Caught in the Net

Ah, the power of the Internet! Most readers know by now about the global gush over novelist Kurt Vonnegut's MIT commencement speech that never was.

For those who missed it, the pseudo-commencement speech was actually a Chicago Tribune column of hip, better-than-Polonius advice to young people. Vonnegut had nothing to do with it. Neither did MIT, whose graduation address this spring was an earnest plea from UN leader Kofi Annan. Only on the Net did the Trib column develop a life of its own, with browsers passing it around the world as genuine Vonnegut ironic wisdom.

Cassandras have long warned that the Net and its key, the Web, are well named. For all its wonderful near-instantaneous access to useful information, skeptics say, the Net/Web can also entangle browsers in misinformation, and even disinformation.

That doesn't always mean all the misinformation is dangerous. The fact that Trib columnist Mary Schmich, not Vonnegut, wrote the advice doesn't detract from its savviness:

'"Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '97: Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.... Don't waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind. The race is long and, in the end, it's only with yourself.... Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel...."

Now that the authorship has been clarified, Ms. Schmich reportedly has received about 1,400 e-mails from a dozen countries about the column. And Vonnegut also continues to get compliments for the address; one magazine recently asked him for reprint rights.

The popularity of the sunscreen speech says something else about cyberspace: Though the world has become so high-tech that we can send a whole speech around the world with just the click of a mouse, it's still the message that matters. Simple advice - "Read the directions, even if you don't follow them.... Floss.... Be nice to your siblings" - works in any medium.

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