TECHNOFILE

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The Independent Culture
"Now is the time to advance a skill that will enable future students to evaluate the materials circulating in the Internet pipeline," declares Tara Calishain, a contributor to an "electronic publishing enterprise" called Silly Little Tomte Publications (http:// pobox. com/slt/). "In its simplest form, the skill is called reading." Calishain doesn't just mean literacy. She is talking about literature: "reading as an experience of depth, designed to change one subtly with every paragraph, every new word, every discovered fact".

Calishain is not arguing that we need to defend the art of reading from the threat of electronic text, but that a rediscovery of the art of serious, literary reading is needed in order for the Internet to fulfil its potential, or even just to work properly. "Readers will be needed at all levels of the Internet to comb through information and organise it before passing it on to the next level of readers, until it finally gets to the 'general public'," she predicts. The Cassandras of the dead trees, predicting that electronics will kill verbal civility along with the printed word, should take note. The Internet is making at least some of its users appreciate that text can have depth as well as hyperlinks.

For most Netizens, however, the issue is not how we are encouraged to read, but what we are forced to read. In three letters, RTM: Read The Manual. More often, the message is the four-letter version: RTFM. If only the FMs were themselves written comprehensibly. I recently glanced through a facsimile edition of a 1920s Ford service manual, and found a classic demonstration of the fact that even technical writing can be good writing.

The original Model T owners were able to make journeys previously unimaginable, thanks to the speed and flexibility of a new technology that was just reaching the stage of the mass market. But in order to do so, they needed an intimate knowledge of how their machines worked, a readiness to put up with systems still in a primitive stage of development, a sense of their vehicles' limitations, and good humour in the face of breakdowns. Computer-users today, particularly Internet aficionados, are in a very similar position. The world is there to put a girdle round about, but you must be prepared to learn far more about girdling protocols and girdle settings than any well-adjusted person should ever want to know. And your copy of WorldGirdle 1.0 will always crash at the worst possible moment.

One day computers will work as well as cars do today, and it will be possible to travel with only the vaguest idea of what is going on behind the screen. For now, though, access to the Net requires commitment to technical drudgery. A side-effect of this is that even the most anti-technical Netizens "read" the Web with a technical eye. If you've created a Web site, however simple, you appreciate the accomplishment of any clever design touches you encounter at other people's sites, whatever their actual contents. (And with the "save as source code" option, their secrets can be yours to adapt or simply steal.)

You also learn not to assume that you can go wherever you want to, or that your intended destination will still exist when you decide to visit it. That's in the nature of the online medium. But its partner medium, CD-ROM, has different connotations. We expect CDs to be higher in quality and easier to use than what they replaced. You feel there's something badly wrong with the medium when you spend longer reading the instructions for a CD-ROM than watching the show.

Marek.kohn@mcr1.poptel.org.uk

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