'Day in the Life of Cyberspace' site

Rohit Khare (khare@pest.w3.org)
Sat, 10 Feb 96 19:34:17 -0500

Well, all I can say about the quality of my experience on this pseudo-site is
that these were the first words of the first article I touched:

> First we invent our information technologies, and then
> our information technologies reinvent us.
> That's rarely the plan, of course: from Gutenberg to Marc
> Andreessen, most innovators don't set out to change the
> world -- not at the start, anyway.

Marca and GUTENBURG?!?! My god, it must be something in the Bay Area water

Well, at least we can rest assured that 500 years from now, they won't
remember the Web at all :-)

Below is a copy of a fine article in the NYTimes which put's Smolan's little
$5 million corporate love-fest in perspective...

> This pre-packaged quality extends to the stories. With
> assignments made in advance and the text apparently
> pre-written, it seems as if most of these photos could
> have been taken on any day of the year. Absent is any
> sense of what in particular made Feb. 8, 1996, a unique
> day on the face of the planet.

The NPR Talk of the Nation interview with Smolan I heard also studiously
avoided the issue of 'original conception' vs. MIT Media Lab's Hawley & Co.

Rohit "Boy Am I Glad I Work At The W3C Today" Khare

PS. Note how well they annotated the (online) Times article with links to
resources on the Web at the end


February 10, 1996

arts@large / By MATTHEW MIRAPAUL [bio]

24 Hours in Cyberspace:
Stop the URL, I Want to Get Off

The Luddites would have laughed.

For the first 80 minutes of "24 Hours in Cyberspace," the Web-based global
photojournalism project that was supposed to start at 3 a.m. Eastern Time on
Thursday, time stood still.

Transmission problems and other technical difficulties temporarily prevented
the launching of the site, which according to its on-line welcome letter would
show just "how cyberspace is changing all our lives."

Fittingly, in a world teeming with software bugs, hardware crashes and
flaming e-mails, the first story that "Cyber24" illustrated was that
technology can be a cruel master.

) "This is a little harder to do than we thought," Tom Melcher, chief
operating officer of the project's production company, admitted when contacted
about the delayed launch.

The Luddites, the early 19th century activists who railed against the
Industrial Revolution in England, would have enjoyed this lesson.

But it was lost on the team of editors and technicians -- led by Rick Smolan,
founder of the successful "Day in the Life" series of geography-specific
photo books -- who were assembling the site in San Francisco.

Soon after the site was turned on, visitors could see a page peppered with
Smolan's own images of Mission Control. Its pre-written text described what
was to have been a smooth launch: "Photos appear on the screen, and a cheer
goes up ..."

Sobs of relief were more likely, but this sort of rude reality was
consistently deleted by the main theme of "24 Hours in Cyberspace" -- that the
Internet "seems like a miracle come true," as a missionary in Africa put it.

Smolan's worldwide web of professional lensmen, working from a carefully
drawn list of assignments, strived to capture the human side of the Internet,
how it can heal the sick, educate the young, rescue the endangered and enrich
the entrepreneur.

More than 50 articles, all accompanied by pictures taken over the course of
the 24-hour period and digitally downloaded to Mission Control for cumulative
publication, were spread over the site's six main sections.

Each section featured an essay about the virtues of the virtual world by one
of the tech-notables usually rounded up for this purpose.

For example, Vice President Al Gore gushed, "By enlisting Cyberspace to
change the way we think, we are creating the conditions for changing the way
we act. And that is literally changing the world." (His wife, Tipper, also
served as a guest photographer.)

) To say that the articles conveyed a religious belief in the Internet's
ability to transform society is not an exaggeration. Amid tales of tracking
elephants in Malaysia and romances forged on line were stories about
Buddhists, Lubavitchers, the Vatican and the aforementioned missionary.

Despite the project's efforts to be culturally inclusive, a certain degree of
reductionism goes with the territory. For example, in the book "Day in the
Life of Ireland," there are two pictures of pugilists and none of soccer
players. Does this portray the Emerald Isle as a nation of battlers?

