- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Our age’s ever-broadening access to facts and ideas — electronically swooshed to us on demand — will liberate individuals not just a little bit, but to an extent that could be historically transformative, or so it seems to me.

Such thoughts may strike you as grandiose, especially considering that my subject is the Internet, cable TV and satellite radio, the last, best hope of Howard Stern. But I suspect the revolution launched by Gutenberg’s press could seem the barest hint of a tremor next to the social earthquakes set off by today’s communications inventions.

I begin my case with reference to the stars.

I arise each day at 5:30 a.m. There’s method in my madness, namely to slide to work under Washington’s creep-along, rush-hour traffic. And there’s also this blessing: From my 16th-floor apartment in this particular season I can catch the glorious rising of the sun, the way it imprints orange magic on wide-stretched clouds, and I can witness the earlier departure of dark, with only a few stars showing their faces as emerging light washes the rest from sight.

One recent morning I nearly gasped, for there were two ultrabright stars next to each other, virtually shaking hands.

They were surely planets, not actually stars, I thought, and one of them surely was Venus. But I could not recall ever seeing anything like this before. So that night when I got home, I turned to the Internet and found there had been a rare conjunction of Venus and Jupiter. At one point, days before I looked, the two were less than a degree apart, kissing distance.

The explanation was detailed and long. My point here is only that I was able to retrieve the answer in minutes.

Prior to the Internet, of course, I could likely have found the answer some other way, though not nearly so easily or quickly. Perhaps a story about the planets had appeared in the paper. If so, I had missed it, and there were no old papers about for a rummaging expedition. A trip to the library might have told me what I wanted to know, or a series of phone calls to ferret out a university expert, but the alternatives all meant an spending enough time and effort to dissuade me from the task.

This minor investigation is one of literally dozens I have conducted on the Internet with immediate and adequate results, all acts of mental empowerment of a small but meaningful kind. The Internet has its faults — the pornography pollution, for instance. But most of the others are overstated. And meanwhile its pluses are extraordinary, from the reconnecting with long-lost friends through e-mail to eased explorations of special interests. We’ve just had an election year mightily influenced by the Internet, not just because of the extended fund-raising possibilities but because bloggers challenged mainstream media on an issue or two — and won.

Cable TV astonishes me in its variety — get healthy helpings of science, here, folks, and of history. If wonderful, old movies is your thing, climb aboard. News comes at you at almost any hour you are available. With exceptions, the political talk shows have too much ego-strutting and too little reporting, but they still serve our republic better than yet another sitcom seeking laughs through worn-out formulas.

Some radio talk shows also exhibit more rant than reason, but many poke fun where it needs to be poked and give voice to many who might otherwise feel voiceless. And some do provoke thought. There’s always this to be said about free speech: It just may lend us an insight that would be kept in a box if mouths were shut up.

Now subscription-based satellite radio emerges, already providing scads more channels to choose. Mr. Stern, upset with federal attempts to quell his shock-jock foulness with fines, is making a splash by switching in a couple of years to Sirius, one of two satellite-radio companies (the other is XM). He’s not my idea of top-notch entertainment, but I think his move means satellite radio is about to come into its own.

The printing press helped democratize the world, pushed us further toward free enterprise and aided development of science. As an alignment of heavenly bodies recently instructed me, the electronic-communications world of our time will have comparable consequences.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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