On Friday, I visited with my aunt. For her birthday in May, my parents gave her her first computer, and she's learning how to use the Internet. She wants to be able to use skype, and she was also hoping to shop for books online. I want to help.
I used the Internet for the first time in 1996, at RIT. When I was leaving Russia for the first time, my dad told me that I could send letters to him at the office using fax and this new technology called "electronic mail." He tried to explain to me how it worked, but I stuck index fingers in my ears and said Stop-Stop-Stop, I can't listen to this right now, I don't want to know, too much new information, I don't get it, maybe I'll use fax, but I don't want to know anything about anything else. By this time, I had been using computers for five or six years. I'd played Formula One Grand Prix game and strip poker on our home computer, I knew how to program a growing snake game and asteroids in Basic and Pascal. I had earned a certificate at school qualifying me as a trained "computer operator." Nevertheless, computer was a black box, infinitely breakable, and thus hardly approachable. Every new thing I had to learn about it seemed like too much. Windows was a program I accessed from Norton Commander -- and I didn't really see the point of it. Did our home computer even have a mouse?
The days before my first trip to the US, I was overwhelmed by all the things I had to remember at the time: what to say to the customs officers if they had questions about my student visa, the names of the people who were going to meet me in New York and give me my tickets for the airplane to Rochester, the name and address of my host family in Rochester, the days when I had to show up at RIT for orientation, whom and in what order to contact in case of emergency, etc, etc. Everything seemed complicated and scary. But three days later, I was already emailing my dad from my host family's home computer: "Wow, this electronic mail, how amazing!" And another week later, I had an RIT vax account, and two dozen computers at the library with Netscape Navigator and webcrawler and lycos, and later yahoo, altavista, then metacrawler, google, and the entire history of the web.
Fourteen years later, the Internet seems to have gotten more complex and easier to use at the same time. For one thing, it's way faster. There are online bookstores in Russia and in Russian. But what we used to call "mystery meat" dominates the computer screen. Icons big and small come with either unfamiliar words or no words at all. Letter "S" for skype -- but what does "skype" mean? My aunt, who doesn't know English (she'd studied German), reads it as "scooreh." The only way to remember that this is the program she needs to use to call me is to write it down in a notebook. Letter "E" for Internet Explorer -- at least it says Internet, and this word is familiar enough to get by. Inside skype, it's easy to see where one types a text message (the cursor is blinking there), but how do you send a text? The blue button next to the box with the cursor has no words on it, but only a dialogue bubble with three horizontal lines. How can anyone know that this is a button, anyway?
Some things become clear almost right away: a word underlined in blue is a link, and moves you to another page. But how can you find what you're looking for on a page? There's text and pictures, some of them are flashing, and all of them seem to be located on a page randomly, in no particular order. I explain the menus, the navigation bars, the content field, what information is located where. A page entitled "Theatre Calendar" ends with "September" -- so where is the calendar for September? To get to it, you need to scroll down, I explain, but I don't remember the Russian word for "scroll," and so I say "press on this gray column over there, no not on the arrow part, on the light gray part above the arrow -- it's faster." Dragging and dropping is difficult, because it all goes by in a flash, and you have no idea where you're going to end up.
We go to Ozon.ru -- one of the biggest Russian online bookstores -- and immediately become overwhelmed by advertising that grows to take up the third of the screen. We use the left-hand column to navigate the catalog: books -> literature -> foreign literature -> English, Australian and New Zealand Literature -> Contemporary English, Australian and New Zealand Literature -> and, finally, get a listing: Marina Levitskaya "A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian," Tom Stoppard "The Coast of Utopia," Peter Ackroyd "The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein," Joe Dunthorne "Submarine," etc. With the exception of A Short History of Tractors, these are all the books that my aunt has seen in the bookstores around the city. A Short History of Tractors? Really? So this is what the Internet has to offer! No wonder people have been saying all these years that there's nothing on the Internet but trash. And it's so much easier to go to the bookstore!
My aunt is almost ready to cry Stop-Stop-Stop, this is too much, I don't need to know any of this, when I get an idea to show her Wikipedia. Wikipedia is one of the "cleanest" sites I can remember: there are almost no icons or pictures, it's mostly all text. We choose a language, Russian, and search for Handel. My aunt has recently been to a Handel concert, and he's on her mind. There are many Handels on Wikipedia, the program reports, but we're searching for George Frideric, the composer. We press on the blue underlined text and go to the right page. "Now I see why people like the computer so much," my aunt says, "It's talking to me!" This is good: Handel's biography is there, his portrait, a list of all his works. My aunt is particularly interested in Handel's oratorio "Messiah," and we go to the right page -- and voila (if we remember how to get to the bottom of the page), there are music clips there, and we're listening to the arias! The lesson is a success.