Similarly, in "24 Hours in Cyberspace," everyone is a squeaky-clean socially
conscious end-user. There are no nerds in the Family of Man. Even the
Bostonians who wired their clubhouse with computers salvaged from trashbins
are preppy-looking. Nowhere to be seen are the Snickers-and-Coke crowd, not to
mention hackers, phonephreaks or the lowest rung of the cyberculture caste
system, the PC salesman.

This pre-packaged quality extends to the stories. With assignments made in
advance and the text apparently pre-written, it seems as if most of these
photos could have been taken on any day of the year. Absent is any sense of
what in particular made Feb. 8, 1996, a unique day on the face of the planet.

Given that cyberspace is supposed to create an environment where anything is
possible, this lack of spontanaiety is startling. Although one essay describes
the Internet as an "antidote to broadcast news" capable of providing
firsthand reports, only a report on the signing into law of the controversial
telecommunications bill made it to the site.

Except for a symbolic blue ribbon on the home page and a brief mention in the
news story, there was no human display of the protest that broke out in the
very concerned virtual community. Also missing were such timely events as the
use of technology to help in flood-threatened Oregon, or perhaps a Beijing
resident covertly evading China's Internet restrictions.

) None of this would matter if the pictures were more powerful. Save for
Torin Boyd's characterful shots of a Japanese model and Mark Peters's odd
juxtaposition of South African students carrying computer parts on their
heads, the photographs are mostly drab in color, jumbled in composition, and
fuzzy in focus. In short, they looked like snapshots.

To be sure, there are inherent limitations to photographing this kind of
project. Silicon-speckled circuit boards in beige boxes and a few
modem-generated blips passing in the night tend to be less photogenic than,
say, the lush Irish countryside.

As a result, the piece on a Kansas woman and her on-line diary shows her
twice, both times with her cat and with nary a PC in sight.

Perhaps the planned book version will "read" better, given that a carefully
printed image on an oversized page is almost certain to compare well with a
small digital image with grainy resolution and limited color palette, even on
the best of monitors.

I do enjoy the concept behind Smolan's series, sort of a modern-day version
of Phileas Fogg's journey in Jules Verne's 1873 classic, "Around the World in
Eighty Days."

Just as Fogg attempted to circle the Earth in a fixed period, so too do
Smolan and his stable of camera-toting Passepartouts try to cover it all from
midnight to midnight. (Fogg spent "twenty thousand pounds sterling," compared
with Smolan's $5 million budget for "Cyber24.")

While the scope of their efforts is evident in the previously published "Day
in the Life" picture books, something is missing from "Cyber24."

Re-reading Verne in the age of air travel, one still reacts with wonder to
his hero's fictional efforts to surmount obstacles, overcome delays and beat
his deadline. Because Smolan's faith in the Internet shows none of its
devilish dynamics, the human delight in mastering a challenge cannot really be

So when one new computer user says, "I am practicing e-mail. This is really
magic," one ignores her enthusiasm and instead questions, How long before she
endures her first system crash?

As I said, the Luddites would laugh. Not that any self-respecting modern-day
Luddite would have the wherewithal to visit the "24 Hours in Cyberspace" site,
of course, but one might pick up the book.

If it is an accurate rendering, the first pages will be blank.

[ 24 Hours in Cyberspace ] will only be accessible for a day or two but is
scheduled to return in more permanent form in mid-March.


Related Sites
Following are links to the external Web sites that complement this column.
These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times has
no control over their content or availability. When you have finished visiting
any of these sites, you will be able to return to this page by clicking on
your Web browser's "Back" button or icon until this page reappears.

[ Biographical information on Rick Smolan ].
To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the MIT Media Lab sponsored a similar [
Day in the Life of Cyberspace ] project last fall and organizers have since
accused Smolan of stealing their idea. Glenn Rifkin's [ New York Times article
] on this controversy can be found in the CyberTimes archive.
The complete text of Jules Verne's [ Around the World in Eighty Days ] is
part of the Online Literature Library.
[ The World-Clock ] shows the time, updated every minute, in more than 100
cities around the world.
[ The Photojournalist's Coffee House ] has an extensive series of links to
on-line photo galleries and related resources.
For years, Life magazine set a weekly standard for photojournalism, and the
magazine's [ home page ] is worth a look.


This is a special edition of arts@large, which is published weekly, on
Thursdays. Click here for links to other columns in this series.