E-commerce Need Not Equal E-chaos
Like civil laws that guide us in our social and political life, and like moral principles that inform our daily decisions, the information sharing protocols of the Internet will gird our civilization with order.
I've had my eye on a white 1986 Chevy Suburban Scottsdale, touched slightly with rust and boasting absolutely no creature comforts. Recently, I took it for a test drive with the its owner, Tom. "I bought it from an older man who passed away. He did to it all the things that old men do; you know, change the oil every 3,000 miles, replace the belts and hoses periodically."
I believed him, because the thing drove and handled very solidly. Unfortunately, I don't have the $5,995 Tom's asking. Also, I have no need for a truck. I'm not a carpenter or a painter; I'm an ex-English student who spends most of the day on the phone or "surfing the Web." I want a truck because I'm a wuss who wants to feel like a man by driving a genuine dad car.
But because I'm an info geek I also have an advantage: I know exactly what kind of truck I'm looking at within an hour of seeing its for sale sign. My power tool is Microsoft's Carpoint website (http://carpoint.msn.com). Its best feature is an interactive Kelley Blue Book.
"What Is Your Car Worth?" it asks, then provides a field to enter your zip code and a pull down menu for the year of your car. Another menu appears with a master list of makes; then one with models, then trims. Once all four menus have been selected, a flashing "Find Out" button becomes active on the right side of the screen.
Clicking that takes you to a screen where two drop down menus need to be selected, labeled "engine" and "transmission." Since these menus are dynamically generated from the information you entered on the previous screen, they are customized to your car's make and model.
Once you specify mileage and press "enter," the Carpoint database miraculously calculates your car's value. The first number is the trade in value. If you click on "What is my car worth if I sell it myself?" you will be taken to a similar screen entitled "Kelley's Suggested Retail Value."
My target Suburban listed at $3,925 trade in, $7,225 retail; now I know Tom's price is fair. See how useful Carpoint is?
Carpoint does exactly what a database driven site ought to do: keep you from physically scanning charts and performing calculations ("add x dollars for miles in excess of average; refer to average mileage table on page so and so"). These are tasks an Internet server can perform quickly for thousands of end users simultaneously.
Using information more efficiently
I work for a company that helps other companies manage and use their information more efficiently.
The tools we use for this kind of development are databases and the World Wide Web. We build databases and put them on the servers that host the websites, and we write scripts that allow the websites to ask questions of the databases. This makes the websites useful, not just pretty.
This work is based on two great technological advances. One is the Web, which is really not a source of its own information but is rather a way of sharing and viewing information. The other is the relational database, which is a relatively new phenomenon.
A traditional database is essentially a reference chart. The multiplication table we memorized in grade school is a good example. Follow the row you want ("6," for example) to the point at which it intersects with the column you want ("9," for example) in order to find the product ("54").
A relational database allows data to be dynamically related to other data. For instance, if you are a spreadsheet user, you know that you can have a "grand total" cell that dynamically adds up the cells above it so that when a number is changed, the total also changes. If you change any number in the multiplication table, it renders some of the other information incorrect.
Changing the world
Five hundred years ago, the printing press improved the speed and accuracy with which religious thought, political and social ideas, literature, and news propagated through the civilized world. Not only did it represent greater efficiencies, it made entirely new forms of literature and thought possible, such as the novel. The spread of Protestantism required the printing press; how else could every household own a copy of the Bible in its own language?
Today, we brace for a similar revolution, this time facilitated not by platens, paper, and type but by a network of wires that stretches around the world, through which computers relay information to one another. The Internet represents a quantum leap in speed and efficiency over its older sibling, the printing press, and we must suppose that it, too, will change not only the way media are distributed but the shape of human thought itself.
I believe the strongest clues to the way this will actually take place lie in the foundation of the Internet: its protocol. Like civil laws that guide us in our social and political life, and like moral principles that inform our daily decisions, the information sharing protocols of the Internet will gird our civilization with order.
Critics love to use the phrase, "the test of time." If a work of literature, for instance, withstands this test, it must have some merit.
What is the basis for this merit? There are really two intrinsic bases: the truth of that which is said, and the skill with which it is said.
These bases are inside the writing itself, but there are also factors outside the text: the binding, the cover, the numbered pages, the index, and the dry shelf on which the book is kept. These factors have to work in favour of the book if its information is to stick around.
