I’m in the Louvre, riffling through the pages of the medieval book of hours Les Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Barry. I move my index finger and I’m at a rave in El Paso. I move it again and I’m hovering in outer space, watching a storm erupt on the surface of Saturn. Again, and I’m in the guts of a frog, charging through ganglia.
Where I really am is on the World Wide Web, and I’m thinking how much Jorge Luis Borges would have been digging this if he were alive today. Borges was a South American writer who specialized in droll, metaphysical fictions: He wrote one story about an infinite library full of books and endless corridors. He wrote another about a tiny time-space anomaly under a man’s cellar stairs through which it was possible to see everything in the universe all at once. Borges would feel very much at home on the Web.
Imagine a hotel on the Internet, with thousands of rooms occupied by huge businesses and lonely teenagers, by government agencies and Simpsons fanatics, by artists and charlatans. Everyone gets to decide what their own room will look like and which other rooms will be next door. The result is a wonderful cacophony of interior design. Simply put, the World Wide Web is a growing subsection of the Internet that lets you locate information without having to type arcane computer commands. Instead, you click on a highlighted word or image on the screen and you’re there — ”there” being another Web page in the same city or even on the other side of the planet.
All you need is a computer, a modem, an Internet connection, and a chunk of software called a browser — think of it as glasses through which you can see the Web. The one concession to computer gobbledygook: Each Web page has an address called a URL, or Universal Resource Locator, a flurry of letters and punctuation you must type in to call up a page. Once there, however, you can save the address to a menu and from then on you’re only a mouse click away.
One of the most fervid activities on the Web is making pages of links to other interesting pages, which eliminates the need for URLs. Sometimes it seems as if every college kid in the country has slapped up a page full of links to take you to on-line comics, government databases, heavy-metal sound files, financial services, or flat-out weirdness.
Here’s one of my recent Web wanderings: I start at the Buena Vista Movieplex (its URL is http://bvp.wdp.com/ BVPM/MooVPlex.html), where I scope publicity shots from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Houseguest(I’d download a trailer, but it takes forever for three minutes of footage to squeeze through phone wire). Then I check out my Tarot card reading for the day (http: //cad.ucla.edu/repository/useful/tarot. html): Better duck and cover. From there I enter NASA (http://www.gsfc. nasa.gov/hqpao/hqpao^home.html) to ( look at photos of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Then it’s off to the Ultimate Band List (http://american.recordings. com/wwwofmusic/ubl.html), with links to hundreds of musical Internet sites. I ricochet over to a Sarah McLachlan fan page (http://watt.seas.virginia.edu/ jds5s/music/sarah/sarah.html) — lyrics, photos, music samples, and interviews — and Northwestern University’s amazing Jazz Information Server (http://www.acns.nwu. edu/jazz/). In a shopping mood, I stop at an on-line record store, CDNow! (http://cdnow.com/), before sampling a wry interactive detective story called The Doomsday Brunette (http:// zeb.nysaes. cornell.edu/ddb.cgi POV).
Are there any glitches? Sure. You can wait an eternity for a page to load, and occasionally it won’t load at all. You get a sense of what it must have felt like to own a television set in 1946. And just how much of this information do you actually need? For now, that doesn’t really matter: The sheer variety of voices is mesmerizing.
Because there are no real rules yet for building a website, the thousands of individuals and companies around the globe who are doing so are forced to tap their own imaginations. In 10 years the Web may well be a dull thing, tamed by government and big business. As of this moment, it’s Borges’ Library of Babel rethought, resplendently, as a canvas of mass creativity. Getting lost in it isn’t a problem. It’s the point.