This article originally appeared in Pyramid #10

Welcome to the Machine

Or Why You're Not on the Internet (and Why You Should Be)

This is the second in a series of articles exploring the Internet and our growing connection to it.

by Jeff Koke

This morning I visited the Vatican Map Room. They had a few nice maps of Rome circa 1500 that really showed the mode of expansion that city was in during that time. After that, I went to the Krannert Art Museum in Illinois, where I viewed paintings and sculptures in their Medieval and Asian art exhibits. Tiring of the museum, I found a reading by popular novelist Paul Kafka, who recited the first chapter of his book, Love Enter.

I did all of this without leaving my office, and in less than half an hour. I did it with my computer. Granted, I'm working on a Power Macintosh 6100/60 with 32 megs of ram, with graphics and sound capabilities beyond that of most home computer users, but the time is not far off when a machine of this size and quality will seem small to the average computer user.

There's a lot of hype and discussion these days about the advent of the "Information Superhighway" and what it will mean to people once it arrives. I've got news for you. It's already here. It's called the Internet, and it does more than you think it does.

What is the Internet?

Let's get basic. The Internet is a world-wide network of computers, linked together over the phone lines, sometimes with fiber optic cables, sometimes not. The computers are connected in such a way that even though they may be 5,000 miles from each other, they might as well be in the same room. What this amounts to is that if you want a file or a program, and that file happens to be on the hard drive of a computer in Sweden, you can get it, provided the computer in Sweden is on the net. Getting the file is nearly as simple as changing directories on your computer. Not everyone has accesss to every computer, but almost all systems have some type of "guest" access, and quite a few files, programs and games are public domain, out there waiting for the taking. Finding these files, however, is a little more difficult.

Since the Internet is so big (how big, no one knows for sure, but it doubles in size every six months), programmers have developed software to allow users to "poke around" and find the files they need. Most of these programs have funny names, like ARCHIE, ALEX and GOPHER, and little documentation. For someone not extremely computer literate, the Internet can seem incredibly intimidating.

The Internet may be unfriendly, but it is worth looking at for its sheer size and power. Imagine a huge library, with millions of books that the library is giving away. But you have to file extensive paperwork to have access to the books. Well, read this article, and I might be able to get you a library card.

How to Get on the Internet

First you need a computer. Simple, right? You probably already have one. And if you don't, buy one and join the rest of us in the 90s. Now you need a modem. You might as well get the fastest you can get, which right now is 28.8 Kbps, which is fast enough for most of the stuff you need. You're almost there. Last, you need an account on a system that is an "Internet gateway."

Gateway systems are not difficult to find. There's Delphi, a nationwide network, with local dialups in most cities. If you are enrolled in a university, you probably have net access without even knowing it. Check with the registration department. And many independent companies are selling access (like Illuminati Online). Cost for access can range from free (and many free bulletin board systems have Internet news and mail) to $50+ per month. Pay the fee, and whamo! you're on.

So, I'm on the Internet. Now What?

Now you have an address. Every user with access to the Internet has an address, just as every computer on the net has an address. In fact, the user's address is simply his user name "@" the address of the system he uses.

There are also newsgroups. The Usenet news system is much like a giant bulletin board with hundreds of thousands of messages on topics ranging from computer systems to sexual fantasies. There are so many messages on so many topics that anyone can find something that interests him.

So you can send mail over the net and read news. What else? Well, there's the World Wide Web (abbreviated WWW), which is the network I was using to visit the Vatican Map Room. The WWW is a part of the Internet that uses a language called hypertext to link text, graphics and sound in a very user-friendly interface. If you know how to use a mouse and the arrow keys, you can navigate the WWW. Any computer on the Internet can add pages to the WWW because it uses the same addressing system as the rest of the net, and consequently, the WWW is growing very, very fast.

To access the WWW, you need a program. The simplest program I know of is called Lynx. It's text-only, so you can't see all the pretty graphics or download sounds, but there is an enormous amount of text out there, from the complete works of Shakespeare to the Library of Congress card catalog.

If you have Mosaic, a public domain program for Macintosh, Windows or X-Windows, you can do amazing things, like tour the campus of the University of Tokyo, download satellite images of Oklahoma, get a personalized Tarot reading, and even check the amount of coffee in a coffee maker in the Cambridge University English faculty lounge. It's literally astounding how much neat, bizarre information is out there. I can barely express the sense of amazement and wonder that comes from sitting at your desk . . . cozy, comfortable, maybe munching on a sandwich or some chips . . . and staring at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the corona of the Sun during a large flare. It's all out there, and it's getting bigger.

I could go on about all the wonderful things on the WWW and Internet, but I'd rather just let you check it out for yourself. Get a computer with a modem and hook up to a local Internet provider. Make sure they have telnet capability and find out if they have a WWW home page. Once you're on, jack in and explore.




Article publication date: December 1, 1994


Copyright © 1994 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to webmaster@sjgames.com.