World Access – Navigating Out There

Maximizing the cyborg potential to debug its environment

A cyborg is not a self-contained entity. The purpose of a cyborg’s existence is so that it can interact with the world. A cyborg is not an automaton. It can think for itself, live and breath, just like any other organism out there. But a fruitful existence requires proper interaction with the world. In this chapter, we will examine the many ways in which this can be most effectively accomplished.

The Brain Age – Living in a World of Information

How to stop oneself from being drowned in a sea of knowledge

UPDATE: As of 1996 I have been recommending that people access the Internet via the World Wide Web. This chapter was written prior to the invention of the Web and before Netscape was even a company. Technical information here may be out of date especially with regards to BBS systems, but the concepts remain viable. Recall than in Chapter Three, we used Megatrends 2000 for examples to practice our memory skills with. That book was the sequel to the original Megatrends, in which John Naisbitt talked about a shift from an industrial society to an information society. In other words, during the factory-age of the industrial revolution, people were more concerned with the production of physical, tangible products. Now, in the new age of the information society, the key goods are intangible products and information is the king commodity of them all. It allows people to understand the world around them and allows them to take the best course of action. Information is more valuable than money, and sometimes even more than human life. Some people pay large sums of money to obtain stock market information, or to obtain an education, while others will sacrifice themselves or resort to physical injury and murder to retrieve secrets. Fortunately for us, we do not have to be concerned with the extreme lengths that some people go to in order to obtain information. As cyborgs, the resources of information at our disposal are within extremely easy reach. In this chapter I will show you how to obtain what we need, using the example of a student researching a subject for the writing of a termpaper.

Intelligence Gathering

Obtaining Information on Virtually any Subject

The best place to go for research is the library. You probably already knew that, but it seemed such a cliché that you never gave it much thought. In addition, you probably think of the library as a really dull place. I am sure that simple psychological conditioning contributed to that perception. Every time you visited the library, you were compelled to do so because you had a research topic to do. After a while, the only times you went to the library were when projects were due. Over time, you thus learned to associate deadlines, work, and pressure with the library. We will change that perception. Let me first show you a marvellous invention that saves you a lot of legwork and makes your library sessions more efficient.

The Cyberspace

The “Real” Virtual Reality

Have you ever played with one of those nifty Virtual Reality machines? Have you ever put on 3D goggles and found yourself inside a computer-generated world? Virtual Reality – or VR – has become the new wave of entertainment and the latest form of the evolving human-machine interface. VR is, indeed, one of the best examples of cybernetics.

However, the term “virtual reality” has its roots in a more fundamental, and more powerful, dimension of space: That of the computer modem. The modem, or “modulator/demodulator,” is a device that allows your personal computer to “talk” with other computers over regular telephone lines. It converts digital data (the 1’s and 0’s a computer uses) into analog data (the actual sounds that are transmitted over the phone lines). This process is called modulation, and the reverse of that – translating the analog sounds back into digital information at the receiving end of the communications channel – is called demodulation. So, the word “modem” is a contraction. In Chapter Five, you learned how important it was to buy, or obtain use of, a modem. Here I will show you why, and how to use one properly.

A modem allows you access to the incredible world of the “internet.” Now, contrary to what a lot of people think, there is no company, no institute, no central controlling organization for the internet. The internet – spelt with a lowercase “i” – is simply the term used for describing the entire collection of telecommunications links in the world. In other words, when I say I am going to access the internet, what I actually mean is that I am going to tap into the entire world’s information, by hooking up to a local access port (or point of entry). Put in another way, if I wanted to join a whole bunch of people at a party (to obtain information about the latest gossipy news!) then I would have to start by walking into the door, before I can participate in the discussions. To walk into our internet “door” we need to establish a modem link with one of the many ports in the internet. This can be in the form of your educational computer network at your university, or a large commercial network company such as CompuServe, or even with a smaller-scale bulletin board system – or BBS – which is simply a computer that someone (usually a computer enthusiast) has dedicated exclusively for the transfer of electronic information.

