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Interview with Harley Hahn

(December 1, 1999)


(The following interview was conducted by Stephanie Losi, the computer book editor at Borders.com, and was first published on the Borders.com Web site.)

STEPHANIE LOSI: Your book Harley Hahn's Internet Yellow Pages has been around for a long time. How did you come to write it?

HARLEY: I did the first edition back in 1994. At the time, the book was nothing more than a directory. Since then, it has evolved into an annotated guide to life.

My researchers and I have divided all of life into 172 different categories. For each category, we ask ourselves, "What are the most important topics we should cover?" We then do the research for each topic, looking for the best Web sites, Usenet discussion groups, and mailing lists.

For most topics, I write about the topic itself, not about specific Web sites. My goal is to teach, inform and amuse. I want people to think about new ideas and learn about topics they might never otherwise have encountered.

My book is the original Internet Yellow Pages. At one time, there were a number of other such books, but almost all of them are gone. The reason that mine is still around is that it has changed with the Net. The book is primarily a book of knowledge, not a computer book. Only a handful of categories have something to do with computers. For the most part, it's a book about life.

I found the Yellow Pages to be vast and comprehensive. There is certainly a lot to read. What are your favorite parts of the book?

I like the introductions. For each new edition, I write a new introduction, and I print all of them at the beginning of the book. They are meant to be read from newest to oldest and, taken together, they form a continuing story — a serial in which a new installment is published once a year. The story deals with time travel, the changing of reality, and the very nature of the Internet.

Within the main body of the book, there are a lot of sections I like and that I enjoy reading. My goal is, for every important topic, to offer a short, but interesting discussion.

For example, for the 2000 (Millennium) edition, I completely rewrote all the mainstream religion topics. I am especially proud of this section. I wrote it to give everyone a quick, meaningful introduction to the world's most important religions.

Over the years, it has been my observation that people are — by their nature — inquisitive and intelligent. People are not dummies. It seems to me that this is a major theme I see throughout all your books.

Yes, I think you are right. If you take a look at my book Harley Hahn Teaches the Internet you will see that it is written to appeal to the best in people. It has always been my goal to help people ask good questions, and then to answer those questions well.

What I want to do is show the smart, engaged reader what he or she needs to understand to use the Net well, and how to think about the most important ideas.

I like your small book, Harley Hahn's Readme First Guide to the Internet. It's so cute and accessible. Does it have the same type of emphasis?

Yes, although the scope of the book is different.

For a long time now, I have always had some book or another available whose purpose is to be the definitive exposition as to what an intelligent person needs to know about the Internet. In years past, the book was The Internet Complete Reference, of which I did two editions. A couple of years ago, I changed publishers, and I wrote a brand new book, Harley Hahn Teaches the Internet, to take the place of the old one.

People have always responded well to these books, but I realized that there were many newcomers to the Net who really want a short introduction. That is the goal of the Readme First book: to be the first thing you read when you start using the Net. The book is small and accessible, and has proven to be a lot more popular than we expected.

The title intrigues me. Is "Readme" one word?

Yes, it is. I took it from the idea that, when you install software, you will often see a file called "readme.txt" with important information you should read before you start to use the program.

However, so many people are spelling "Readme" as two words, I may have to change it in the next edition.

Can we expect more Readme First books (or Read Me First books)?

Yes. I just need to figure out which books people need the most, so I can prioritize.

I know that people read your books to learn, and I love the way you explain things, but the more I know you, the more I think of you as a visionary. So I'd like to spend a few moments talking about the future.

Your wish is my command.

As recently as the early 1990s, ninety percent of the people using the Net were computer nerds sharing software and talking about computers.

Do you think the time will come when people will forget that the Internet is actually based on computers?

You know, Stephanie, we may be getting close to that time already. I'm sure you know that the Internet was originally started as a way to share computer resources over large distances. And even as recently as the early 1990s, ninety percent of the people using the Net were computer nerds sharing software and talking about computers.

And the other ten percent?

Computer nerds talking about science fiction.

But now?

Now there is more computer-related material than ever before, but it is only a small percentage of what is actually happening on the Internet. The reason is clear: the Internet is now for everyone. It has evolved from a tool for computer people to a worldwide system of people, information, and communication facilities.

