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THE CUTTING EDGE | POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE / DANIEL
AKST

A Final Dispatch, and a Few Parting Thoughts

September 23, 1996|DANIEL AKST

Two years ago when I began writing this column, I had a whole range of arcane skills that suited me to this role. I hobnobbed with Archie and Veronica, I knew the ABCs of FTP and I was always ready with a little rudimentary Unix. It you weren't careful, I'd finger you. I did all this from the command line using my old Netcom shell account, and the only people writing about online matters were geeks like me.

Today most of my old skills are rusting from disuse. The Internet is increasingly the medium for something called the World Wide Web, which makes navigating cyberspace as easy as balancing your checkbook with Quicken, and before very long the writer of Postcard From Cyberspace will function more like today's TV critics, who rightly ignore technology and simply review what's on the screen.

The plan two years ago was for me to write this column part of the time and write big, heavy books the rest. But the lure of cyberspace was strong. I wrote about it for others, sat on panels, stayed up late into the night cruising around and answering electronic mail. The result, frankly, is that I haven't done enough of the kind of writing this gig was supposed to subsidize in the first place.

Since I'm determined to get my next novel done before the last one crumbles to dust, this will be my final dispatch from a territory that nowadays, if it remains a frontier, is well on its way to being fenced. In denying myself the weekly pleasure that this column has been, I will miss the readers most. Well, OK, I'll miss the paycheck most, but the readers are absolutely next in line. The nature of the Internet means that interaction with you was immediate and at times nearly overwhelming. Postcard From Cyberspace brought more response than any other journalism I have ever done that wasn't about Little League or pets.

*

Thus my editor, brushing aside my feigned qualms about valedictories, demanded that I offer some parting assessment before disappearing into the wilderness of midlist fiction.

I'm afraid my assessment, banal though it may be, is that the Internet or whatever succeeds it will do all the things predicted for it and a whole lot more that aren't. For example, the Internet is already a perfectly viable radio network (visit http://www.realaudio.com if you don't believe me), a functional if not particularly useful phone system (http://www.von.com/) and a neat videoconferencing tool http://goliath.wpine.com/cuseeme.html), one that is sometimes even used for nonsexual purposes. Electronic mail has revived at least some manner of writing even as more traditional correspondence has disappeared, and just about everybody seems to have a Web page.

Bandwidth will inevitably increase, so that those of us condemned to drink from this river with a straw will soon have something resembling all-copper indoor plumbing. Someday you'll turn on the tap and get from this faucet much of what you now get from your television, your newspaper, your video store, your mailman, your bookseller, your library, your telephone, your travel agent, your stockbroker and your bank.

The Internet (or whatever it's called by then) is also likely to emerge as a medium ideally suited to bringing together buyers and sellers in what I believe will prove an extraordinarily efficient market. For a sense of this, try Price Watch (http://www.pricewatch.com), where you can search for any computer product and get a list of vendors organized by price, or visit California Living (http://www.ca.living.net/) or ListingLink (http://www.listinglink.com/), where you can search for homes by size, location and price range. New forms of electronic money (including, I hope, untraceable crypto-cash) will play an ever larger role in commerce, just as another new form of money, the credit card, became commonplace a generation ago.

These are the developments we can predict. What they will mean for the nature of work and family, housing patterns and trade, child-rearing and travel it is impossible to say, just as it was impossible to say how the invention of the internal combustion engine would change the world.

I guess it is a little strange, here in the predawn glow of the 21st century, to give up a fun job writing about all this in favor of the psychological cannibalism required for producing that quintessential 19th century treatise, the novel. Who, after all, reads these things? Who in today's world can possibly believe they matter, aside perhaps from the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had the absurd idea that a novel could be so dangerous that its author should be sentenced to death?

Personally, I will admit that I am in the grip of a higher power, yet I think I can prove I'm optimistic rather than crazy.

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