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Network Connection

By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing

The New "World Book"

The other day, my six-year-old son asked one of those questions that all parents must be prepared to answer: "Dad, why is Alaska attached to Canada?" I responded with the first answer that came into my head which was "that's the way we bought it." I went on to explain, straining to invoke dusty memories of American History classes past, that at one time Alaska was a territory separate from the United States and Canada and that a man named Seward arranged to buy the territory for the U.S. and that eventually it became the state of Alaska. Any smug feeling I might of had from my fast and semi-factual answer was quickly extinguished by his next question: "Dad, why is Hawaii in the middle of an ocean?" I could only respond that it was formed by volcanoes there and that it became a state after it was a territory of the United States, but that I did not know the details of how that all happened. However, the next words out of my mouth were, "we'll find out about it by looking it up on the Internet."

The Encyclopedia Age

Immediately after my stock answer as to where we'd find information, it occurred to me that similar questions I posed in my youth were invariably met with a response of "go look it up in the encyclopedia." As was common in many households of the pre-Internet era, we had a special bookcase filled with thick blue leather-bound volumes in which the sum total of all human knowledge was purported to be contained (or at least as much knowledge as would fit in 20 volumes). In fact, we had two sets: the child-accessible series literally entitled "The Book of Knowledge" which had great features like an entry on dogs which included pictures of all breeds known to exist in 1963; in contrast to that was the "Encyclopedia Americana" (no Britannica for this American family) which had fewer pictures but more detail on a greater variety of arcane subjects like the Aurora Borealis (Volume 1).

Buying a set of encyclopedias was one of those things you did to support your children's education in that pre-Internet dark age. This was especially emphasized by encyclopedia salesmen. The odd thing was, it was true. History reports, science projects, and many other homework assignments were started by a trip to those thick blue books. Of course, you had the choice of various sets of encyclopedias at your local library, but the immediacy of your own set of volumes helped to answer those random questions that came up and, more importantly, came to the rescue when that homework assignment was put off until the very last minute. And yes, once you finished reading about Hawaii, you'd invariably start flipping through the rest of the volume and increase your knowledge of the Hallelujah Chorus, Harpoons, and Horses.

The Information Age

The "information age" in which we find ourselves has caused a cultural shift which has obliterated the encyclopedia as we knew it from our collective conscious. Why buy a set of paper books which will be obsolete before the ink dries on your check, when an electronic source can be updated continually with minimal expense? Somewhere I have a CD-ROM with the "World Book" encyclopedia on it. It's a couple of years old, however, so it's easier to just look something up on the Internet. Even the concept of the encyclopedia as a unit of measure is no longer useful. In the olden days of computing (1988 or so), we used to measure the capacity of magnetic tapes in terms of the number of encyclopedia volumes it could hold. Today, that set of encyclopedias is just a spec on your 80 Gigabyte hard drive.

Today's Internet is not entirely synonymous with the concept of an encyclopedia. An encyclopedia is organized alphabetically by topic for quick and direct access to the information you need. Usually to find information on the Internet you start with a search engine like Google (http://www.google.com/) and have to use just the right key words to return the result you intended. Often, however, in the process of narrowing your search you find additional information that is equally helpful or interesting. When you had an encyclopedia in front of you, you invariably read other articles in the same volume thereby increasing your overall knowledge of the universe (well at least I did, but I also never stopped with the word I was looking up in the dictionary either, a malady which must have lead to my acquisition of a "terminal" degree ). On the Internet, however, hyperlinks often lead to information related to your intended topic which can result in a much broader scope of information and understanding.

A Variety of Viewpoints

When you read an encyclopedia, you knew that the entry had been written by an expert. On the Internet, some information may be written by experts, but much is probably written by folks like you who have a particular interest in a particular topic and have decided to share the research they have done. With an encyclopedia, you would just trust that everything was accurate and true (experts are never wrong), however, with the Internet you may get a variety of information from a variety of viewpoints and have to use your brain to evaluate the reliability of the source or the validity of the viewpoint (for example, did the U.S. step in to protect the Hawaiian people from being controlled by European empires or did American plantation owners invite American intervention to safeguard and strengthen their economic interests thereby leading to the political downfall of the Hawaiian monarchy and the loss of independence for the native Hawaiians?).

The Internet has one advantage over an encyclopedia. Often experts do provide direct information and materials which are accessible only for the cost of your computer or connect time. That information is frequently updated and in many cases has quite a bit of high-quality detail. NASA's web page (http://www.nasa.gov/), for example, provides links to the output of many research programs relating to space flight, astronomy, and astrophysics. There's also quite a bit of information to support science education for schools and individuals. NASA, like many other organizations, has a vested interest in raising people's awareness and understanding of space science. Whether you think it's so that they hope enough people will continue to support their government funding or that they support science education to promote the advancement of technology and human exploration, the bottom line is that you are getting quality information straight from the authoritative source. That's the beauty of the Internet. It is in many people's best interest to provide quality information without the filter of a publishing process which is out of their control.

The Bottom Line

So, the best thing you can do for your children's education is to get a computer and an Internet connection. Sure, you can use the Internet computer at the local library, but you'll be glad you have your own Internet connection when that important question comes up or when junior has waited until the last minute to do their homework. Since I'm an Internet expert, you can trust me on that one.