So, yes, although we still need some type of computer to become part of the Internet, we are starting to see it as an entity on its own, independent of the hardware. When you go to the movies, for example, do you think about the film or the projector or the screen? Or do you immerse yourself in the experience?

The Internet takes you further. Not only can you immerse yourself in the experience, you can participate and you can have some control over that experience — both for yourself and for other people.

I wonder, how do you see this all in terms of people's consciousness of the Internet's underlying structure? It seems to me that people will start to take it all for granted, and forget what's underneath making everything work.

You're right, and to some extent this is already happening.

To many of us, the Internet is new and unusual. I grew up before was common for people to have their own computer, long before there was an Internet. But today's kids and tomorrow's kids are going to grow up with the Internet. They will have no memory of a time before computers, video games, large-screen digital TVs, fast Internet access, and so on.

Consider what you do for a living, Stephanie. From my point of view, you have a brand new job — one that didn't even exist a couple of years age. But one day, when you have children, your kids are going to grow up in a world in which it will be normal for them to say that their mother is a Web site editor for an online bookstore.

In fact, they will probably think you have an old-fashioned, traditional job. And that's just fine. It's normal that, as we become more sophisticated collectively, we forget the details of what came before us, and we take the existing technology for granted.

So what are you saying? Human beings are going to forget how the Internet works?

Yes, exactly.

Of course, there will always be some people — the technicians and the programmers — who will learn the details, but for most people, the Internet will just be something that is.

Think about the telephone system. You and I both grew up with that technology, and we take it for granted. We expect that, any time we want, we should be able to pick up a phone and talk to anyone in the world. We use the telephone system, we take it for granted, we depend on it, and yet very few of us really understand how it works.

Now think about your computer. Who do you know that understands what's inside the chips? Who do you know that can explain how a hard disk works?

And in the future?

In the future, there will be computers everywhere. They will be small, cheap, and powerful enough that we can have as much computer power wherever we want, whenever we want. When I was an undergraduate student, a megabyte of memory cost a million dollars. Today, you can't even buy a computer that has as little as one megabyte of memory.

It won't be that long before the last person who remembers before there was an Internet will die. And when that time comes, there will be no one alive who remembers a time before the whole world was wired. People will just take it for granted, the way we take fire, wheels, and machines for granted today.

In the future, the Internet will be everywhere and nobody will remember its origins. What if we asked your parents to tell us about color TV: When did it start? How does it work? Who first popularized it? They probably wouldn't remember, and it will be the same with the Internet. People are going to forget where the Internet came from. It will be like the air. It will just be there.

In 500 years, nobody will understand where the Internet came from, who built it, or why it's there. Its origins will be lost in antiquity, and people will study them as history. There will be legends and stories, but basically, people will simply take it for granted that there is something that connects everything and everybody.

In 500 years, you may not be able to tell the difference between the Internet and God.

So you are saying that...

In 500 years, you may not be able to tell the difference between the Internet and God.

Whew! That's a provocative thought. But what does this all mean for us right now?

Right now, we are laying a foundation for something that is going to be marvelous and complex for ages and ages to come. You and I are living in a unique time. We are just the right age at the right time, so as to live through the only period in history in which there was a "before the Internet" and an "after the Internet".

Will the way we use the Internet change over time?

It will, but the basic idea will remain the same: the purpose of the Internet is to connect us, and, by doing so, to create something brand new. Something that will lead us into the next phase of human evolution.

What about ecommerce?

Ecommerce is important, but the Internet is not about money. It's not about buying and selling, it's not about advertising, and it's not about commercial broadcasting.

There was a time, not too long ago, when the Internet was exciting. That feeling seems to have died down for a while, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that so many people have started to think of the Internet as a money machine.

The power of the Internet does not lie in the fact that you can use it for buying and selling. The Internet is important because it allows people to connect to one another. I think that, once all this money stuff dies down, people will start to realize exactly what is out there. And when that happens, the Internet will become more interesting and more important that we can even imagine.

The Internet contributes an enormous amount to human happiness, but not through money. The business of the Internet is not business.

