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The Inelegant Internet

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The Internet may one day prove to be the most profoundly transformative creation of humankind. There is also the possibility it can turn into a garbage dump of the human mind where the glittering is buried beneath the refuse. The overwhelming flow, redirection, and accumulation of information have the potential to render almost everything meaningless. New developments, which are designed to simplify, have often tended to complicate.

Twitter, as an example, can be confounding. The types of information generally offered on the 140 character communication tool have the approximate cultural and informational value of data grunts. As a curiosity, Twitter is fascinating. However, it appears to function almost as a switching center for tens of millions of thoughts that are often of marginal value. At its worse, Twitter is comprised of users offering you compressed links to pages they discovered and think you ought to see. Who are these people who sit on Twitter all day and link off to page after page of "interesting stuff?" What did they do before Twitter?

Twitter is, nonetheless, kind of fun and there are some cases where it even becomes a useful tool. A couple of recent news stories have profiled a pizza joint in New Orleans and a taco truck in Los Angeles that have made effective use of the service. (Hardly qualifies as a "profound" cultural development but it's something.) There are also methods for using Twitter as a kind of "walk up window" where a customer can view a business' service or production in process, and there may be other valuable usages to grow out of Twitter. Regardless, the prevailing climate of the service at this nascent stage seems to be people trying to accumulate followers and share links or "Twit pics." (E-mail also accomplishes these minor feats, though your photo or avatar is not part of that process, unless by design.)

Unless you are famous, acquiring followers is not simple. Peter Shankman, who runs HARO (Help a Reporter Out) and has more than 40,000 followers the last time I looked, once publicly ridiculed me for having only 47 people following me shortly after I had signed up for Twitter. (I felt like a high school sophomore with bad acne and no friends.) Sadly, I am still under 200 and I am following less than 100. Unfortunately, even with the low number of people I am following I cannot manage to track even the slightest amount of what is transpiring on my Twitter feed. A few individuals on my feed "tweet" dozens of times daily and I have frequently signed on to discover one person has zapped out 15 consecutive tweets. There are some "twitterers" who follow tens of thousands and their feeds must be essentially a haze of photos and text that might be edited together and turned into a time lapse movie. Again, I'm searching, patiently, for value. I find it enjoyable to connect with people I might otherwise not have met but I wonder if I need to know the songs they are listening to at a particular moment in the day or how they felt on the run they just concluded. (Is there more than one answer to that question?) There are also endless tweets that are tips about how to use Twitter.

I think it's fair to call much of this absurd. Twitter's two founders attended the Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital (D7) conference recently and were very coy about how they plan to make money off of their digital child. They probably just don't know and see no real need to commit to monetization as long as speculators are suggesting the service may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. If Twitter started taking ads and generating a modest cash flow it would be pretty easy to place a dollar value on it and that amount would almost assuredly not be hundreds of millions, which makes "coy" a good business strategy.

All of this net noise is now being amplified by television news teams scrapping over audience share. Suddenly, reporters and anchors are asking people to follow them on Twitter and Facebook and their news programs have pages where viewers can post comments on the latest stories. We entered into a science fiction parody not too long ago when the first network TV camera was pointed at a computer monitor so a TV audience could read and have read to us a viewer opinion posted on the news anchor's web site. If I wanted to know what Madge in Boise thought about President Obama's trip to Saudi Arabia, I would call Madge and chat her up. I watch network news to hear from experts on policy and politics and culture and history and not for the opinions of Joe Don Barnes from Lubbock. Unfortunately, someone somewhere wrote that journalism and web sites and business are most successful in the Internet era when they are "interactive" and, suddenly, there are more inbound signals in the broadcasting business than there are outbound and nobody even stopped and bothered to ask if this were a good thing. So I'm asking.

My sense is that for technology to succeed it must be simple and work in the background to perform a task. I want my computer to be an appliance like a toaster. Instead, the net, new applications, smart phones, (dumb users), downloads, uploads, updates, and browsers that are evolving faster than machines in a Terminator flick are complicating what were once mundane, daily tasks. (Yes, they might actually be simplifying and I am unable to keep pace.) There must be some time when the learning curve slows because consumers of technology are certain to grow weary of constantly having to understand the latest software or hardware and as soon as it is mastered they then confront the latest iteration. I may also simply be jealous of the fact that I did not create one of the 50,000 iPhone apps and lacked the genius to realize I could grow wealthy by creating the electronic version of the whoopee cushion in the form of a digital fart.

Technologically, though, who is not impressed when Google delivers a few million search matches in .0014 seconds? Yahoo is equally proficient but both provide endless lists of blue links with a few incomplete sentences of explanation and reference. As wondrous as Internet search engines are they also add levels of complexity not easily parsed by average users. Refining search parameters does not necessarily deliver sought after knowledge or information. As a writer who has relied extensively on the power of search engines, I am grateful for all of the hours I was not required to spend in library stacks and digging through reference articles. (Search engines have, in fact, accelerated the production of books by authors and may have even contributed to their devaluation.) Is it not possible, though, even Google and Yahoo are just dumping inordinate amounts of information into a user's lap and not doing an effective job of refining?

Two new search engines, Bing and Siri, were demonstrated at D7 in San Diego and both offer significant advancements in results presentation. Bing gives aggregated reports in categories on the left of the links list and a mouse-over on the links to the right, which reveals even greater detail like associated relevant photos and videos. Siri, however, when it launches, is likely to change the way web users view search engines and it is also certain to redefine their expectations. Siri's developers used an iPhone to demo how easily their product answers questions without relying on detailed parameters from users. A conversation takes place between the searcher and the search engine. A hungry person wanting Italian in Salt Lake City can ask the question about restaurants either using text or voice and through a series of brief responses the searcher very quickly discovers a table can be booked at a highly-rated eatery very close to where they are standing. Siri turns a phone and a search engine into a personal assistant and sends technology out scampering across the web to find what you want. Google has a similar app on iPhone but Siri's appears to have advanced the technology to be more intuitive.

These kinds of developments are certain to make technology more useful and prevent it from turning into a steaming pile of information and barely discernible data that can never be meaningfully comprehended. However, we will all continue to get updates on Facebook and Twitter from friends who want us to know they took a quiz to determine which president they would be and they turned out to be Millard Fillmore. A group of researchers at Half Past Human reached the conclusion that the Internet was the first manifestation of the human consciousness and by studying language used on the net they can predict future events. The theory is that the net can have moments of pre-cognition just like humans and predictive linguistics will reveal tragedies and glories in advance of their arrival. They've sent out bots across the web to gather language and deliver interpretations and the news awaiting us is apparently not all that great. If the social media noise continues to increase, though, I'm confident the web bots will be rendered useless and soon they will only be able to predict that Madge in Boise is not going to like it whenever President Obama talks to Muslims.

Simple is elegant. Maybe convergence of technologies will begin to take us toward simplicity in design and function on the net. It's just as likely that Google will buy up every new idea and product and assert world technological dominion. In the end, all things become Google and a river runs through it?

Oh, and if you are interested, I intend to post this piece on my Facebook page, link to it on Twitter, feature it on my personal web site, http://www.moorethink.com and cross post it to Huffington Post.

Also at http://www.moorethink.com