A few months ago we discussed distinctions between the Internet and the Matrix, and how various online providers and applications enter into the question. Let's look at a practical case that illustrates many of the points we made in that column.
Networks aren't just bits and bytes, and not all uses of them are academic research or for commercial profit. The Quarterman family uses them for a family history project.
Aunt Elsie, in between reviewing botany textbooks, is transcribing letters written by our great-great-grandmother and some of her children around 1885. Elsie's first cousin Helen the minister had kept them until last year, when she chose to deposit them with us. Picking them up involved David Leon, John, and Gretchen driving six hours one November into the mountains of north Georgia. John later distributed photocopies by paper mail to everybody concerned. Elsie transcribes the letters on her PC in WordPerfect and mails them through her CompuServe account.
Elsie mails them to a mailing list that John set up on the TIC systems in Texas. Elsie's mail goes there and is automatically copied to John in Austin, Texas, to David Leon in Athens, Georgia, to Gretchen in Buffalo, New York, and to Patrick and Elsie in Nashville. Tennessee. DL, John, and Gretchen get their copies over the Internet, and Patrick and Elsie get theirs through CompuServe, but any of us can send a message to the list and all of us get it.
http://www.tic.com/~jsq/chart/) in a manner that we like. We tested this program on several different computer platforms across the Internet, using FTP to deliver it and TELNET to run it.
Patrick, however, is still too far out on a limb of the worldwide Matrix of computer networks that exchange electronic mail to participate in this level of resource sharing. It would be very useful if he could see the formatted book online without waiting for DL to print a copy and mail it to him, especially considering that at 700 pages printing the whole thing has become nontrivial. But CompuServe doesn't permit TELNET or FTP. We could uuencode the book into a large number of mail messages and send it to him that way, but he wouldn't like to pay the resulting CompuServe bill.
We can use LifeLines to write the genealogical database in GEDCOM format and send that to Patrick. That's much smaller than the formatted book, and GEDCOM is the genealogical information exchange format universally used by all modern programs of this type; according to its documentation it is ``the GEnealogical Data COMmunication standard proposed by the Family History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and adopted by many developers and users of genealogical software.'' So Patrick can then examine the database, perhaps using The Master Genealogist (TMG) or Brother's Keeper or some other genalogical program that understands GEDCOM. But he can't format the book, unless he also gets copies of various ancillary Makefiles, shell scripts, etc. and essentially duplicates the environment on the master machine. Even then, he would have a duplicate, which leads to consistency problems between the two instantiations of the database that interactive remote access to a single master copy does not have.
So here you can see a practical illustration of the difference between what you can do with the Internet's interactive resource sharing protocols and what you can do if you only have electronic mail. Sure, theoretically Patrick could send pictures by mail and we could send the formatted book back that way, but in practice it ain't gonna happen. And there's no way he could log in by mail onto the computer with the database and directly format the book and interactively examine the source files and the output. Internet access is not just faster than mail-only access to the rest of the Matrix. Internet access is qualitatively different in large, clear, and important ways.
Now, this is not to say that CompuServe does not have its advantages: it does. For example, there is a CompuServe genealogy forum, with participants in asynchronous conferencing from around the world. On that forum Patrick found a researcher in Maryland who helped us follow up a lead on some possible ancestors. He has also gotten software off of CompuServe that has been of use in his enhancements of the photographs, as well as advice on which techniques would be most useful. He says he got the most help from the mail various people send back and forth.
We've also found Prodigy useful, because another cousin has a Prodigy account, and he answers his mail. CompuServe and Prodigy have large audiences for conferencing and is a useful source of software and other files. But for a project such as this Quarterman family history that requires distributed access to remote computing resources, CompuServe and Prodigy are not practical; you can't use either one to log in on another subscriber's computer. And for frequent exchange of large specialized files, they're just too expensive, because they charge by size of transfer, not by bandwidth. For resource sharing you can't beat the Internet.
It will be especially interesting to see what happens with online genealogy now that people are starting to adapt genealogical databases to the world wide web. After all, few types of information are more adapted to hypertext: every family relationship is a potential web link. It's already trivial to dump a GEDCOM database into a set of HTML files, one per person. This method provides only static links, however. Look for web genealogy using a database engine like LifeLines to generate links on the fly. Some examples are already available; see http://www.tic.com/gen.html.