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September 28, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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Is internet bigger than universe?

Editor Jackson James Wood investigates our integral internet inclination—how we now rely on the web for information.

It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time we relied on card catalogues, word of mouth and books.

No doubt you’re currently within 20 metres of a computer. You’re being bombarded by the internet right now as wi-fi passes around you. The idea of the internet evolved from a United States government communications programme. Computers were huge machines that used vacuum tube fuses. As you meander through the history of computers and the internet you find computers, and now the net, are dominating our lives.

There was a time when computers weren’t so intertwined with everyday life. Victoria graduate and Biology teacher Richard Wood remembers the good old days of 1977 when computer programing was part General Maths 101.

“The language was possibly FORTRAN but I can’t remember much about it. I never saw the computer itself but rumor had it that it took up a large area somewhere in the library building.

“We first made a flow chart of the program and had to translate it into digital language and then transfer the program to punch cards. The cards were pre-punched. You used a pencil to remove the little pre-punched rectangles. Your stack of cards was then handed in to a technician who put them in a card reader machine.

“That was the only contact I had with computers in four years at Vic.”

Today you’d be hard pressed to come to university and not deal with a computer. There are couple of hundred computers in the Kelburn library, CyberConnect stalls and wireless access over all campuses.

According to former Victoria mathematics and computer science student Rowan McCaffrey, the dressing up to operating systems like Vista and Mac OSX don’t really make it any easier to use—but it make it easier to learn. “Once you know what you’re doing when you’re typing in commands—if you remember the old Commodore 64s—even a kid could do that,” he says.

But the early nineties were especially heady times for ‘what could be’ in terms of the future of the internet. One story from Salient in 1994 predicts:

“A virtual reality version of the internet; a place where, with the help of VR goggles, bulletin boards look like meeting rooms, other users can be directly talked to and files can be saved just by grabbing them and shoving them in your pocket.”

While we’re not too far off that with programmes like Second Life, McCaffery thinks we don’t need The Matrix-like setting and “can do all that with a few clicks of a mouse.”

Let me Google that for you

The idea of a totally different virtual reality does seem superfluous, but is grounded in reality.

“If you wanted to know something you’d talk to your friends or go to the library. But now you just go look on Google. Basically the answer to everyday questions are on there,” McCaffery says.

This is so true. Say you needed to figure out a complex maths problem. Wolfram Alpha has the answer. As does Google. Need to know how to tie a tie and you don’t have a scrap of paper in your breast pocket telling you how? [page 32] Google it! 227,000,000 hits in 0.20 seconds.

The use of Google has become so widespread that when someone who is sitting at a computer and who asks a stupid question automatically gets sent a www.lmgtfy.com link.

Google has even become a religion!

The Church of Google posits that the human-made search engine is the closest experience we mortals can have to the divine. The church has nine proofs that Google is God. They say Google is

  1. Omniscient.
  2. Omnipresent.
  3. Answers prayers.
  4. Potentially immortal.
  5. Infinite.
  6. All-knowing and remembers all.
  7. Omni-benevolent.
  8. A more widely regarded source than other deities.
  9. Scientifically provable.

Which leads us to the question…

Is it all just one big in-joke/meme?

Much like Salient, the internet is rife with in-jokes and memes which many of you will never pick up on or get or even bother investigating further.

McCaffery says the internet has gotten so big and complex because “its users [are] wanting it for more and more things. Stuff like 4chan, it’s not of use to anyone, but everyone wants to do it.”

But, somewhere between the turgid mess of fart and dick jokes, lolcats and pornography, there actually valuable learning resources.

iTunes U is a great place to start for anyone looking to expand their mind. With lectures from Berkeley, MIT, Yale, Melbourne and Otago, you can lose yourself in the thousands of podcasted lectures.

Just now I downloaded a lecture from Introduction to Biology from MIT and a series of Anthropology lectures from Cambridge. If you can afford the bandwidth it is totally worth it.

The database section on Victoria’s Library site is an amazing resource. You can search through thousands of databases for millions of academic papers. From the Dictionary of Old English Corpus to Sex Smart with JSTOR, in between you’re guaranteed to be able to find what you’re looking for in a matter of minutes.

Newton’s [see page 49 for more about that badass mother fluffer] quote: “Standing on the shoulders of giants” is the appropriated motto of Google Scholar (GS). GS takes the simple format of Google and puts it toward something more than finding funny pictures of geese.

Once again you have thousands upon thousands of academic documents all easily searchable.

Some universities are already harnessing the amazing power of the internet. In partnership with Apple, makers of… oh, like you don’t know what an iPod is, have joined with 210 Australian universities to put lectures, video and audio online to bring you the aforementioned iTunes U.

When asked if tools like iTune U should play a bigger part in tertiary education, Acting Director of Victoria’s University Teaching Development Centre Dr Stephen Marshall whole-heartedly agrees. “There’s no should about it. The use of online resources as the primary medium for finding information and communicating is now inevitable.”

Wood laments that there are problems, but if teachers are online savvy they can use the inherent to great advantage: “Schools now use computerised rolls and markbooks. When the inevitable glitches occur with faults in software or hardware it makes life very difficult and it happens all too frequently. The data projector is replacing the video or DVD player as a way to show video and animations stored on your laptop.

