by Craig Pfeifer
It seems that the “Information Superhighway” and the “National Information Infrastructure” have been thrown around
a good deal by the news media recently. America’s largest online services, Prodigy, America On-Line, and CompuServe,
have suddenly offered on-ramps to the information superhighway via email, FTP, and other gateways. All of a sudden,
Internet access is easier than ever.
I did not realize how far-reaching the effects of the media had become until late one night, while cable surfing, I
stopped on QVC. They had a computer for sale, and the slick salesman was busy smiling away and reading the cue
cards about the product, as if it were another genuine cubic zirconia cocktail ring or a Flowbee.
(A flowbee is a hilarious product that is advertised in late-night infomercials. It hooks up to your Hoover so you can
give yourself haircuts. It frightens me.)
As always, someone calls in with some bit of unsolicited testimonial that they personally bought the product, and that
it’s better than ball-point pens and sliced bread. Well, I was about to continue my surfing when the salesman said something that took me completely by surprise. “Have you been on the Information Superhighway yet?” (With a smile, the
salesman gestured quote marks with his two hands.) “Oh no,” replied the caller, “I’m too scared!” The salesman then
soothingly assured the caller that the highway is a wonderful place, and encouraged her to wander around and explore it.
Also, when my weekly copy of Newsweek arrived, I turned to the “Periscope” page, edited by George Hackett, and was
treated to a partial list of some of George’s favorite whimsical USENET newsgroups. alt.wedding and alt.tv.fan.90210
topped his list. Of course he didn’t mention alt.barney.die.die.die and alt.christian.second.coming.real.soon.now. Neither Mr. Hackett, nor the rest of the American news media, mention that there are about 10,000 or more newsgroups
and that they only picked out a few of the funnier ones. They fail to mention that this is not a representative sample of
the entire lot of available newsgroups.
The romanticization of the Internet seems to be the prevailing problem with Internet media coverage. When the
Internet is the focus of a story, it is usually negative. Whether it is how child pornography runs rampant on the “
Information Superhighway” or how easy it is to receive pirated software, it seems that the media doesn’t focus on the positive
events that take place daily on the Internet. Or, it could be that those events aren’t as exciting as chasing an ex-foot-ball player and his best friend down a Los Angeles highway at 45 miles per hour. Who knows.
The general public’s eye has been turned away from OJ Simpson and clubbed, whiny figure skaters long enough to
take notice of a few computers linked together by some leased lines. However, the general public is a fickle bunch,
whose attention span hardly lasts one network television commercial break.
If it wasn’t the media, and those fanciful AT&T commercials promising the world at your keyboard (“Ever see a
commercial so often, you begin to get really sick of it? You will.”), what was it that caused this sudden interest? The
Internet has been around for a long time.
I talked briefly to Professor Gene Spafford, here at Purdue University, for some background for this article. Until
late April in 1993, Professor Spafford was a common name upon the Internet. He collected information for new users
about the USENET groups, and posted this list regularly. Through these postings and his active participation in the
newsgroups, he quickly became a sort of “USENET Information booth.” Since then, he has co-authored a book on
UNIX security, published numerous papers, and been mentioned in several popular novels dealing with computers
and the Internet. He is a recognized authority on the Internet and security.
According to Professor Spafford, the Internet is roughly doubling its own size every nine to ten months. New net
providers sprout up like weeds and unveil their on-ramp onto America’s latest gold mine. America is information hungry. Everything has to be bigger, and faster than before. It is in my opinion that the Internet has become America’s
latest fad. Now “email” and “Internet” are thrown around as casually as “cellular phone” and “answering machine.”
Once again, the technology of the few has come to the masses. At one time, only important, affluent people owned a
cellular phone. Now, the technology has become so readily available, that anyone can. Just like the television and the
personal computer, the world’s largest computer network is now available to anyone with enough money.