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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Editorials | Opinion

Elevation on the Internet

he Internet is technology's golden child, but it hasn't achieved its legendary potential. Too often the Web is seen only as a convenience - an easy place to shop, check stock quotes, read newspapers, or chat. Innovations are emerging, but they need research and development support.

One local example is the Perseus Project. Based at Tufts University, Perseus is a digital library of ancient world resources. From Hercules to Aristotle's texts, the project's mission is to bring its vast collection of writings, maps, pictures, temple floor plans, encyclopedia articles, and other materials to the widest audience possible. Two CD-ROMs have helped, but it's the Web site (www.perseus.tufts.edu) that reaches people, drawing 150,000 hits per day this spring.

The challenge of having reams of information is getting it into Internet-usable form. To do this, the project just got a $2.8 million grant from an odd alliance of federal agencies. The ''Digital Libraries Initiative - Phase Two'' unites the National Science Foundation and NASA with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress, among others.

In addition to expanding Perseus - with material on ancient Egypt and 19th century London - the grant will support research on how people use and learn from the Internet. This could help scholars devise on-line versions of their work that are appealing and accessible to the general public, helping fulfill the Internet's democratic promise.

What could be a cultural cousin to the Perseus digital library is another local project, a digital museum called ''Bringing History Home.''

While many museums have what amounts to digital brochures on line - illustrated sites listing hours and exhibits - this project would be a virtual museum. Narratives would immerse users in history's facts and emotions. A chilling example is one simulating the experience of 15-year-old Paul Revere Jr., left behind by his fleeing sisters and parents, Paul Sr. and Rachel, to try to keep the family house safe from marauding soldiers.

Running the project is the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. The content will draw on three local history museums: the Paul Revere Memorial Association, the Plimoth Plantation, and the Tsongas Industrial History Center. And technical expertise will come from the Center for Educational Computing Initiatives at MIT.

The $50,000 grant will pay for a prototype that should be operational in a year. Debunking stereotypes that the Internet breeds couch potatoes, planners see the virtual museum as a way to attract audiences to the real museum.

Another Internet invention comes from Web Lab, which supports new uses of communications technology. Funders include the Ford Foundation, the Public Broadcasting Service, among others.

Web Lab's projects can't be called digital libraries, museums, or other common nouns because they are unique - and as-yet unnamed - forms. A new site called ''NeedCom'' (www.pbs.org/weblab/needcom/), subtitled ''Market Research for Panhandlers'' is devised by California photographer Cathy Davies. This site exemplifies the word interactive. Visitors take a panhandling effectiveness survey - deciding based on photographs and sound clips how much money to give each of a group of panhandlers. The site gets users to review their criteria - how factors like race, gender, signs, clothing, point of contact, and verbal appeals affect their decisions.

The rest of the site is an information hybrid. Interviews of panhandlers detail how long they've been soliciting, why they do it, and daily ''salaries.'' Users who answer poll questions - such as ''Do you prefer panhandlers who perform a task for you, like opening a door?'' - can go to a page that compares their answers with the votes and comments of other visitors. It is a way, Davies says, for Web users to learn about themselves.

These and other innovative projects need aggressive, long-term support. Government agencies should be cheerleaders, supporting and disseminating the best projects, especially in schools. Private efforts are also key. Last week the Markle Foundation promised to invest $100 million to ensure that public needs are served by emerging media and communications technology.

More marriages are needed between information and technology to ensure the survival and growth of knowledge.

This story ran on page A16 of the Boston Globe on 08/02/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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