Please Mr. Postman

I have just been reading Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman observes that the age of typography has been replaced by the age of television. Typography forced the creator and reader each to organize their thoughts and proceed in an orderly way, the one to the creation, the other to the comprehension of the material. Telegraphy, the fore-runner of television, overwhelmed us with a myriad bits of irrelevant information, and diminished our ability to construct coherent opinions based on fact when we could no longer find just the facts we needed and avoid the ones that did not matter. Along came television, the domain of the ever- shorter sound bite, and turned all information into entertainment, striking the final blow to our ability to select facts and formulate opinions.

Though the book was written eleven years ago, it already contains a foretaste of Postman's opinion of the personal computer as an educational device: a solitary activity when children need socialization and no substitute for a human teacher. In an interview in the July Netguide Magazine, he confirms that he sees the computer as essentially being a solitary device, eroding any sense of real community and drowning us in irrelevant information.

Postman's prejudices have blinded him to the significance of the Internet. If Postman logged on and did a bit of surfing, he would discover that the Net, in particular the World Wide Web, is the rebirth of typography. Publishing Web pages (note the particular significance of the word "publishing") is a form of typesetting and indeed forces you to organize your thoughts. Some of us organize our thoughts monthly, in an old fashioned newletter-like format, like I do; and some of us add new links, and the documents behind them, daily, complete with little graphics saying "New!" In either event, as the word "Web" suggests, a link represents both an idea and a relationship between the linked idea and the one to which it is linked. A Web page is a constellation of such links--organized thoughts--and the Web itself is a constellation of pages. Like a library, the Web is as chaotic or as organized as you are. You could get lost in a library just as you sometimes do on the Web, if you always went and looked up the book listed in the first footnote, and then the book listed in that book's first footnote. On the Web, you can get lost faster than in a library, but, if you are organized, you can also find more faster; thus the "hyper" in "hypertext".

A footnote that produces the footnoted source in reponse to a click is a beautiful idea in typography. The Web does not so much represent a new paradigm as it represents a return to an old one, but in a new form with many of the old restrictions removed.

I am writing a book about censorship and the Internet for Henry Holt, to be published in February, and I have been able to do almost all my research on the Internet. This includes not just the part you wuld expect--Web pages on the CDA or analyses from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but also the Congressional Record and the text of legislation, , Supreme Court decisions, and most of the people--journalists, academics, even regular people--that I needed to find. What about non-Internet topics? In recent months, I have researched religion, game theory, the Holocaust--there is useful information there on every topic.

The comment has been made that if you restrict yourself to the Internet, you do bad research, because sometimes the sources there are not complete or even not accurate. This is true. The Web is in its infancy but you can safely start almost every search on the Web. The pages you find will point you off of the Web, tell you which books to read, name people from whom you can learn more.

The Web is typography plus telecommunications plus transportation, rolled into one, like a book that really takes you to the place that it describes.