with computer, modem, fax machine and laser printer. The description, as published, read "computer, modern fax machine and user print." Well, I'd hate to be working with an *ancient* fax machine. This was an academic-track high school, and my classmates are by definition my contemporaries. There are no gaps in age or education to account for that lack of comprehension. But something has come between us; I've discovered life online, and they, apparently, have not.

I'll tell you something that living on The Net has done to me. I love to write, and I do a lot of it. But it's hard to meet deadlines unless I exercise massive amounts of self-control. Communicating "out there," whether with wily database systems or other people, is so seductive, so alluring that severing the connection, coming "in here" to use the word-processor, makes me feel like a kid being called in at suppertime; I don't want to stop *playing*. It's amazing how two activities that look the same -- butt on chair, fingers on keyboard, eyes on screen -- can feel so different. Online, I compose reams, or ream-equivalents, of prose -- some of it about work, some purely informational, some very personal and intimate. It's casual, like conversation. Writing in the more formal sense requires a shift of attention, a different mindset. When I write for print, I interact with myself and with an imagined audience. The feedback cycle is much less immediate than it is online, and so many things can get in the way; I must discipline myself to get things right the first time.

There's an evolutionary aspect to life online. When you're used to seeing text scroll by at 2400 baud, at first your eyes can't follow it, but you eventually learn to read, and eventually to comprehend, at that speed; it's like an online exercise from Evelyn Woods Reading Dynamics. Interacting with text in motion makes words on a printed page seem static by comparison, and the skimming involved in evaluating search results on the fly, or browsing a conversational thread to see if it's interesting, wreaks havoc with my powers of concentration. When I read a book these days, I have to remind myself to *slow down*, to focus, to read for style as well as for content.

Something more subtle is going on, as well. Cyberpunk literature and books like John Quarterman's "The Matrix" have portrayed, in both fiction and fact, an extended, collective consciousness, an instantaneous, shared form of communication made possible and sustained by a universal, interconnected computer network. The Net, or the Matrix, is almost a life form in itself, part human and part machine. Tuning in to it, "jacking in" as the cyberpunk writers call it, expands and enhances one's perceptions, and allows one to play tricks with time and space. Boot up, log on, jack in. Far out.

Cyberlit talks about surgically installing docking points for the appropriate integrated circuits (behind the ear, like an anti-seasickness patch, is a favored spot) to facilitate connecting to The Net: the bionic brain. In the meantime, a substantial community of relatively normal human beings is already adapting to life online, like the first amphibians, using nothing more than their computers and their imaginations. Whether we turn out to be a functional adaptation, or an evolutionary dead-end, remains to be seen. I suspect the former.


Navigation Controls

© 1998 The Computer Lab
Gareth Branwyn -

Go to Street Tech, Gar & Pete's Tech Review Site.