How does this relate to the Internet? The hallmark of durable information is not simply good content but also good form. Durability is as much a question of structure as content. Good structure creates and preserves the meaning of its content. And the Internet is nothing if not the soul of structure, communicating as it does through strict, simple protocols (http, smtp, ftp) and predictable browsing formats.
Physical libraries have traditionally represented the strongest bastion against the loss of information. But when the Library at Alexandria was trashed by a mob of barbarians in A.D. 400, the greatest storehouse of ancient information moved from reality into myth.
Why did that library mean so much to civilization? Because of the high quality of the communication it preserved—and so we are back to the intrinsic bases for durability of information. The destruction of the Library of Alexandria is perhaps the most compelling proof of the inability of information to stand on its internal merits alone. Texts need to be articulate, organized, indexed on the inside, and bound, shelved, and protected from the elements on the outside.
These principles of information structure are ever important in the information age, as the global volume of information grows exponentially.
Structure determines durability
I have said that the orderliness of literature—its structure—has everything to do with its durability. I would like to apply that premise to the new kind of information conveyed over the Internet known as "dynamic information."
What's new about dynamic information is that it doesn't exist anywhere. In a physical book a reader encounters static information and draws his own dynamic conclusions. The database supported website automates some of that process.
Dynamically generated content comes into existence in the same way a calculator's answer comes into existence: on the fly. It's something like one of those old "Choose Your Own Adventure" books Bantam publishes, except with infinite possible conclusions.
To form a basis for criticism of the Internet, we need to mark out its essential qualities. These qualities begin in its physical form (its very wires and protocols) and extend into its applications (i.e., existing websites, LANs, and other systems).
On the Web, the first four letters of every URL (Universal Resource Locator) are always the same: "HTTP." HTTP stands for "Hypertext Transfer Protocol." HTTP is the basic set of regulations that govern the movement of browser-oriented data over the Internet; it is an open standard. It's free, so any browser or operating system can be written to comply with it.
Elsewhere on the Internet, although you probably don't ever see them, the letters SMTP are included in the transfer of every e-mail message you send and receive. They stand for "Simple Mail Transfer Protocol." They tell your computer "Here comes Simple Mail. It's about to transfer. Prepare yourself!"
The open standards of the Internet render every developer and software company equal. Everyone has access to the same basic set of resources, just as all painters have access to the same palette.
The essence of the Internet
Unlike broadcast media, the Internet began as an interoffice communication tool for the Pentagon, and then for military intelligence on a larger scale, and then migrated into university use. The wonder of the Internet is entirely made possible by a rigid basic structure. Predictability is everything.
Visual and logical order is more important than ever with the advent of the information age. To preserve and access information, we have to impose order. We don't want to make the same mistake the Alexandrian mob made.
Fortunately, the very basis of computing is order, so that if barbarism were to become the norm on the Internet, at least it would not be barbarians that held court. It would more likely be scientists: those in charge of standards, those who write the protocol.
Digital media is composed entirely of digits—zeros and ones. Faster and more powerful computers require greater efficiency. Faster networks require more efficient wires and more sophisticated data compression techniques. In a sense, hightech can never be lowbrow, at least at its structural level.
And though the wires of the Internet may be used to convey video entertainment and even images of naked people in compromising positions, the essence of the Internet is not such non-interactive media. It is dynamic information. And the production of dynamic information is best done with an understanding of the deep order of durable information.
The creation of order from orderlessness is among the holiest and most primal of activities. The first two verses of the Bible say, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, 'Let there be light', and there was light" (Gen. 1:1-2).
The imposition of order is not reserved for God, as evidenced in Genesis 1:26-27, in which God says, "'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground'. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them."
Order on the Internet must resemble the kind of order that has given meaning and durability to other forms of information through the centuries. If we are to communicate well in this medium, we'll have to buck our cultural philosophy of practicing "random acts of kindness and senseless beauty"; we'll have to work in specific ways to achieve sensible beauty. Our websites, databases, search engines, e mails, FTP sites, and software interfaces, should be purpose driven, bearing the best kind of useful information, rather than an ocean of unformed data.
This article previously appeared in a different form in Books & Culture. The description of Carpoint first appeared in slightly different form in The Riverfront Times.