Salon 21st: The online life-line: By Andrew Leonard. Forget those tech-support phone numbers. Only the Net can answer the zillion questions and solve the endless problems generated by today's computer technology.

Published June 29, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

The tech-support line is busy, your personal computer guru is AWOL and the manual is a jargon-laden mess. Precious days of your life are frittering away while you labor through the mysteries of com port configuration. Perhaps, you think, the time has finally come to opt out of the digital revolution.

Before you pull the plug on your computer, consider the possibilities of the Net. Because when it comes to solving technical problems, the truth is out there, somewhere.

Sure, once upon a time, asking an innocent technical question on the Internet could easily provoke the flames of Net-wrath: RTFM -- "Read The F---ing Manual." But today, manuals are nearly as extinct as pterodactyls, and even when they do exist, they aren't up to date and don't answer your question. Forget about RTFM; that's ancient history. It's time to RTFN -- read the f---ing Net.

Start at the beginning. Did you read the FAQ? It's the primal admonition of netiquette: When in doubt, make a "frequently asked question" file the first stop in your quest for knowledge. Netiquette may seem like a quaint notion in these days of spam wars and no-holds-barred cyber-commercialism, but the basic concept is sound advice -- more survival strategy than good manners. Seek wisdom from the distributed knowledge base that is the Net -- the FAQs and mailing lists, newsgroups, chat rooms and Web pages. Sure, the Net is a festival of chaotic anarchy, fraught with misinformation and rumor. It's also probably your only hope.

The sad truth about the age of information is that questions are outnumbering answers. In the realm of computer hardware and software, corporations simply aren't coping -- certainly not now, and maybe not ever. Technical support departments, despite ballooning budgets, are overloaded and often unreachable by the little-guy consumer.

Meanwhile, the problem-solving capacity of the millions of linked minds that comprise the Net simply grows and grows. It is the only beast big enough to enjoy a chance of successfully grappling with the onslaught of bugs and glitches, configuration problems and upgrade patches, shortcuts and workarounds. And it is at least as trustworthy as actual corporate helping hands, which are often tied behind the back by marketing considerations.

The technical support problem is no nit-picking whine -- it's a sinkhole threatening to swallow the entire computer industry. Personal computer companies spend billions of dollars annually on support services. A survey last year by the firm Dataquest found that the ratio of support technicians to total employees had increased from one in 12 to one in six over the last seven years, and the numbers continue to rise.

As Sally Campbell, director of the Software Support Professionals Association, jokes, by early in the next century, "everyone in the world will be employed by the technical support industry." And even that won't do the trick.

Computers are getting more problematic to deal with, not less. The interwoven interactions of hundreds and thousands of hardware and software components have created levels of complexity beyond any single corporation's capacity to resolve them. Compatibility conflicts alone are a hydra-headed monster -- solve one, and 10 more pop up.

Those with the resources can purchase 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, premium support plans, but for the lone pilgrim seeking computer salvation, the scenario is grim. The computer industry risks being the victim of its own mass-market success: No corporation, not even the mighty Microsoft, can answer everyone's questions, all the time, cheaply.

Only the Net can. It has no effective size limitations. Its pool of participants has encountered or will encounter every possible problem. Providing technical support, in fact, is one of the things the Net was designed to do. Core Net components -- like the Usenet newsgroups -- were originally intended to facilitate the exchange of technical information (in Usenet's case, to help tackle problems with the Unix operating system).

As far back as 1982, Eugene Miya, a researcher at NASA, took advantage of the Net's inherent capacities when he wrote the very first FAQ -- a compilation of answers to frequently asked questions about the space program. Miya, who coined the term FAQ, and who to this day maintains FAQs for such Usenet groups as rec.climbing, posted his file to the old ARPAnet mailing list "space-digest." His motivations weren't merely altruistic; he was fed up with the info status quo.

"Questions kept coming up again and again," says Miya. "And people would post answers that were just out-and-out wrong. This really irked me."

Little did he realize that FAQs would become an indispensable component of cyberspace. FAQs are now everywhere -- fixtures on corporate Web sites as well as independent newsgroups and mailing lists. They are the first stabs at taming the Net's jungle of teeming data. At their best, they are gateways, offering pointers to more information, advice on how to proceed through technological labyrinths. They are not confined to technical information, as Miya's own FAQs demonstrate, but their utility is perhaps most vital in that area.

Those who recognize the power of the Net as a source for technical problem-solving swear by it. "I began technical support about two years before the Web became a force and I must say that it has been by far the most beneficial tool for support that I've ever had," says Greg Francis, an academic support specialist at Gonzaga University. "The ability for it to provide not only answers but also software updates, manuals, etc. is a major benefit. There's no way that a [corporate] knowledge base could provide as many answers as up-to-date as the Web can."