Large corporations and government institutions have their own direct internet links to the internet. If you work for such a company, ask computer personnel if this service is available. For information on using the educational network, ask your computer science professor, or the computer department. As for commercial systems, there are special “starter packs” that are almost always included in the purchase of a modem. Otherwise, flip through a computer magazine to find toll-free numbers, or ask a computer store. Finally, BBS sytems the world over usually have their modem numbers listed in local computer newsletters.

One of the best reasons for using a BBS, and not the other ports, is that it is usually free of charge unless you call a long-distance system that is out of town. In addition, a BBS system has a sense of “community” in it, with a specific set of people and personalities that regularly “drop in.” In time, you will learn peoples’ names, and begin to treat them as associates, or even friends. With larger systems, it is much harder to establish rapport with individual people because the rate of information exchange is so high and numbers of people involved in the discussions so enormous.

The reason why we are interested in establishing rapport is that one of the best ways of getting information is by asking an expert on the topic. We may already have friends who are “into” certain subjects, or know people in those industries, but by expanding our horizons and getting to know more people “out there” in the cyberspace. The cyberspace is the region of “space” defined as the non-physical dimension where everyone participates in electronic discussion, and where all the electronic files and databases are located. Through it, we can reach more people, and get more responses. In fact, if we post a message in a BBS system asking for advice, not only will the “regulars” reply to it, but other people that we’ve never heard from would suddenly jump into the discussion. An electronic message in the internet is like throwing a stone out into a vast pond. The ripples caused by your message would soon cause an enormous collection of people to give you information, or at least tell you where to look. By tapping this power we are giving more audience to our request for information.

The manner in which we “log on” and access a BBS system varies depending on the type of computer and modem you use. Generally-speaking, a Hayes-compatible modem would respond simply by typing ATDTxxx-xxxx where “xxx-xxxx” is the phone number of the BBS system you are trying to connect to. Obtain these phone numbers by (1) asking any computer enthusiasts you know in or outside of school; (2) visiting a computer store and asking the people who work there; and (3) picking up a copy of a local computer newsletter. In Toronto, one of the most-circulated computer newspapers is Toronto Computes! and every issue contains a short BBS listing. Each BBS is also listed with a certain description, informing you of the theme, or major topic of interest, of that particular system. Think of BBS’s as electronic social clubs, or interest groups, and be sure to ask your questions in the context of a proper BBS.

Your terminal program is the software that controls your modem. It lets you access online services such as BBS systems. The terminal program will usually have a command-line interface that stresses typing commands, and resembles the MS-DOS command prompt set-up. When connected to an online service, most of the time you will be presented with a menu of options, and asked to select a number from the choices. The commands may be rather esoteric when you first navigate the cyberspace. Be sure to have your terminal program and modem reference books handy, and don’t be afraid to ask for help from a computer enthusiast. Those people really know their stuff.

An alternative terminal program is epitomized by the Macintosh computer’s First Class Interface. It sports a graphical environment interface. Commands are represented by icons, or miniature pictures, that replace the archiac command-line menu. While other terminal programs work with generic BBS systems and large networks, the First Class systems require special software (which is free) to connect to the BBS featuring this interface. One such BBS is MAGIC – the Macintosh Awareness Group in Canada – run by Mark “Magic Merlin” Windrim. In fact, MAGIC is one of the best places in Toronto to ask for information. The BBS is the largest one of its kind in the world, and has multiple lines so that a lot of people can connect to it at the same time. MAGIC is actually a miniaturized version of a large network, rather than simply a BBS. The best part of all is that MAGIC is free (at least, at the time of this writing). I highly recommend it. The current phone number for MAGIC is 416-xxx-xxxx but updates can usually be found from the sources I mentioned above. An MS-DOS version of the First Class interface has been recently released, so people who do not have a Macintosh computer can join in the fun.

By going online, you can take the Yellow Pages’ advice, and let your fingers do the walking, and typing. For example, assume that I was assigned a research project concerning the astronomical constellation of Corona Borealis, and I needed to write up an essay about its mythology and science. I would thus go to a BBS featuring astronomy as its main theme, a BBS featuring ancient mythology, and a BBS (such as MAGIC) that has separate conferences – or forums – on each of these topics.

