Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 38, Fall/Winter 1995
The Whole Wired World

Editor's Note/Welcome to a Whole New Paradigm/by John M. Bancroft

"The information superhighway is about the global movement of weightless bits at the speed of light."
Nicholas Negroponte
Being Digital

When it comes to effective publishing in the Information Age, as MIT Media Lab (1) and Wired magazine (2) guru Negroponte rightly observes, the primacy of the analog world of atoms is fast giving way to the digital world of bits.

By atoms Negroponte means not only traditional ink-on-paper magazines, journals, newspapers, catalogs, and books, but also such once high-tech items as faxes -- which are, after all, nothing more than uneditable pictures of documents. Faxes may be delivered over high-speed transmission lines, but they still are part of the old, static, one-way technology.

Bits, by contrast, are dynamic. An e-mail message can be delivered, read, digested, dissected, edited, reassembled, forwarded, or replied to in a matter of minutes and with only a few keystrokes. A site on the Internet's World Wide Web can change its look and content not only weekly or daily, but even by the hour or minute. The digital information stream, as the phrase implies, is fluid.

Therein lies what is perhaps the principal strength and promise of digital publishing: it is, by its nature, more amenable than stop-action print resources to being shaped to the user's individual purposes. But that is not the medium's only advantage.

Access. Access to electronic information can be virtually instantaneous, regardless of the miles or topography that separate the sender and the receiver. Access also is widespread and may reasonably be expected one day to be all but universal; one current estimate puts the number of new connections to the Internet at 14,000 per day. And while the World Wide Web is the fastest growing sector of the Internet, access to e-mail, telnet, ftp, gopher, and other text-based sources is even more widely available (at least for now; things change quickly in cyberspace). And communities where communications infrastructure is undeveloped can obtain access to packet radio bits bounced from any of several conveniently orbiting satellites-if not at individual homes then at some central gathering place, such as a library, school, or government agency or NGO field office.

Linkages & Graphics. Two key developments (after development of the Internet itself, as a tool initially of military- and government-sponsored research and communication) give the Web its unique ability to link together documents, databases, and graphics files resident on networked computers scattered across the face of the planet.

First, in 1989, Tim Berners Lee and colleagues at CERN (3), the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, proposed and began to develop the Internet-based hypermedia initiative for global information sharing we know now as the World Wide Web.

Second, and of equal significance, was the introduction in February 1993, by Marc Andreesen and colleagues at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at The University of Illinois (4), of a graphical Web client (or browser) known as Mosaic. Mosaic and its commercial spin-offs, including Andreesen's own Netscape Navigator (5), enable a desktop computer not only to decode and resolve text links, as its precursors did, but also to display graphics, ranging from simple black-and-white schematics to full-color animations, as an integral part of the text page on any computer that supports a graphics display. And all the major browser developers are incorporating new capabilities, including a broad range of multimedia bells and whistles, into each new release of their software.

Information Storage. Bits not only are weightless, they also take up very little room. At eight bits (binary digits) to the byte and one byte per character (letters, numerals, spaces, punctuation), the math peculiar to bytes and other binary entities works out to the ability to store 1,048,576 characters on a 3.5-inch floppy disk with a capacity of 1 megabyte (mb). When you consider that a hard disk with a capacity 1,000 times greater than that of our hypothetical floppy is considered puny by current standards, you begin to appreciate the implications for digital publishers, online libraries, and other information brokers and packagers.

Indeed, the modern version of the famous debate over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin has been resolved-not by theologians but by engineers.

Information Retrieval. The flip side of storage is retrieval, and that is an issue of considerable moment to both information providers and information users. The Internet comprises the most extensive collection of distributed information the world has ever seen, much of it free for the finding, but all that information is useless if the user cannot find his or her way around on this exponentially growing network of computer networks.

Fortunately, because the information we're talking about is stored as bits, it is easily and speedily retrievable by other bits arranged to form computer applications whose only purpose is to search out and bring back either the information bits themselves or maps to their locations.

Indexability. Thanks to indexing programs and agents, it is possible to mark the location of any given string of characters-not just within a file or on a disk or even on computers wired together to form a local network in a single building or on a single campus, but anywhere on any disk on any networked computer anywhere in the world.

Today there are scads of applications devoted to the indexing of digital information, and their numbers are growing daily.

Searchability. A similar number of applications, known as search engines (6), is dedicated to searching through one or two or a hundred levels of the multitude of levels that comprise the information servers that comprise the Internet. Without them, all that information would be as good as useless: nobody could find a thing in the overstuffed global information storehouse-unless the discovery was made by accident.

While discoveries made by accident undeniably have played a significant role in the evolution of the world as we know it, accident cannot be relied upon consistently to deliver the information we need. That's where the time, expertise, and resources of an information broker come into play.