After reading your books, I think of you as an "explainer" more than anything else. Has your mission changed as the Internet itself has changed?

My mission — to explain complex ideas to intelligent people — hasn't changed. However, my writing and my approach has evolved.

My job is to take one giant step back and look for the patterns: to understand what's going on in a grand sense, and then explain it to other people. To show my readers what is important, what they need to know, and help them begin to think about it all. To me, it was a lot more exciting to use the Internet when it was new, but it's more exciting, and more satisfying, to write about it now.

As you mentioned earlier, we people who use the Internet aren't dummies. I believe that many people do want to take the time and put in the effort to learn about the Internet, how it works and how to use it. Human beings are learning machines. A lot of people forget that, but it's true. As long as you are alive, you need to be learning.

I totally agree with you. The Internet does foster learning, and it is so important. I have always loved to learn, but somehow, that love was killed by the time I finished school.

However, the very first time I used the Internet — years ago — I felt an excitement that is hard to explain. And, ultimately, the Internet restored my love of learning.

I understand completely. By our nature, we are social animals who love to learn, and the Internet helps us bring out the best in ourselves.

So do you have a plan for us to follow?

Sure, it's simple. First, turn off your TV. Second, start to use the Net. Third, buy one of my books (laughs).

Seriously. I would like to encourage everyone to turn off their TV set. The excitement you talked about earlier, what you felt when you discovered the Internet — that feeling is the opposite of what people experience when they watch TV.

You mentioned that people are social animals. Is the Internet good for relationships, or does it cause problems?

The Internet can cause problems when people aren't used to it and their real relationships suffer. Like anything else, if you do it too much, connecting to the Internet can be bad for you.

Of course, the same thing can be said for potato chips and watching movies. The thing is, for smart people, the Internet is far more seductive than potato chips or movies.

Having friends imposes certain responsibilities. You need to learn how to be social in person, and you must have good manners and follow various rules of etiquette. You remove a lot of that when you only relate to people through the Internet. It's the lazy man's way out. Socially, the Internet lets you get away with a lot, and that's not good for people and for society as a whole.

Connecting to the Internet is wonderful, and we are blessed that we can do it, but we do have to deliberately get out of the house and do stuff. If you find yourself spending too much time online, my advice is to take a break. Go outside and get some fresh air. Talk to a real person. the Internet will be there when you get back.

How does someone know if he or she is spending too much time on the Internet?

If you find yourself wondering if you are spending too much time on the Internet, you are.

Tell me about the good side of the Internet. How does it help relationships?

The Internet is the ultimate level playing field, where the only way you can really discriminate among people is by intelligence.

The wonderful thing about the Net is that, when you talk seriously to people online, the only thing they really care about are your ideas. No one cares what you look like, whether you're rich or poor, whether you have a Ph.D. or are a high school dropout.

The Internet is the ultimate level playing field, where the only way you can really discriminate among people is by intelligence. This is what makes the Internet so comfortable for many people who otherwise have trouble fitting in. On the Internet, you are accepted for who you really are.

Do you make friends on the Internet?

Absolutely. Let me give you an example.

Some time ago, I got mail from a woman named Madeleine Begun Kane. Madeleine is a humorist who writes columns for various publications. She got the Yellow Pages and liked it, and she wrote to tell me that the only important thing missing from the book was her Web site (laughs).

Madeleine was a serious oboe player for 15 years; she was a lawyer, and now she's a humorist. She lives in New York with her husband, and she and I have become friends. When I have problems I write to her, and she gives me sympathy and advice. She writes and tells me about her life and gives me ideas. When Madeleine first wrote me, I hadn't even heard of her. Now, I'm one of her biggest fans. I even wrote a humorous article for her Web site.

Without the Internet, how would I ever get to meet someone like Madeleine? If I went to New York and sat next to her on the subway, how would I even know it was her? It's such a wonderful thing to be able to meet someone so talented and intelligent.

In the years I have been using the Internet, I have been able to meet many such people, all over the world. I have friends in Canada, Austria, Holland, England, China, Germany, Ireland and across the U.S. Such friends are the jewels of my life. Moreover, I get letters from my readers all over the world, from many, many countries. In fact, without exception, all my researchers are people who found me via the Internet.

