by Peter Black
Random House, $22.95, 398 pp.
Learning about the Web from a book is like teaching yourself to swim on dry land. Sure, you might grasp the theory, but you’ll never really get it until you dive — or plug — in.
So I was a bit surprised when I found myself thoroughly enjoying Informatica 1.0, a new encyclopedia subtitled "Access to the best tools for mastering the information revolution."
Author Peter Black’s weighty and comprehensive tome covers more than just the Net. In addition to Web site picks, the elegantly designed paperback highlights all sorts of nifty gadgets, books and software.
But rather than settle for a simple guidebook, Black — who sports advanced degrees in both linguistics and Sanskrit — dedicates his book to "the pursuit of something better." His learned-yet-folksy tone offers a uniquely humanistic perspective on our society’s growing obsession with all things that blink and whir.
In doing so, he sparks the imagination and hints at future possibilities. As such, Informatica 1.0 is the closest thing to a technologically optimistic state of the union address I’ve seen. And it’s also extremely fun to read.
Informatica 1.0 is divided into five sections: Hardware, software, paperware (books), plasticware (videos, compact discs and DVDs) and sources (Web sites).
Each section highlights a variety of interesting, quirky and otherwise compelling products, or "tools," as Black calls them.
Informatica 1.0 is amazing in its breadth. Think Whole Earth Catalog with an information-age spin and you’ve got the concept. You’ll find handheld ultraviolet sensors, software-based atomic clocks, Web archives of molecular imagery and even a brief review of Robert Greene’s infamous The 48 Laws of Power.
The entries are short — rarely longer than a page. But even the smallest and most obscure listings are surprisingly insightful.
Take, for example, the entry in the hardware section about the Kestrel 2000, a tiny high-tech device that measures wind speed. Rather than just dryly noting what it does, we’re taught how it is used constructively every day — by parachutists, model-aircraft hobbyists and firefighters determining the spread of a blaze.
More surprisingly, Black glows about the crafting of these items in a decidedly low-tech way.
"Really fine products do exist," he writes. "Not everything is crappy, designed to fall apart after a few years."
It’s an Old World attitude that is downright fresh. And very appealing.
Despite its focus on specific products, Black also cleverly sidesteps the instant obsolescence inherent in most books of this type by focusing on basic principles rather than gimmickry. His "Ten Rules to Buy By" guide to computer hardware, for example, will likely still be valid in a few years because its suggestions (such as "Buy a slower processor and more RAM") show an underlying grasp of how present technology works and will likely grow.
Even in the hundreds of profiles recommending particular products, Black takes care to reveal why such a tool’s function is important in the modern world. In fact, one of the running technological in-jokes within Informatica 1.0 is its self-deprecating advice that "version 1.0" always stinks up the room.
"Once we get a couple of refined, elaborated and debugged versions out," notes Black, "Informatica 1.0 will look like the experimental prototype that it is."
Prototype or not, Black even covers that base. Informatica can be purchased with a bundled CD-ROM containing the entire book along with hyperlinks to the Internet. And Black plans to provide on-line updates from his Web site so Informatica will never go out of style.
But fashion is not what makes Informatica 1.0 really cool. Instead, it’s the historical and educational perspective it offers. Black laces his guidebook with Cold War anecdotes, lessons about radio wave theory and an ongoing history of cryptography. He even includes a reprint of the Army’s cyber security rules, used during NATO’s recent attack on Yugoslavia.
Plus, there are occasional, wonderfully appropriate entries on older products that remain relevant today (my favorite is Edmund Scientific’s mod-looking Astroscan 2001 hobbyist telescope from 1976).
Of course, Informatica is not perfect. Sometimes, its progressive, baby-boomer leanings creep too far. (Yes, the National Public Radio Web site is excellent, but please — leave that one for the Whole Earth crowd.)
And where, I ask, are the video games in this bible of technological minutiae?
Finally, Black inadvertently reveals a bit too much of his own interesting trivialities — with top-heavy sections on amateur astronomy and weather prediction.
But it’s all part of the intimate charm that Peter Black has lovingly programmed into Informatica 1.0. Like some former-hippie professor that the students all cherish because he’s still cool, Black gives us the backstory on our current cyber age.
He teaches us that if we forget the past, we’ll only see part of the present’s possibility. And best of all, he does it with personal anecdotes and a warm sense of humor that never sound patronizing. Informatica 1.0 reminds us that time for reflection — between the keystrokes — is just as important as plugging back in.