The Internet

Posted by Arlo on Jul 12, 2007 under Thought Objects

A group of us were talking the other night about that online site that was taking votes for the “New 7 Wonders of the World.”  Before looking at the list, we had fun brainstorming what should be on there.  Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, Teotihuacan?   The Hoover Dam, The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Panama Canal?  My best idea was one that nobody really wanted to concede: The Internet.

When I think about it – and I think about it often – I’m amazed at how the Internet has changed the world.  Or at least my world.

For instance:

  • I handle almost all my finances online now.  My paycheck is direct deposited, our monthly expenses are paid automatically by our Alaska Airlines credit card (which is, in turn, paid off by our bank account – got to get those miles!)  There are exceptions, of course.  I still have to pay rent with a check, and people will probably still be using the ATM to grab theater money in 3007.  Even so, I’d estimate that 90% of my own wealth never manifests itself as anything more than numbers in databases.

  • The Internet has also brought the world closer.  E-mail, the ubiquitous and obvious tool, has allowed me to stay in touch with friends and family the world over.  In recent years, new tools have sprung up and I find myself taking advantage of them more and more.   I remember how surreal video conferencing seemed when I first peered into my own living room from an Internet cafe in Peru; now it seems blase.  Oksana uses Skype to talk to her brother in Russia; the quality on both ends is better than any phone call, and ever since we bought a cordless Skype phone, we’re no longer tied to the computer’s clunky headset and microphone.  Even Internet Messaging, simple as it is, recently surprised me when a friend started a live chat message with me while I was at work… and he was standing in front of the Easter Island statues with his Blackberry.  (And later that week, he IM’d me from a bus in Santiago to ask me what a Spanish word meant, because, you know, it was easier than looking it up.)

  • The way in which the Internet impresses me most, though, is with its vast store of information.  I’m old enough to remember when a 26-book set of encyclopedias was the best way to get information for school.  Now to research and learn anything – anything! – all you need is a computer, a connection, and time.  Learning, learning, learning!  I use the Internet all the time to learn new things.  Photoshop tutorials, screenwriting advice, HDTV and next gen DVD formats.  Recipes, desktop publishing, video editing, astronomy, home design.  Want an answer to a question?  Want to learn something new?  It’s ALL RIGHT HERE, and it’s all FREE (and usually on Wikipedia.)

    My latest project, naming 3000 or so digital pictures I took last year in Russia, is a great example.  I wanted to be thorough and accurate in my naming, so I had to do a fair bit of digging to find the English names for all the things we saw in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  It took time – I just finished naming them last week and we were actually in Russia this time last year – but the learning I did was worth it.  Here’s how I found some of the more difficult picture names:

Wikimapia.  I can look at just about any sequence of pictures and remember about where I was standing when I took them (I don’t know if other people have such a… “positional memory.”  I can pretty accurately visualize my past surroundings in my memory.)  Wikimapia let’s people label anything in Google Maps.  With the satellite view, I can zoom in on something like the Kremlin and see all those buildings that people have labeled.  Let’s say I took a picture of one of the towers.  If I knew where I was standing when I took the photo, I can eliminate many tower names by ruling out the ones that were out of my line-of-sight.  I can then click on the remaining towers and hope to see someone else’s photo.  If the photo’s subject matched mine, I had the tower’s name.  Sometimes, I had to zoom in close enough to use roof details (especially useful with the distinctive Russia Orthodox onion domes) to match my own street level photos.

I wish all the images were that easy to identify.  Sometimes Wikimapia only had Cyrillic names.  In that case, I’d jump over to Altavista’s Babelfish and translate the text from Russian to English.  That would give me something to search for on Google’s Image Search.  If I could find a similar picture there, it would more often than not lead me to a site confirming the name.

Sometimes I could find sites dedicated to a particular place, like Catherine’s Palace or the Hermitage.  The ones with maps were invaluable in assisting my memory and I took advantage of any virtual tours to track my past room-to-room progression.  I relived my tour as I labeled my photos.

Finally, when all else failed, I would unearth the names of buildings, exhibits, bridges, etc., on personal web pages.  People just like me post their travel photos online; I have high praise for those that take the time and effort to accurately name their photos and I curse the ones that dump 200 pictures of Tsarskoe Selo in Flickr with the original DSC0000 filename.

Amazingly, there were less than 100 photos (out of 3000, remember) for which I couldn’t find names.  Some were of tiny displays of artwork in the Hermitage, some were random buildings in Moscow, some were unimpressive rooms in a palace.  But I have no doubt that more time on the Internet (and being a little handier with Cyrillic) would have whittled that number down even further.

Of course, the Internet isn’t all puppy dogs and rainbows.  If you’ve got an e-mail account, you know about spam.  For me, e-mail spam is a minor annoyance.  I’ve gotten used to it over the years and my eyes glide over it without interruption.  A few check marks, a delete button, it’s gone.  Same with banner ads – I couldn’t tell you the last time I consciously examined, let alone clicked on one.  The bane of my existance is comment spam.  I hate seeing someone trying to sell their crap on my blog.  Filters keep the majority of it at bay, but some of it still gets through.  I wish you people would quit winning at casinos, losing weight, making millions on penny stocks, and buying Viagra.  You must be buying what the spammers are selling, otherwise… wouldn’t they stop? 

Actually, wait a minute.  I just thought of a killer business plan!  A casino that pays out in Viagra and penny stocks!

I’m going to go read up on that.