The Internet Genie

Friday, May 06, 2011

It's easy to take technology that has been around for a while for granted, but there's nothing like getting out of a small bind to renew one's sense of wonder. The Internet is no different, which is astounding since it has helped me change my life in so many ways for the better. Nevertheless, that happened a couple of weeks ago.

Over the winter, Mrs. Van Horn had to work northwest of town, in the nearest location not easily reached by Boston's extensive transit system. (Otherwise, we would need a car roughly once a month, living in the middle of everything as we do.) Fortunately, her parents lent us a car for the purpose, which we will still have for a few more weeks, before we return it. Unfortunately, on one of her first commutes, we learned that the wife's winter driving skills weren't ready for prime time. She spun out on an exit ramp and dinged her dad's car. Perhaps "crunched" is a better word: She managed to knock out most of a tail light housing without so much as denting or scratching anything else! Indeed the damage was all cosmetic, and the tail light actually remained functional. Loads of good news, there.

The damaged tail light assembly was, however, that of a Mercedes, which meant that it would still be expensive to replace. With the time to return the car approaching, I hopped onto the Internet to price the part and order it. I'd either install it myself or take it to Pep Boys, which allows customers to bring their own parts to their shop. The part was over two hundred dollars, not including shipping.

"Jeez, I wish I could just find the thing at a junk yard," I thought. Not really expecting to find anything useful, I tossed the phrase "internet junkyard" into Google and visited the top search result, I filled in their parts request form and, before I even had time to log in to the email account I use for such purposes, I got a phone call from a junk yard in a nearby state. They had the part for one hundred dollars and I'd have it the following week.

Relieved at the price, I went ahead and placed the order. The part arrived and I had the car looking good as new after a stop at Pep Boys. All told, I was out for about one hundred and fifty dollars, and had spent no time hunting for or retrieving the part. Had I been more patient, I probably could have sifted through the handful of emails I also got, and fielded a few more calls to save another ten or twenty bucks, but it didn't occur to me at the time to do that.

I have to admit that I am surprised that I had low expectations before I searched: I use the Internet for things like this all the time. I first learned about Linux -- itself made possible though the Internet -- through an article on the Internet and routinely find answers to computing questions already posted before I even need to ask. (And once, when I did need to ask, a guy from Iceland answered me and had me running again within an hour.) I know scores of people I otherwise wouldn't because of the Internet. I occasionally collaborate on writing projects through the Internet. Once, when I was preparing my candidacy exam in grad school, I was stumped on a technical issue and not even sure that what I wanted to do was possible. Out of desperation, I formulated an Internet search -- really, a specification for what I needed. The search results showed me that, not only was my idea workable, but a company called Invitrogen was marketing exactly the kind of product I needed to make my proposal work.

For all of these things, there are or were other ways to accomplish the same goal, but they all cost more in terms of actual time or money (which is really stored time). The Internet has been around for long enough that I can't tell you whether I like it more for saving me time, or more because it has made me impatient by causing me to expect to be able to acquire knowledge or goods so quickly.

-- CAV


Kyle Haight said...

The essential characteristic of the internet is its dramatic reduction in the transaction costs of information exchange. Virtually all of the cultural, political, educational, personal and economic impacts of the internet are based on this effect in one way or another, from the increase in telecommuting to the rise of narrowly-targeted sexual fetish communities.

It's a fascinating process to watch, and (given that I have been a professional software engineer working in the networking industry for the last decade) personally gratifying.

Gus Van Horn said...

Yes. I can't help but wonder how badly-off we'd be today without it (but still with our government's foolish economic policies).

I'm certainly glad (and grateful) that people like yourself can do well by doing good!