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Sure, Web's got style but hardly enough substance

August 13, 1997
Web posted at: 4:35 p.m. EDT (2035 GMT)

By Michael A. Hiltzik

Americans did not get around to realizing that most television programming is crud until well into the '50s, when the device got familiar enough to stop transfixing us with the technological marvel of test patterns and we started paying attention to the actual message filling the broadcasting hours.

One wonders at what point on this arc we are today with the Internet. By many measures, the Web reached the vast-wasteland stage faster than any other communication medium in human history; yet Web site designers' ability to make the screen jump and shimmy is progressing so fast that we still find the test patterns diverting.

It's this continuing fascination with form and format that helps explain why the World Wide Web continues to underwhelm as an entertainment medium. Nevertheless, there are some glimmers of hope that as a time- and space-saving augmenter of intellect, the Web may just be coming into its own.

One such example, recently posted, is as absorbing as anything appearing on the Web in its kinetic Day-Glo present. What's interesting about it is that it's 34 years old.

This artifact is the first issue of the New York Review of Books. That great biweekly, as a way of introducing its new Web site (http://www.nybooks.com, shared with the literary magazine Granta and the Reader's Catalog), has posted every word of the original text from February 1963, along with several of David Levine's priceless caricatures and a number of the original ads.

This Web site's presentation itself is resolutely low-tech: The articles are each broken up into two or three individual HTML pages, which aren't made to turn by some Java applet. Nor is the entire package coded into a PDF format file to be conveniently downloaded and printed, like a mutual fund prospectus, via Adobe Acrobat.

The pages aren't cluttered by advertisements flashing, moving, zooming and generally carrying on while you're trying to get some reading done, and the articles themselves appear against a mud-brown background (let's be charitable) that makes strong, indirect room illumination a must. No underlined hyperlinks mar the text.

Yet in all its drab glory, the NYR site hints strongly at what makes the Web a truly useful tool. The term "content" gets thrown around so prodigiously these days that it risks losing all meaning, but the NYR proves that when it's distinguished, "content" is still what holds the attention. The technology's role is to make it accessible instantly. (Full disclosure: I have been a devoted reader of the NYR for years.)

The chronological distance so neatly spanned by the Web doesn't make the artifact any less fascinating. This is not the telegenic pseudo-sparring of "The McLaughlin Report" or the diluted wish-I-was back-in-D.C. insularity of on-line magazine Slate. It's trenchant, iconoclastic and sporty.

Take one of the charter issue's standout pieces, Gore Vidal's demolition job on John Hersey -- then a national icon praised for his clear-eyed journalistic objectivity, expressed through the same relentless march of detail whether he was describing a flash flood or the devastation of Hiroshima. Vidal focuses unerringly on the folly of this technique by asking whether objectivity should be the reporter's goal when the subject is an abomination like the Bomb.

"Mr. Hersey is content to give us mere facts," he writes. "A good man, he finds war hell and human suffering terrible, but that is nowhere near enough. At no point in the deadpan monotonous chronicle of Hiroshima is there any sense of what the Bomb meant and means ... To Mr. Hersey it just fell, that's all, and it was terrible, and he would like to tell us about it. The moral sense sleeps on."

Elsewhere, Steven Marcus, reviewing "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," confirms our own impressions of J.D. Salinger's late prose, pronouncing it "so self-consciously arch and cloying as to be almost impenetrable ... it circles and loops about itself and gets nowhere." The literary and social critic Dwight MacDonald takes on Arthur Schlesinger (lately suborned from liberal academia into the JFK White House) for lending a liberal veneer to the decidedly illiberal impulses of Big Politics.

What else? Skillful commentary on racism (a review of James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time"), Solzhenitsyn, and the late William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" (reviewed by Mary McCarthy). Nicolo Chiaramonte finds "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" to be less than it seems: "A drunken fight that goes on from two in the morning until five is hardly the best situation through which to reveal the real relation between two human beings."

As for anyone who fears that material dating from 1963 must be hopelessly passe, you need only take a look at the site's Jules Feiffer cartoon for a social comment as immediate and relevant as the latest Dilbert strip.

The prose in the 1963 New York Review is a rebuke to those who contend that, as a fresh new medium, the Web eliminates the need for such quaint devices as linear thought or the telling argument. Why think in straight lines when as a user you can veer willy-nilly from subject to subject, apercu to apercu, with no more effort than it takes to move a mouse?

Unfortunately, there are a few problems with this argument. Schoolteachers all over the country already see their Web-savvy students having trouble stringing sentences together coherently, probably because the process demands more intellectual subtlety than bopping from site to site without absorbing what's actually written on each one. Only those who believe that the Web's mechanics, rather than its content, will govern our future can contemplate this development serenely.

User weariness with the Internet gang's amour-propre seems to be gaining steam. My favorite Web curmudgeon, InfoWorld columnist Bob Metcalfe (he's the inventor of ethernet and the founder of 3Com Corp.) recently took out after the "wackos who find the Internet so without precedent in the universe that everything, economics, politics, culture, must be reinvented. Then they moan, `You just don't get it, do you?'"

Perhaps it won't be long before such questions about the human and intellectual implications of the Web are sounded regularly from the mainstream. It will be interesting to see whether that happens before the whole enterprise is overwhelmed by the tide of unalloyed commercialism hearkened by WebTV-Microsoft, when cyberspace and television finally do converge, at rock bottom.

(c) 1997, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

 
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