“Teachers in the know use YouTube to find video clips of all the subjects you could wish to use—from Adolf to Zeppelins.”

McCaffrey’s opinion is a bit stronger. “If you’re not just teaching stuff you could learn by going on the internet, then there is no point in [lectures].

“It’s not like anyone can learn just by reading something. You have to be dedicated to it. It’s about adding value.”

And where to from here? Marshall reckons the internet will be even more ubiquitous. “Mobility is the next big thing—continuous connectivity and augmented reality.”

So while “internet isn’t bigger than universe”—a question on Yahoo! Answers—it is the glue by which we all learn and interact.

Marshall is optimistic about the future. Well, perhaps: “My wife hates this vision, she says she’ll only agree to it if I also get the ‘wife attention taser unit’ option with any augmented reality kit.”

Olde skewl computer games

Why you missed out and where you can play ‘em
By Arty Nerdstink and Joshie McAwesome Pants, Nexus.

While not quite academic per se, video games and their development heralded much of the computer graphics technology we now use for everything from the tear drop down Tom Cruise’s cheek to Jar Jar Binks. Here are a couple of games which were totally freaking awesome from a pre-internet time which you can now play on the internet.

Sid Meier’s Pirates: Most of you would have played one of the Civilization games at some point. Sid Meier doesn’t just create games where you can be Ghandi or Genghis Khan. He also made games where you could be a goddamn pirate! As a pirate, you chose where you sail, you chose what jobs to do and you shoes when to fight or flee. No linear storylines in this game, folks. Sure, you can go looking for your sister, your uncle and parents, but you’ll have a lot more fun leading your pirate fleet on raids across the Caribbean, attacking towns and doing little missions for priests and colonists. The game is available on pretty much any old machine, from Amiga to Xbox. You don’t need to have a powerful computer to run it and it has gone through several editions from 1987 to 2004.

The New Zealand Story
: This game was notable for being the original Amiga computer game and having exactly sod-all to do with New Zealand. A tricky platformer which featured a Kiwi(?) bearing a distinct resemblance to a dust ball with a beak, The New Zealand Story was a weird little gem of a game. Its ‘plot’ was that a walrus, that natural enemy of New Zealanders, had stolen the Kiwi’s animal mates. So it goes that the kiwi has to fight the walrus with an assortment of utterly bizarre weapons, the most powerful of which looked a lot like a child’s scribble on a wall. Others included a bow and arrow and something that might have been a kind of Kamehameha wave. I don’t know. This quirky game can probably still be found on Amiga emulators, and (bizarrely) was recently re-released for the Nintendo DS.

Sonic CD: This was close to the best Sonic the Hedgehog game ever made. It featured the titular anthropomorph in an adventure where he had to collect Time Stones (instead of the Chaos Emeralds for a change). The gimmick was you could trip signs that said either “past” or “future” in a given level. Travel fast enough after this, and you’d find yourself zipping either back or forward in time. This changed both the level design and aesthetic. Go forward and you’d find yourself in a dystopian future, the Sonic equivalent of Blade Runner, with a shitload of enemies and traps. Go back and you could find a prehistoric world with fewer enemies and a mysterious robot generator hidden in each. Blow this puppy up, go forward in time again, and you’d find yourself in a different “present” or future, featuring fewer traps, enemies, and generally good times. The effect was essentially four times the levels found in a normal game. About the only bad thing about this game was the unforgivable introduction of the hideous Amy Rose character, who will one day be boiled in oil if I have anything to say about it. And I will.

Ahem. Now, to mention the ridiculously great techno soundtrack, which was only available on the Japanese and European (which includes New Zealand) releases. For some reason, Sega, a notoriously arbitrary company, decided Americans weren’t quite ready for techno yet, and wrote shitty, shitty music for the Yank release. But the original music was mint. I haven’t even touched on the boss battles, which were probably the best of any Sonic game (bar Sonic 3 and Knuckles) and which culminated in a fantastic race-off between Sonic and the sinister Metal Sonic. Yeah. I’ve already said too much about this. Where can you play it? Well, unless you’ve got a Sega Mega CD lying about (unlikely) you’ll need to play it on PC CD-ROM on Windows, which sadly features only the crappy American music—it’s still possible to find in shops. Otherwise, your best bet is one of the many Sonic collections available for various consoles or the pirate-y realms of BitTorrent. Do play it.

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About the Author ()

The editor of this fine rag for 2009.

Comments (3)

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  1. vegiewegie says:

    so when will Victoria join the itunes u?
    i want the university to post recordings of lectures online now! well, this semester anyway.
    so what if i sleep in all day and up all night and miss classes.
    in doing an arts degree, the info i am learning is all on the internet anyway. but being at university provides a focus for what i am learning. and a helpful piece of paper at the end of it. so yes victoria uni management u would still be getting my fees (well, from studylink anyway), but it would just mean that studying would be so much easier for me. got an appointment or work at the same time as a lecture? easy, catch up online. when oh when uni?

  2. Nope. But Internet is essential for every thing, to learn about the Universe. Thanks for the share.

  3. Sando says:

    This year, the Film 101 class has had all of the live lectures recorded as virtual ones. Allowing just what vegiewegie was talking about. I think it’s fantastic, considering how large and popular that class is and how distance learning really does open up education to a range of people unable to attend a regular class.

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