Net use free, for now

"Do you want to be more powerful, knowledgeable, prosperous and happier?" reads America Online's newest campaign slogan. "Just insert this disk."

America Online and competitive clonies like them (CompuServe, Prodigy, Delphi, Genie, eWorld) evolved by providing specialized online services to users in one easy-to-install package. These structured, neatly packaged, comforting bundles put users "online," even if those users are null and void of any technical or computer knowledge whatsoever.

Recently, CompuServe-types realized an impending threat of corporate suicide (notice they're now dropping diskettes out of airplanes) in offering a limited access scope at higher prices to their consumers which explains the recent addition of World Wide Web and Internet access to their package. This is the same as (if it worked) buying wings for your car. This type of online service was never made to accommodate full Internet access, and attempts to do so are painfully slow and inefficient. Consumers began to realize that the reward for enjoying these services is coughing up additional cash to pay for it. Sort of like charging inmates rent and then asking them to cough up extra cash to pay for handcuffs.

Capitalizing on consumer dissatisfaction with these services, Internet service providers (which is what the UA offered students, staff and faculty all along) have left the open terrain of the online world untouched for users to explore. This freedom translates to unlimited access later, providing hard-core communication with other users. The bad news is that you have to educate yourself on how to use it, which can be difficult. The good news is that it's free.

So why am I getting letters to the editor from students and faculty who subscribe to America Online? Beats me. Either these novice computer hacks haven't figured out email accounts from an educational domain are free, or they don't realize Ethernet connections available in dorms and computer labs offer public domain (read "free") browsers to "get online" and explore what's out there.

What is out there, anyway? The Internet, like word processors before it and the printing press before them and the ink before that is merely a medium for the transmission of human thought. Though anyone can modify and even improve this medium, no one can replace the originality and innovative human thoughts which serve as its backbone. Shakespeare created "Romeo and Juliet" without the luxury of a Power Macintosh. But did he enjoy the luxury of disseminating his work, fully illustrated, to the entire world within his lifetime for free?

Look at it this way: if I fax a letter to my mom's office in Oregon, I'm paying a long distance company to carry that message over telephone lines from my fax machine to hers. If I send the same letter via "email," I'm sending "packets" of data through the network of computers which makes up the Internet. Even though a simple email could actually be composed of a dozen packets, they all end up at the same address and then the computer on the receiving end compiles them in correct order. Voila! The entire process is virtually free.

However, I can't send email to my mom because she is not online, which brings up two interesting points:

Nonusers are intimidated. Case in point: Hollywood's latest attempt, "Hackers," glamorizes the computer industry for those who don't know any different. The film fools people into thinking computer technology is a Hollywood stream of flashing colored lights and glamorous users. In real life, computers don't really do all that much more than pump text across the screen and that text has to be generated from somewhere. Hollywood's perception of technology creates a kind of fear in people who are anything short of geekishly computer-savvy.

As with any service, the Internet can't offer anything to users who are not interested in using it. Most nonusers aren't bothered by America Online's taunts. These folks can list on command at least 20 activities they'd rather engage in after work than sitting in front of a computer or 20 purchases they'd rather make than a personal computer. And that's fine.

But for those who are interested, the Internet facilitates interactive communication regardless of geographical location faster than any post office and cheaper than any fax or telephone to 40 million users. It allows "Doom" addicts to venture outside their local circle of competition to play online with others addicts around the world, serves as an invaluable research and communication tool for universities, and can be downright fun.

Such a complex medium to facilitate the free exchange of ideas makes traditional content regulation through a select few unnecessary. The host is the vendor, serving in the same capacity as a newsstand or bookstore in traditional print medium, and the site creator becomes the publisher. The power to disseminate thoughts has reached a height never before witnessed in the world.

Will we enter the world of the working class and leave our Net addictions behind? I doubt it. What we will leave behind is our no-strings-attached UA accounts and computer labs something to keep in mind when choosing the commercial providers that will pick up the slack later, while we pick up the tab.

Christine Verges is a journalism graduate student and editor in chief of the Arizona Daily Wildcat.

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