Although many people have access to the Internet, many others do not. I have heard you talk about an information underclass. Will the time come when the Internet is so widely available that the dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots fade away?

Yes and no. The time will come when anyone who wants will be able to connect to the Internet. But in order for this to happen, there must be fast, reliable, and affordable Internet connections everywhere. There must also be fast, reliable, and affordable computers. Although it looks as if we are making great progress in this direction, there are some important problems that are going to surface soon.

We all know that computer technology changes rapidly, and that personal computers and Internet software becomes obsolete quickly. For example, no one who has a choice would want to use a computer system that is more than two or three years old.

I see a lot of money being spent today to put computers in schools, libraries, and, to a lesser extent, into the homes of low income people. However, what's going to happen in three years when all those computers need to be replaced and all that software needs to be upgraded?

Today, computers cost about $40 a month. By that I mean that if you save $40 per month, in two years you'll have enough money to buy a new computer — at which time you'll find yourself with a new version of the operating system and all new software.

To me, it is shortsighted to buy a computer without thinking about your next computer, and this idea must be considered when we talk about eliminating the have-nots from our information underclass. The have-nots are not going to turn into haves until there is some way for them to upgrade their computers and their software every two to three years.

One way to do this would be to have the government start a program to make computers universally available. However, such a program would be fraught with terrible problems. To me, the best solution is to simply encourage people to save $40 a month.

So say we have universal access to the Internet and everyone who wants a computer is able to have one. I have a feeling this will not be enough to eliminate the information underclass.

You are correct, because even when people have a computer and fast access to the Internet, they still need to know how to use their computer well, and how to use the Internet well.

Our hardware technology may improve to the point where you don't need a new computer every few years. However, I can't conceive of a time when you won't be able to draw a line between haves and have-nots based on tools, motivation, and skill.

In the future, even if Internet access becomes ubiquitous, there will still be an information underclass: people who are at a significant disadvantage because they do not have the knowledge, the motivation, or the intelligence to learn how to use the Internet well.

When I read your books, I feel that they are personal, even though you often deal with highly technical subjects. I feel as if I'm sitting with my favorite uncle, who is explaining something important to me. How did you come to develop this style?

My books are open, straightforward and personal, because that's the type of man I am. But there is more to it than that.

As a general rule, the more technical and impersonal a system is, the more it needs to be balanced by something non-technical and personal. High-tech must be balanced by low-tech, and because we are social animals, this means that interactions with computers must be balanced by communication with other human beings.

Here is an example. Most supermarkets have computerized scanning systems at the checkout counters. The bulk of the work is done quickly and efficiently by the computer. This is fine, but it is important that the computer-mediated experience be balanced by a friendly, pleasant checkout person.

When a computerized system is not balanced properly, we all become uncomfortable. Just think about what it is like to call a company for information and find yourself immersed in a completely automated phone menu system. As you wade through the menus, step after step, it doesn't take long to get to the point where all you want is a simple way to contact a real human being. And if you are finally able to reach such a person, you are not going to be happy unless he or she is especially courteous. As we all know, after going fifteen rounds in phone menu hell, even the slightest bit of rudeness on the part of a live operator is going to be irritating.

Our world is becoming increasingly impersonal and technical, and whenever you find yourself in such an environment, niceness becomes very important. Similarly, when you read a technical book, I believe it is a lot more pleasant when the person who is teaching you is warm and friendly.

As I said, I write like that because I am like that, but I also believe that, from time to time, we all need a friendly uncle to sit down with us and explain why things are the way they are — someone more experienced who we trust, who can put life in perspective, show us what is important, and help us learn to think about things well.

(laughs) Okay, Uncle Harley, do you have any final comments?

Yes. I see the human race as undergoing a large, important evolutionary step, and I believe the Internet is the most important component of that process.

My goal, as a writer and explainer, is to do more than teach: I want to inspire my readers to learn, to think and to participate. I like to think that I am writing the kind of books that, say, Benjamin Franklin would be writing if he were alive today.

And if Benjamin Franklin were writing today, we certainly wouldn't be putting his books in the computer section of the bookstore.

Exactly.