Viewpoint -- Personal Computing

The latest in internet clipping services may make the information age less stressful, but at what cost?

Today it seems that we are continually bombarded with facts and figures, news and analysis, messages and memos. Information overload, also called data smog, is an unavoidable fact of life for busy people. Or is it? Some of the sharpest minds in the field of information technology are devising new delivery techniques to help people manage the ever-growing torrent. There have been noble efforts in the past -- and spectacular failures -- and the same will likely apply to the future as well. Indeed, millions of dollars were lost in the mid-1980s on videotext, an experimental system for delivering electronic newspapers to homes via television sets. Another well-intentioned service surfaced a decade ago. CompuServe's Executive News Service served its niche well by collecting news stories about subjects you specified, but pricing prevented widespread popularity. And just five years ago PointCast and other services that pushed information to your PC over the Internet without your active involvement never caught on as a result of crude customization and overloaded networks. The best of today's clipping services have learned from each of these attempts. The PC, not the TV, is the information machine of choice. The cost for basic services should be free, with earnings coming from premium services and advertising. And the best delivery mechanism is e-mail combined with the Web. These precepts aren't universally accepted. A lot of money is being invested in handheld information-delivery systems. Higher-priced services such as Dialog and Lexis-Nexis still have their place. And Web portals let you personalize how information is presented to you in the hope that you'll surf there and stick around. Yet free, PC-based, e-mail driven services offer value and convenience that are hard to beat. For some time now a number of forward-thinking publications have e-mailed subscribers a list of articles and summaries with links you can click to read the entire article at the publication's Web site. With the newest services, you can mix and match the information you want more precisely. Some of these services include: Sleuth Center lets you track the latest information about subjects of your choice in any of five categories -- companies, jobs, sports, shopping, and entertainment. The company's eLibrary Tracker service e-mails relevant headlines from newspaper and magazine articles. The company also is working on delivery to Palm handheld computers, cell phones, and pagers. With Individual.com you can specify any of 1,400 topics or 30,000 companies you're interested in. You also can search through the last five days worth of news. Its Headline Feed program lets you automatically place headlines about relevant topics, updated every business morning, on your Web site. InfoBeat delivers news about current events, finance, entertainment, sports, and weather to your e-mail in-box. You also can order columnists such as Dave Barry and comic strips such as Ziggy. Northern Light's Search Alert Service lets you track subjects of your choice and alerts you when new Web pages, newspaper or magazine articles, or broadcast transcripts appear about them. Reading some of the articles and transcripts carries a fee, though you can specify that you wish to receive alerts only about new Web pages, which is free. Spyonit notifies you when new Web pages appear containing keywords of your choice. You can even track your own name. Along with e-mail, you can have the service alert you via instant messaging programs such as ICQ and e-mail compatible pagers. Appealing more directly to users' vanity, EgoSurf also can automatically search for your name, or anyone else's, on the Web, though the basic service only works a week at a time. Clipping services such as these can help you tame the information monster. Each uses a type of artificial intelligence called intelligent agents or bots (short for robots) to filter the wheat from the chaff. Critics contend, however, that relying too much on personalized news may not be so intelligent after all. Reading the Daily Me, one argument goes, will chip away at society's fragile sense of community. With people no longer receiving the same news, there will be less connecting us to one another, which can only increase intolerance and bigotry. What's more, according to another argument, sometimes you don't know what you need to know until you chance upon it. Clearly, however, there's benefit from homing in on information. Yet there's still much to be gained from browsing a newspaper or magazine or tuning in to the news on the radio or TV, and there probably always will be. Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or http://members.home.net/reidgold

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