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Doug McLean

 
 

URL or Not: URL Marks the Spot!

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It has been suggested that the metaphor of an information superhighway is weak and tired. After all, how many of us live on a four-lane interstate? An alternative metaphor for this speedily growing twenty-first century infrastructure is that of a space: space for what will amount to a living repository of living data, live data about more living data, and - as a process - active participation in the lives of many people.

In William Shatner's "TekWar," a counter-culture knowledge worker asserts that he lives "in there" as he points to the computer workstation that "gateways" to his world. William Gibson first gave us the word "cyberspace" for a machine-created space in his depiction of a world in which one dwells and - we assume - where one stores many, many things. Few today profess to living in cyberspace, yet some of us log incredible hours online. Therefore, it cannot be for naught that the Internet has been labeled by one recent news magazine as the "hang-out" of the nineties, a soda-fountain of good reading and good conversation, a regular ethereal haven of new vibes.

The Internet blossomed on the day when "browsing the World-Wide Web" gave "cruising the net" a whole new meaning. For me, the transition began when our system administrator added the University of Kansas Lynx hypertext browser to our Internet programs. Long before experiencing the multimedia sensation of Mosaic, MacWeb, or Netscape, I recognized something that I had needed for a long time - a stable addressing protocol. Despite long-standing efforts with the FTP/Archie and the Gopher/Veronica/Jughead systems to connect users to files, resources could come and go in a way that defied anyone's attempt sustain the metaphor of a global data repository. I once described the Internet as a library where each day introduced new titles while old titles were removed from dustier virtual shelves. That more titles were being added than removed proved little solace when I received a "Resource Not Found" message.

The day that saw the introduction of the more stable URL (Uniform/Universal Resource Locator) helped change this forever. Since then, the very description of "uniform" is often replaced by the promise of "universal" in a way that strengthens the dream of open-system document addressing. It should come as little surprise that Forbes Magazine would suggest the dissolution of Dewey Decimal System: imagine every infinitely retrievable document or document entry with its own unique Internet-resident address.

For years, people criticized the Internet for its lack of a glossary-style index of cross-references. The Internet as encyclopedia was a poor choice of metaphors. Such a global task at one time seemed unapproachable. Yet, no one questioned that this Internet of networked computers could serve as a suitable dwelling for digital materials of, at the very least, alpha-numerical potential. However, beyond the conduit and the content there was the inevitable loss of context. Fortunately, the client/server paradigm slowly began to make sense of it all.

We have all seen stereotypical, dystopian end-of-the-world scenes of desolation and disaster: the most haunting visions are those of empty highways devoid of people and traffic. We all somehow know that this is not the world in which we want to live. Fortunately, the traffic on the Internet carries - with the increasing volume of participants and their resources - an increasingly high density of "URL embeddedness." I connect my data to yours and you connect yours to mine - already two points of access and reference exist for readers everywhere. Of course, this has profound implications for the emerging issue of network document copyright legislation. When the very act of browsing precipitates a file transfer, the tabulation of these transfers should not be construed as having any immediate commodity value for the purpose of consumption, use or gratification.

Clearly, a metaphor that attempts to encompass both a community and its resources will supersede a metaphor that seeks only to extend transit. This is the claim to universality made by those trading documents using the URL resource-labeling system. For those who have experienced hot-text and clickable fields, the seamlessness can be utterly amazing. Where Gutenberg's press introduced the medium of movable type, the World-Wide Web begins to plug more than molten lead into the spaces that will connect our worlds together.

 

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