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It's a fact: The Internet makes everything easier

So this morning, I sat down at my desk thinking I might write something about how much I love the Internet—and not just because I did 80 percent of my Christmas shopping on it this year. That's one reason for my affection, but saying so would give the impression that I'm a shallow person. Not to mention lazy.

Anyway, I thought I'd start off in a sprightly manner with a quotation illustrating how, in the olden days, people wondered what home computers could possibly be used for. I vaguely remembered a suitably dopey line to that effect from an early Time magazine article about Steve Jobs—I'd seen it cited somewhere in the flood of stories that appeared after Jobs' death. I looked around for it briefly, but ran into Time's paywall, so I settled for this, which Google turned up on a quotation site: "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home," said by Ken Olson, co-founder, Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.

Oh, the irony. Except that Olson didn't mean it: He was a smart guy who, in this case, was quoted out of context. He was talking about the idea of using a computer to control all the systems in a house, Jetsons-style. I discovered this when I popped over to his Wikipedia page. And, no, you won't hear any Wikipedia jokes from me. That thing rocks.

While I was at it, I looked up a painting by Caravaggio—his first version of the "Supper at Emmaus" (1601)—that I'd heard discussed on the radio while I was on my way back from the grocery store. Diane Rehm had said that you could see a Caravaggio on her talk show's website, which is considerate, but it made more sense just to type the name of the one I wanted into Google, click on the Wikipedia link (always conveniently situated at the top of the page)—and behold, there it was, along with Caravaggio's second, more-subdued treatment of the same subject in 1606. Needless to say, I pulled these show-offy dates from the Wikipedia entry, which was fine, but not nearly as interesting as what the author of a new Caravaggio biography had to say on the radio. So I ordered the book from Amazon.com. (Of course there's still a place for books—and other media help sell the good ones.)

What there is not as much of a place for is books and other old-school media that try to compete with the online experience. For example, I have recently been brushing up my (terrible) Italian by puzzling through articles on Wikipedia Italia, which, not surprisingly, has more and better entries on all things Italian than the Wikipedia in English. Reading these turns out to be pretty fantastic with Google Translate open in another tab, because you get to watch the translator work on an unfamiliar word or phrase as you type it in. And, of course, you can follow links and check out multiple photos of everything mentioned. It's a luxurious, gluttonous reading experience, one that a book—even a dual-language, illustrated one—couldn't come close to providing. I've always loved books with pictures and notes, and reading with all the illustrative and referential power of the Internet at my fingertips makes me very happy.

Here's why: I remember the dead-tree days really clearly. Many years ago, I first read Remembrance of Things Past during a summer on a fire lookout a couple of hours north of Globe. Marcel Proust loved art, and he mentions hundreds of paintings in the course of the novel, often comparing characters and landscapes to them—it's a sort of image-less illustrated narrative. All through that summer, I could only imagine what he meant when, say, a character sees a resemblance between a pregnant young maid and Giotto's fresco of Charity in the Arena Chapel in Padua.

Once I got back to town, I schlepped up to the fourth floor of the UA Main Library and hauled out a huge black-and-white double folio of images from the chapel, and I finally got to see what she looked like. That was then. Today, I—or a reader far from a major library—can type "giotto charity" into Google and see her almost instantly.

I just did it, for fun. I'm telling you, it's like a miracle.

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