Welcome to the power of parallel processing, the joy of distributed systems. The annals of cyberspace abound with testimony as to how one is more likely to find solutions to nagging problems from sources such as the Windows Annoyances Page or the High-speed Modem FAQ than at the Microsoft KnowledgeBase or from a modem manufacturer's tech support lines.

Of course, Greg Francis and those other Net devotees who, as one support technician noted, "can't remember what it was like to find information before the Net" start out with a lot more expertise than the majority of troubled computer users. Is the Net for everyone?

"For the power users, it's a slam-dunk, it's the way to go," says Mikael Blaisdell, vice president of strategic operations at Knowledge Services, a support company. "The problem is that there are some questionable assumptions there -- A, that everyone is on the Web; B, that even if they were on the Web they'd be capable of diagnosing their abilities; C, that even if they were capable, they can use the search engines; and lastly, even if they made it that far, that they would be able to implement the solutions they found."

Blaisdell, a board member of the Association of Support Professionals and the moderator of several Compuserve support forums, makes good points. The Net's myriad resources offer little utility, for example, to someone who can't even get online, much less navigate the mysteries of cyberspace once connected. And there will surely always be people who need to have their hand held by a real human being -- if they can get one.

And the Net has its own problems.

"I find Internet research a bit like trying to find someone's phone number that I know has a 4, a few 7s and a 9 in it by dialing all the possible combinations," says Michael Mortlock, the director of business services at the Boca Raton Resort & Club. "It's horribly unorganized, and hard to guess the reliability, intent and identity of many of the resources. [It's useful] only if you consider your own time as worthless."

To which one might respond that time spent bootstrapping from peon to power user is time well-invested indeed. But Mortlock's poke at the reliability issue stabs at another seeming sore point. For every fan of the Net, there's another who sees cyberspace as a rumor-mongering fen of untruths, urban folklore and malicious juvenile delinquency.

"The Net is also the leading supplier of misinformation," says Tom Heisey, a manager of support services at Texas Tech University.

Yes, there are lies on the Net, false and bad information, patches that don't work, manuals that are out-of-date. But the Net has no monopoly on misinformation. Corporations are just as guilty -- especially in the technical support arena. There has long been a tension between corporate marketing and technical support departments over what sorts of information should be made public.

"It's not at all uncommon to find that a company Web site has gone live the evening before and then been shut down the next day, after marketing got a look at it," says Mikael Blaisdell.

But such an approach, notes Blaisdell, is ultimately self-defeating: "When you suppress critical info on a site, you drive it underground. You do not stop it. At least out in the open, you can manage it."

The Net is the ultimate underground. That is its glory, a major part of its addictive attraction. In newsgroups and on mailing lists one can obtain advice that is unvarnished by corporate spin and marketing double-speak. One can listen to partisans of various products battle it out in open forums or get recommendations as to the best shareware software for a certain need. It is this aspect of the distributed collective mind -- the democratic freedom of untrammeled critical voices -- that offers the only real antidote to the computer industry's failure to help users with problems.

And it is also precisely this facility of the Net that may prove most vulnerable. The free market doesn't always look so kindly on freedom of expression. Aggressive marketing departments do not content themselves with controlling the quality of information available from their own companies -- they are increasingly striving to sink their talons into the muscles of the Net. So far, the battles have been fought mostly over issues of intellectual property -- Web sites devoted to "Star Trek" or "The X-Files," databases of music lyrics -- but these may just be skirmishes foreshadowing a larger war.

The PC-clonemaker Gateway 2000 has already pressured one Web page author, Jeff Blackamon, into taking down a "Gateway Sucks" Web page. Could the days of the critical FAQ be numbered? Many FAQ authors have taken to including carefully worded disclaimers in their postings and increasingly refrain from directly criticizing particular products, partially from a fear of reprisals.

The Net is vulnerable to attack, but it is also resilient. The democracy of free criticism and forthright technical support is unlikely to become a relic of the pre-commercial Net. The same strengths that make the Net so potentially valuable as a source of information for the technologically stymied do double-duty as shields against censor-minded attacks. Attempts to quash expression on the Net usually lead to community campaigns to distribute information even more widely.

The best lesson the debate over the quality of technical support information on the Net has to offer is that all information, no matter what the source, should be considered potentially suspect. It's a point of view that even the author of the first FAQ, Eugene Miya, subscribes to. "FAQs shouldn't be mistaken for real facts," says Miya. "I regard the FAQ as nothing more than a format. There is nothing inherently great about this way of doing things."

He is too modest. If we read "this way of doing things" to mean voluntarily taking advantage of the power of the Net to make useful information available to all, then there is nothing inherently greater. Read the FAQ, any FAQ. Even if it only saves you one minute on tech-support hold, it's worth it.

By Andrew Lenoard

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