David Owen  

David Owen  

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 8 1997 3:30 AM

David Owen  

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       S

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stinks. Don't you think so?
       This morning, I made a list of all the places where I read regular magazines last week: bathroom, dining room, living room, family room, airport, airplane (while traveling to Augusta, Ga., to watch this week's Masters golf tournament--but more about that tomorrow), taxi, parked car, bleachers at the town pool, bus, dentist's waiting room, kitchen, stair-climbing machine at the health club, bed.
       I also made a list of all the places where I read S

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: my desk. There were the usual delays in connecting, and I drummed my fingers while the advertisements crawled. "Oh, I get it," I said to myself. "It's just like a regular magazine, except it's shorter and it's inconvenient to read."
       The subject of Internet publishing makes me think of a conversation I had 20 years ago with a former NASA scientist who was trying to start a private satellite-launching company. He had left NASA because he was furious about the space shuttle, which he said was the product of mistaken ideas about the real practical uses of space flight. He said that the dreamers at NASA had thought, "Someday, people will take rocket trips as routinely as they take airplane trips now, so to accommodate them we'll need rockets that can land at airports." NASA engineers had to keep the new spacecraft small enough to use runways, yet leave room for passengers. As a result, the shuttle can carry only dinky payloads, and it's too scrawny to reach high orbits. Those limitations make the shuttle just about useless (not to mention phenomenally expensive) for what has turned out to be the main commercial use of outer space: telecommunications. Meanwhile, the original airport idea was abandoned: The shuttle can't "take off," and there are only two facilities in the world--neither of them an airport--where it can land.
       The ex-NASA guy (who had wanted the agency to build huge, cheap, unmanned workhorse rockets instead) told me, "It's as though the first airplane builders had said, 'Airplanes will need to connect with our existing transportation system, so we'll put train wheels on them and land them on railroad tracks.' " The same confusion was widespread in the early days of TV, when people thought of television simply as radio you could see. And the same confusion abounds in online enterprises today. Are those train wheels I see at the bottom of this screen?

David Owen is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a contributing editor of Golf Digest. His most recent book is My Usual Game: Adventures in Golf.