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Lost in Cyberspace

Creativity still playing catch-up with online technology

This article was originally published on date by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

The development of the Internet – and the World Wide Web in particular – offers a neat case study for historians.

What the Web will become, and how multimedia will change human communications and expression, is all still wide open as writers, artists and musicians try to figure out just what this new medium is capable of, of how it can best be harnessed. (And, more prosaically, how it can best be used to make money.)

But perhaps this shouldn't surprise: When Gutenberg invented his press, which allowed books to be mass-produced rather than transcribed by hand, it took awhile for people to grasp the larger implications. Sure, the Bible and other pre-existing works (ancient Greek and Latin texts, for instance) could now be reproduced more cheaply (and accurately) than by hand. But what took a few years to sink in was that the press made possible the proliferation of new books; that within a few decades the titles written after the introduction of the press would vastly outnumber the classics from before.

That same lag between introduction of technology and realizing its potential held true with Marconi's discovery of radio: At first, radio was used merely to communicate between individuals (as with a telephone) or to broadcast existing events: concerts and theater, political speeches. Only later did radio stations begin exploring what the new medium could do – leading to the birth of situation comedy, a unique, new form of entertainment (if descended from vaudeville) uniquely suited to the new world of broadcasting. Radio was so overwhelming a form of communication that it soon had the power to create success in other media, such as helping music recordings become best-sellers by playing them over the air.

So it is likely to be with the Internet. For now the Web is as much a fabulous new toy as it is useful tool. In fact, whether the Web will even remain the predominant part of the Internet down the road is open to question. New forms of transmitting information over the 'Net are being designed all over the world. Just as the Web was unthought of 15 years ago, there may be a faster, more immediate form of online communication percolating in some teen-ager's brain right now.

Even today's best, more interactive Web sites with streaming multimedia and colorful animation seem, well, somehow stilted, as if even our most creative minds still aren't quite sure what to do with this powerful new medium.

Part of that is due to the fact that connection speeds still lag woefully behind the amount of information we're trying to download. Much of the world is still connected to the 'Net at 28.8 kilobytes per second, but even those fortunate enough to have high-speed cable or DSL access will tell you that it's not near as instantaneous as TV or radio. Any lag is too much when trying to take advantage of the benefits of the Web.

Because at its heart, what the Web – what computer technology in general – does best is create connections. Unlike other media – whether the written word, printed book, or broadcast sound and image – the Web is organized the way human beings think: non-linear, with connections racing off in many directions.

At least some of those paths are going to lead to new ways of communicating information, of sharing our creativity, of accessing this incredible new global library that is the Internet.