A typical message to be left would run along the lines of:

Hi Everyone!
I need some information about the constellation known as CORONA BOREALIS. I require information on both its MYTHOLOGY and its SCIENCE. If anyone can help in any way, I would appreciate your response.
Thanks very much in advance.

Some systems even offer simultaneous and instantaneous communications via its chat mode (or “CB-simulator,” the original CompuServe name for this wonderful feature), rendering the communication not unlike a telephone conference call, except for the fact that everyone is typing instead of speaking. However, chat modes usually are less productive compared to simply leaving messages, because people have less time to formulate a reply for you.

When posting messages, you should, of course, ask nicely and phrase your message concisely and succinctly, to save your potential responder time and effort in reading it. You will also save your host system operator – or sysop, for short – valuable storage space on his disk. Above all, don’t ask so many questions that people begin to start ignoring you and consider you a nuisance. Just use common sense.

Messages that are posted usually take from 24 hours to a few days before everyone who is interested in responding to you has done so. In the interim, you can use the time to check other sources for information. Again, you don’t have to leave your desk. By using your modem, you can access a whole slew of other information channels. One of my favourite hangouts is at the library – the electronic version. Most libraries have their entire catalogue stored in a computer database. Because of the pioneering and visionary efforts of certain librarians, external access by the public is available. This saves the time and energy required to physically go to the library. I can check what books the library has on a certain topic, and narrow my search by author, title, or date of publication. To learn how to use your local library online service, call them or pay them a physical visit, and ask the librarians. Be sure to inquire about the hours of operation, because even though most libraries run their databases all the time, some have to shut them down for maintenance once in a while. I rememeber I had to do a research assignment one night and found my favourite database shut down. Fortunately for me, I had a list of other libraries, and those were open. Be advised that the computer databases are also available for access via terminals inside the library itself, so you can take advantage of this valuable time-saver when physically at the library.

Aside from the electronic catalogues, there are other similar methods of finding books and magazines. (An example would be the traditional card catalogue.) Those are, however, archiac technologies and more often than not have been replaced with their modern versions. In any case, if you need help finding something, always ask a librarian. If he or she doesn’t know, ask another. If the third librarian still cannot help you, go to another library.

Your modem can serve you in yet another manner: Through online computerized abstract search and retrieval – CASAR for short; my terminology. A CASAR service allows you to locate magazine and journal articles, a process that is expedited via the computer. CASAR services let you find periodical (magazines, journals, anything published on a “periodical” basis) information by narrowing your search through criteria you designate. For example, I could enter in the command FIND: corona AND borealis AND astronomy. The results of that search would show me all the articles ever published in all the periodicals that are covered by that database (therefore, there may be other periodicals that the search missed, because the service does not cover them). Without CASAR, a manual search would take days, or even weeks and months, to obtain a comparable search depth. You can take advantage of CASAR services through either a commercial network system such as CompuServe. Their service is called IQuest. Sometimes, it is offered as part of your online library database service package. For example, the online database at York University offers a citation database search service, in addition to the usual book database. Some CASAR services let you order the actual article, and by paying a certain fee you will receive a photocopy of the article in the mail. You may want to resort to this if you cannot find the information you need elsewhere. Be advised that commercial systems usually charge for the use of their search services. Always make sure you know whether or not you are incurring charges when logging onto any service, even if only to browse around Be sure to know the exact details of your financial and legal responsibilities, before you use any online service.

Speaking of abstract and citation databases, a non-modem version of it is the CD-ROM search system – based on Compact Disc technology. Most of the larger libraries have CD-ROM systems. Their usage is not unlike the CASAR services, but this time without the need for a modem link.

When you have exhausted your library databases and periodical services, you will have quite a large collection of sources of information, yet no real solid information. That will come later, when you actually read the books and articles. Now, it is time to go back to your BBS systems and check for messages. Depending on your reponses, you may obtain more sources, or actual information on your topic. Please understand that even though you have have been given actual information on a topic (for example, someone may have told me: “Corona Borealis is known as the ‘Northern Crown’ as opposed to Corona Australis which is the ‘Southern Crown’ in the Southern Hemisphere”) but it is up to you to check and verify and identify the source of that information through your own research. It is not enough to simply quote a reply from a BBS system in your footnotes for the termpaper.