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  • The Great Information Hunt

    This is Chapter 17 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    It really is amazing, this odd acquisitiveness with which hordes of academics, engineers, cyberpunks, and self-advertised "infonauts" roam the Net looking for treasure troves of information, like so much gold. They hear the cry -- "There's information in them thar nodes!" -- and the rush is on. Who knows what they do with this gold when they find it, but for now most of the excitement seems to be simply in discovering that it's there -- on the Net! It's almost as if the "electrons" themselves exuded a certain fascination -- a kind of spell or subliminal attraction.

    So-called Netsurf discussion groups and publications have been created for the sole purpose of identifying and sharing Net "finds." An announcement reached my screen a short while ago, advertising a new forum of this sort and promising experiences comparable to the great world explorations of the past or to the adventures of a fantasy novel.

    The dissonance occurs only when one tries to imagine these same adventurers standing in a library, surrounded in three dimensions by records of human achievement far surpassing what is now Net- accessible. Would there, in these surroundings, be the same, breathless investigation of every room and shelf, the same shouts of glee at finding this collection of art prints or that provocative series of essays or these journalistic reports on current events?

    It's hard to imagine such a response. But then, if the excitement is not about actual encounters with expressions of the human spirit, what is it about? One gets the feeling that a lot of it has to do with a futuristic, almost religious vision of what the Net is becoming -- and all these interim discoveries are more valued for the progress they indicate than for themselves. Signs for the faithful. Epiphanies.

    Just what the essential vision is, however, remains obscure. To all appearances it has something to do with a peculiar sort of insularity or privacy paradoxically cast as openness to the All. I can "touch" all these resources from right here at my desk -- almost while remaining shut up within myself. There's no need to go out into the world; I participate in an alternative universe, all of which maps into my own corner of "cyberspace." It's a kind of return to the womb, promising both self-sufficiency and universal, solipsistic powers.

    But perhaps there's an element of the video game here as well -- the adventurous quest to rack up points for booty captured. (The nature of the booty in a video game never counts much for itself; it's for scoring points, and "information" works just as well.) In the best case, this is a team game, not a competition among individuals; we can all tak