20 Years of the Information Superhighway and Me

Twenty years ago, in 1991, Senator Al Gore sponsored a bill to fund an “information superhighway” that would “tie together millions of computers, providing capabilities that we cannot even imagine.” I was reminded of that fact today, when I ‘googled’ the term ‘1991’ on my laptop, clicked on the ‘wikipedia.com’ entry, and immediately viewed a year’s worth of significant events: Cold War ended, Soviet Union collapsed into 15 sovereign republics, Oakland Hills fire killed 25 people, Dow closed above 3,000 for first time, Nadine Gordimer won Nobel Prize for Literature, UN-sponsored coalition swiftly dislodged Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from Kuwait . . . .

Websites like Wikipedia, which also notes that the number 1991 is a palindrome, provide broad, instantaneous knowledge, a luxury that did not exist in 1991, unless you had access to a savant. In those days, we drove to the library and scoured myriad reference books or consulted World Book, which took up several shelves in our homes. We mourned the trees felled to support our quest and suffered painful paper cuts.

E-mail preceded the information superhighway at the publishing house where I worked in 1991. Word processors and typewriters used by clerical assistants were replaced by ungainly desk top machines wired to an intranet system. When executives realized they could wield this technology like an Uzi to issue orders and assignments, they overcame a fear of typing and they, too, became ‘connected.’

No one I knew anticipated the devastation that the information superhighway  > World Wide Web > Internet would bring to our industry. One minute we were attending seminars on how to “milk the potential” of the new phenomenon, and a nanosecond later, as free global news proliferated 24/7, our loyal followers had canceled their subscriptions. Our advertising lifeline began to dry up. Printing plants were shuttered, bullpens downsized, foreign bureaus decimated.

Technology became king and publishers scrambled to meet the boundless news and entertainment needs of ‘users’ (formerly known as readers), throwing together ‘portals’ of varying coherence. Laid-off journalists, editors and graphic designers were recruited to feed these hungry beasts from the comfort of their home offices, and ‘telecommuter’ entered the lexicon.

Yahoo shed its former meanings and joined a gaggle of new nonsense words in everyday conversation, Google became a verb, and pejoratives like ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ were coined to describe people who avidly navigate the electronic world with pleasure and without ambivalence. That’s not me. I love my computer when it works, I hate it when it doesn’t. But I can’t imagine life without the information superhighway.

(Oops! I just lost my Internet connection. H-E-E-L-P!)


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