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May 15, 1997updated 05 Sep 2016 1:05pm

GROWTH EXPERIENCE – OR KEYWORD MENTALITY?

By CBR Staff Writer

If the words ‘Archetypes, myths and metaphors’ that form the sub- heading of this book are not enough to set off alarm bells, then the forward by Vinton Cerf, widely accredited as the ‘father of the Internet’, quickly does so: Exploring Cyberspace with Stefik is not only exhilarating… it is a growth experience, he says. Cerf, now a vice president with telecommunications giant MCI, knows how to put a positive spin on things.

In spite of its heavyweight introduction and its intriguing title, Internet Dreams is really a collection of conference papers, essays and other assembled pieces of writing, brought together under the broad theme of the internet and its possibilities. The dream metaphor works well, perhaps unintentionally, in that many of the connections are forced and the structure is loose, and largely imposed after the articles were written. Most of the papers were not written for the book, but have been brought together using that most powerful authoring and editing tool: the internet. Stefik, a principal scientist at the world renowned Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California, likes the idea of metaphor, rather in the way that the GUI is often described as the desktop meta- phor. This book explores four metaphors: the Digital Library, which awakens the archetypal keeper of knowledge within us; the Electronic Mail metaphor, that appeals to the communicator within us; the Electronic Marketplace, that refers to the trader within us; and Digital Worlds, which awakens our inner adventurer. From here, the ambition wilts. Stefik is, after all, a conference speaker, a web surfer, a technologist, rather than a visionary. Essays and papers on digital libraries, electronic communication, and electronic trading follow. Some are practical, some are vague and theoretical and some are highly obscure. Semi-mystical themes recur, perhaps to counter the steely, unromantic reality of electronic culture. Thus, there are articles on Tibetan Thangka Painting and Jungian Dream analysis (using America Online, of course). The problem with this book is not that the papers are poor: many, especially those written by the experts in their field, are excellent and thought-provoking. Rather, they do not sit well together, either in style or content. Just because they all, at some point, talk about the Internet and electronic worlds, does not mean they should be brought together. Does every TV program become interesting to someone who is interested in broadcasting? Or every book become fascinating to someone who works in publishing? In a way, this book is a powerful metaphor itself for one of the big issues of the internet: that the internet makes it possible to assemble data, and present it, without really judging its quality. By using technology, it is possible to slip into a ‘keyword mentality’, finding links between just about anything; it is possible to produce for a massive, unseen audience without knowing who they are or what they want. Perhaps, above all, it is possible to be oblivious to the idea of wholeness, of shape, form, and how data, ideas and arguments relate within their own context. Exhilarating? If, as internet author Clifford Stoll says, it is better to surf the ocean than the web, it is surely better to go onto the net than to read about it.

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