Paper encyclopaedias have their faults, but they seldom break into spontaneous Finnish, which is what AltaVista has been doing this last month

Cyberspace column

Andrew Brown for Prospect magazine 1-Sep-97

The death of Diana showed again that there are some things television does best. If she had an affinity with the online life, it was that she seemed an interactive celebrity, one created by a collaborative effort with her audience, like a character in an collective game. But the drama of her death demanded that it be told as a single sotry,which you can’t do on the web. Since the Internet is a medium defined by ease of publication, it only caught the mawkishness her death aroused and missed the extraordinary fact that emotion moved more in people than the fingers on their keyboards. Of course, tribute sites sprang up like mushrooms after rain, including some demanding a boycott of the tabloid press, which in America means weekly magazines rather than newspapers. Four of the anti-press sites spelt her name "Dianna".

Paper encyclopaedias have their faults, but they seldom break into spontaneous Finnish, which is what AltaVista has been doing this last month. AltaVista was the site that made the world wide web useful when it appeared two years go. You type in a word or a phrase, and within seconds get back a listing of all the places on the Web where it may be found. Usually there are thousands, which take hours to plough through, but such a result is still marginally more useful than finding none at all.

In August, the site was imp[roved, with the usual disastrous consequences: Visitors from Europe were diverted to a new address, and there asked which language they would prefer their information in. The trouble was, that it couldn’t speak more than a screen full of English. After that, without reason or warning, the whole screen would display in Finnish. Even the information on how to choose a language appeared in Finnish. This is something no guide to the Internet had ever warned me against.

Despite such excitements, AltaVista remains my favourite search site. Others may be faster or larger — indexing fifty million pages instead of forty; but it is amazing how little worthwhile or interesting information can be found by searching another 10,000,000 web pages. And AltaVista allows you to search for the beginnings of words, which its main rival, HotBot, does not. Another point in favour of AltaVista is that it looks old-fashioned and simple,. There is only one button you could press on screen: HotBot is as self-consciously hip as Wired magazine, which owns it, so it looks like the console on an alien spaceship. There are five or six buttons, and the one you want is almost the smallest. On the other hand, it does not talk Finnish.

Neither seemed to know much botany this morning; I had been typing up some notes from a conference featuring 40 of the most promising British scientists and one of them had talked a lot about the hairy bits of plants. The technical term for these hairs was, my notes said, "tryphomes" — which just goes to show that my cortex is as tangled as the world-wide web. When I came to check the spelling, the OED, which lives on the hard drive, knew nothing about it; and a definition search on "plant hairs" didn’t help either. The next step was the article on plants in Microsoft Encarta. I expected draw a bust on that, and I did.

When neither HotBot nor AltaVista found any mention of the word either, I realised that I had mis-heard it. This was knowledge, of a sort. I then asked AltaVista for anything which contained the words "plant" and any other word starting "tryp". That gave me the Swedish Fuchsia Society — which had absolutely nothing to do with the answer to my question. On the other hand, it did offer pictures of various Swedish gardens, a weather report from Stockholm, and a Swedish-English dictionary of fuchsia terms.

Dragging myself from there, I found at last a list of speakers at a botanical conference held at the Royal Kew Gardens last year, where by coincidence, someone had spoken on the subject that interested me — trichomes, they turn out to be called, which, if I had asked myself what was the Greek for "hairy", I could have worked out without a computer.

Writers, in my experience, are always looking for things to think about that are not the screen in front of them, which they promised to fill; and to this extent the Web really does make their lives easier. Even a visit to a proper library would not have offered quite so many distractions.

On the other hand, it is possible to visit the library without being deluged with junk mail for the rest of your life. The cheapness, speed, and convenience of email make it the medium of choice for every low-rent conman in the USA. The same techniques as index the web to make it useful are turned by the junk mailers against the other inhabitants of the web: an Italian company offers me 40m email addresses for $359, along with software to dispose of abusive replies unread. At the moment I am getting two or three emailed invitations a day to various money-making schemes, all crooked, pornographic, or both: a recent sample included "Guaranteed Offshore credit cards" "Free Lottery Tickets Exchange" and "Meet Russian ladies!"

They feel like a peculiarly vile invasion of privacy, since they arrive in the space where I expect to find letters from friends. I had taken reasonable precautions against this kind of stuff — I have a separate mailing address I use for web sites; I never post on Usenet groups, and so on. But one address has clearly slipped through. Even the content is getting more professional and so losing whatever charm it once had. I do not expect ever again to receive email from the man who wanted to teach me the secrets of success with women, but who, after several paragraphs describing the joys that lay ahead, concluded: "You will also receive information on How to Enlarge Your Penis."

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