Navigating the Galaxies

New programs are trying to make sense of the uncodified information on the Internet

THE great problem of the information age is that there's too much information. The easier it becomes to store any kind of data on a computer or to dump material onto the Internet, the harder it can be to find what you are looking for. As more people have exchanged E-mail, joined "newsgroups" and other online discussion forums, and set up their own "home pages" on the World Wide Web, the conventional wisdom has held that the computer age will be a time of decentralized, truly democratic information flow. According to this theory, editors and, say, government censors will no longer have the ability to filter, select, or in other ways distort the news, because any citizen with a computer and a modem will be able to prowl through the Internet's vast data troves and find the truth.
Computers are obviously changing the way people communicate, and giving us online friends and colleagues we have never met. Yet for the time being they seem to be making editors and other data-winnowers more rather than less important. Precisely because no one can keep up with all the discussion groups, all the new Web sites, and all the online libraries, people who will do preliminary screening and point others toward promising sites have an increasingly valuable service to sell. Already the Internet teems with recommendations for "hot lists" and "cool sites" and digests of the best postings from various bulletin boards. The most popular online discussion forums tend to be not purely democratic but quasi-authoritarian in spirit, with an active "Sysop" (systems operator) who both steers and stimulates debate.

The people performing such functions will not be quite like traditional print editors -- mainly because the act of reading on the Internet seems destined to remain very different from reading a printed page. Reading from even the nicest computer screen is so unpleasant -- and the expectation is so strong that the computer will always be doing something more active than just displaying text -- that computers will remain better suited to jumping from topic to topic than to the sustained intellectual, artistic, or emotional experience that print can provide. People can read books by the hour; it is hard to imagine anyone's spending even ten minutes straight reading a single document on a computer screen. Yet while editing standards for the screen may differ from those for print, the basic editorial functions of selecting, highlighting, and ordering remain important in the Web world.

THE natural impulse of the computer culture is to look for ways to automate everything. Software designers are now working on systems that might automatically edit the material that is being abundantly and automatically propagated. In an article in last month's issue of this magazine ("The Java Theory") I discussed two computerized systems that can under certain circumstances be tremendously effective in finding data: the electronic version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Lexis-Nexis database. Each has made the most of an unusual advantage. The Britannica's edge is its pre-existing Propaedia, a conceptual index to the encyclopedia's full contents. The Propaedia makes it possible for electronic searching programs to look not just for specific names or phrases in the Britannica but for discussions of broad themes. Lexis-Nexis has the advantage of standardization. With transcripts of many newspaper and magazine articles, wire-service stories, and broadcast news programs that reach back as far as the early 1980s, all collected in one computer system, Lexis-Nexis allows researchers to find information even when they don't know where it originally appeared.

The conditions that allow these two systems to work -- a sophisticated index in the Britannica's case, a centralized data collection for Lexis-Nexis -- are conspicuously absent elsewhere on the Internet. Last December the Digital Equipment Corporation unveiled its Alta Vista search system (found at, which searches for Web pages containing particular phrases or names far more quickly than other search systems such as Yahoo and WebCrawler. But to use even the ultra-high-speed Alta Vista effectively you must know what you are looking for before you start. The response to a general query, about an idea or trend, may point toward hundreds of Web sites with no indication of which really has the data you want.

Recently, at two laboratories near Boston, I saw projects that were designed to cope with the Internet's limitations and ultimately to make online data less of a gimmick and more of a tool. One location was the famed Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded in the mid-1980s and since then the object of both admiration and suspicion in the computer business. The admiration has been for the glamour of the lab's projects and the success of its director, Nicholas Negroponte, in attracting both money and press attention. The suspicion concerns whether the lab's self-consciously "visionary" projects will turn out to have practical, profitable uses in the long run -- and if they do, where the profits will go.

In the back of everyone's mind is the nightmare example of the Xerox PARC lab in Palo Alto. Through the 1970s Xerox PARC generated some of the most influential ideas in computing, but almost none of them did Xerox any good. For example, the concepts of the computer mouse and the graphical interface, now nearly universal because of their application first in Apple products and then in Windows, came from the Xerox lab but enriched other companies.

I have no idea whether the tricks I saw when guided around the Media Lab by a researcher named David Small will ever make it to market. For example, Small demonstrated a work in progress that could be thought of as a very elaborate way to avoid carrying business cards, or as an exploration of futuristic ways to transmit information. This project, directed by MIT's Neil Gershenfeld, uses shoes as computers and the human body as a network. Data could be stored in computer chips in your shoes, and could travel to your fingertips through your body, which can carry a small current. When you shook someone's hand, it would be like making a modem connection: the computers in people's shoes could swap basic information -- fax number, E-mail address -- with one another. Hmmmm.

Small, an MIT graduate student who was wearing a T-shirt reading THINK SMALL, works much of the time in a warehouselike room lit only by the glow of computer screens -- "to keep up my sallow complexion" (for a glimpse, see his Web site at edu/~dsmall). His main work area is a two-by-five-foot Lego board covered with elaborate Lego structures. When he picked up a Lego plane, complete with propeller, and started flying it zoom, zoom, in the fashion of a four-year-old, my worries about the commercial prospects of the Media Lab increased. In fact the plane was the housing for an advanced and expensive position-sensing device, and as Small moved it, a large computer screen showed the "world" (that is, the Lego structures) as it appeared from the vantage point of the plane's nose.

To my eye, the most enticing toys at the Media Lab were the products of the Visible Language Workshop Project, of which Small's Lego apparatus was just one example. The Visible Language Project was created by Muriel Cooper, an MIT graphic designer turned computer expert who was highly influential at the lab until her death in 1994. Under her direction researchers attempted to use computer graphics not as a substitute for text (the Macintosh-Windows approach) but as a way of making text more meaningful. This can be seen as merely an extension of the centuries-old evolution of typography, in which varying fonts and type sizes enhance the meaning of printed words. Yet the tools of modern computing can make it look like a major evolutionary leap.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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