July/August 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 4
From the start I resented computers even more than most people who have been bushwhacked by them in middle age. This is because a good friend was so wholly in their thrall that whenever we spoke, I would hear about some new piece of hard- or software he had acquired, the information always imparted with an awful, self-aggrandizing gravity. “Interface,” he’d say in a tone that would have been appropriate to one charged with making some final modifications in the Manhattan Project. “Modem.”
I would respond with all the righteous purity of total ignorance. The horrible new vocabulary he’d developed was proof enough that computers were corrupting the language, I told him; and, indeed, they would likely end by destroying literacy altogether. (This prediction sprang from the sight of my ten-year-old son transfixed for hours before the screen playing various games in which people run forever through post-apocalyptic landscapes dodging fireballs and thrown hatchets to the accompaniment of chirps and plonks.)
“Internet,” said my friend, by way of refutation. I had no idea what he was talking about then, but I do now, and he was right. It seems that nobody in my profession can dodge a modem forever; I got mine a month ago and, guided by the managing editor, Fred Alien (for whom computers hold no secrets), ventured into the strange, hectic silences of the Internet. As has been amply noted, it’s a place of fury and tedium and sexual obsessions, but everything that floats around there had to be composed first, and it clearly incarnates an age in which written communication is flourishing as much as ever it did in the Victorian era. I also discovered, to my surprise, an energetic discussion of historical matters.
I found, for instance, a debate about which was the worst fighter-bomber of World War II. One participant nominated the British Swordfish biplane but suggested perhaps it should be exempted because it did, after all, cripple the great German pocket battleship Bismarck . “You cannot count Brewster Buffalo,” said someone else, “because Finnish pilots used it against Russians with great success....” There was a fairly strong consensus for the Fairey Battle: “The Battle was designed around the Rolls-Royce Griffon engine—not the same outstanding engine that powered the late-model Spitfire, among others, but an earlier project for a 1,600 hp engine. When this project failed, there was no replacement engine for the Battle except the Merlin, giving less than 1,000 hp. … The problem was that the aircraft industry in Britain had been so neglected between the wars that there simply wasn’t anything else in enough numbers.”
Elsewhere in the ether (or whatever it is) I came upon a dense and very high-level discussion about what sorts of compromises in the decade before the Civil War might have averted the test of arms. (One argument concluded, “Some reasonably equitable division, such as Cuba and Caribbean islands go slave, Mexico doesn’t, could have been reached and adhered to.” The reply: “You were planning to acquire Mexico?”)
These sorts of debates make me optimistic about our own first appearance on-line. A few months ago the “American Heritage Picture Gallery” made its debut on Prodigy. Madeline Rogers, who edits Seaport , the excellent magazine published by New York City’s South Street maritime history center, has drawn on American Heritage ’s massive picture collection (we have perhaps three hundred thousand images; nobody knows for sure) to assemble and annotate shows that change weekly. As I write this, viewers can see various weapons of World War I, ranging from some American submarines that were far more perilous to their own crews than they were to the German Navy to a wonderful tank made entirely out of flowers for the 1918 Tournament of Roses parade. Recently a particularly popular show detailed our long and inglorious history of resenting immigrants. At about the time you’re reading this you should be able to call up pictures chronicling the end of World War II in the Pacific. As each show is supplanted by its successor, it joins a growing archive; after a year there will be some five hundred pictures to choose from.
So please look us up, and then, if you are more confident than I, you can go on to join the debate about the worst fighter-bomber.