The Arid Lands Information Center (ALIC, for short)

Information gathering, management, and dissemination traditionally have been the skills employed by ALIC's librarians, information specialists, cataloguers, and editors, and they traditionally have applied them in an environment based on documents in print; such electronic aids as searchable databases on CD-ROM and online catalogs gradually have come to play a larger role in managing information over the years, but until now the lion's share of that information has been stored between hard or soft covers in library stacks and vertical files. Nonetheless, these are the essential skills that underpin ALIC's capabilities as digital information managers and publishers. We continue to do what research libraries have always done-which is to seek to increase not only the sum of human knowledge but also access to it-but now we bring to our traditional roles a new digital toolkit and a retooled worldview. The information we manage may not be of a fundamentally new kind, but the skills needed to access, organize, edit, package, and deliver it certainly are.

As an information broker and publisher, the Arid Lands Information Center in the Office of Arid Lands Studies at The University of Arizona, which publishes The Arid Lands Newsletter, hopes to help extend the power and reach of traditional analog sources. To that end, ALIC is committed not only to publishing well and widely on the World Wide Web, but also to complementing the great potential of the Web via electronic mail and mailing lists.

The staff of ALIC began to explore the Web not long after the appearance of the Mosaic browser and its graphical user interface (GUI). And it wasn't long after its first voyages of exploration that ALIC took its first small step toward helping to build-and to make sense of-a fundamentally new channel of communication.

ALIC's first effort was to erect the superstructure for a site originally called The Arid Lands Information Network and now tentatively renamed Oasis (7). Later came our first attempt to "repurpose" existing information by mounting HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language, the lingua franca of the Web) editions of two out-of-print back issues of The Arid Lands Newsletter . That experiment having met with some success, as gauged by feedback from readers, we began to publish the magazine simultaneously in print and on line.

ALIC next wrote a proposal for a demonstration project that promised to result in a more or less fully elaborated World Wide Web Information Server, complete with original digital graphics, an online newsletter, and annotated hyperlinks to other arid lands information sites on the Web. The site also would include information specific to its sponsor, The International Arid Lands Consortium, such as an overview of the organization and profiles of its founding partners, a directory of researchers associated with partner institutions, an indexed catalog of abstracts of all projects funded by the consortium, and an active bibliography of IALC members' publications. The IALC funded the proposal and the first year of what we hope will be an ongoing project recently has drawn to a successful close. As a result, Oasis has acquired its first fully realized node and the IALC, a relatively young organization, has raised it visibility significantly within the international community of scholars, public lands managers, and policy makers.

And while the IALC site has demanded a good bit of our time and energies during its first year of development, the other components of Oasis have not stood still. Nodes ranging from the online edition of ALN to online newsletters for projects of international cooperation in Latin America (8) have changed and evolved considerably since we wrote our first scraps of HTML. And they will continue to change. A dynamic and compelling Web site, after all, is perpetually a work in progress.

But What Has All This To Do With The Arid Lands Newsletter?

The Arid Lands Information Center employs in its work two local networks of desktop computers. One is PC-based and carries much of the load of database building and traditional cataloguing. The other is Macintosh-based and provides the primary platform for graphics applications and World Wide Web site building.

Both networks are connected via high-speed Ethernet directly to the Internet. By way of that hard-wired access, both networks also are connected to the UA College of Agriculture's server array, a Sun-based computer system running the UNIX operating system. It is this high-capacity, multi-user server that hosts the varied bits and pieces of Oasis, including the Web edition of The Arid Lands Newsletter. The same server soon also will host a full-text, text-only edition of the magazine to be delivered to subscribers with e-mail access.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that economic constraints have made it impossible for the Office of Arid Lands Studies to continue to publish ALN in its current print form and to distribute it worldwide free of charge. Rather than beginning to charge for the magazine now, after 17 years of publishing in the open-handed tradition established by founding editor Patricia Paylore, we have decided to replace the full-scale print magazine with two electronic ones and a scaled-back print version available only to those who have no electronic access and who specifically request it.

Beginning with the next issue (Spring/Summer 1996: No. 39), the magazine will be available as:

1. a hyperlinked, illustrated World Wide Web publication;
2. a full-text, text-only, downloadable and/or printable e-mail file;
3. a four-page, photocopied abridgment of the digital magazine.

We regret that this decision will mean the loss of a number of subscribers, at least temporarily, but escalating production and mailing costs combined with shrinking budgets leave us no choice.

On the other hand, we look forward to the possibilities afforded us all in this new digital age and hope that all of you who can will come along for the ride. Who knows? Maybe this special issue on the charms and potential of the World Wide Web will inspire you to create your own site. When you do, be sure to let us know your URL and we'll add it to our hotlist.

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Principal Internet Resources Cited in this Article

[URLS last checked March 2000]

1. The MIT Media Lab Home Page: Check out the guru's home turf.

2. HotWired: This Web site is the digital adjunct to and extension of Wired magazine.

3. CERN: The European Particle Physics Laboratory maintains this rather mysterious but indispensable Web server.

4. NCSA: Another fundamental Web site.

5. Netscape's Home Page: A site brought to you by Mozilla, the current monster among Web browsers.

6. Deus Ex Machina: Web Search Tools [Nov. 1998, site no longer available]

7. The OALS Home Page: This site stands in just now for Oasis, ALIC's work in progress.

8. Bio-D Prospects and Tierras Aridas Conexiones: Newsletters of two large-scale projects in the drylands of Latin America.

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