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WHAT DO an urchin diver, a stable owner, a retired engineer, a potter, and a confectioner have in common? A favorite brand of imported beer? Depression, perhaps, and the same therapist? In the rural county of Mendocino-- population 85,000--the answer is Internet.
While the backroads of the county remain much the same, the image of rustic, pre-information-age inhabitants is overdue at the recycling bin.
Along the Mendocino coast alone, some 240 people are now Internet users with accounts on the global network that connects about 30 million people with computers. That's all come about in the last six months when a computer lab in Mendocino Village became a "node" in the world-wide network and began offering a way onto Internet.
What do country folk get out of the Internet? The answer is as varied as mushrooms and people.
SAYS DAVID AHERN, an urchin diver from Mendocino, "When I was a little kid I spent hours and hours up in my mother's and father's bedroom because they had some encyclopedias there." He wasn't looking for anything in particular, he says, "but you just looked through it and you found stuff."
On the Internet you can find "pile and piles" of stuff, says Ahern, and it's fun.
Ahern is a lively man of 53 years who could pass for a university computer science professor when he removes his glasses and articulates a point about Internet, also known simply as "the Net."
He says he's looking for a commerical application but for now it's just fun. "You get hooked," he says, admitting he spends so many hours on the Net that his kids gets angry at him.
Before getting onto Internet, Ahern was on Compuserve, but his hookup was through a node in Napa and telephone costs were higher. While the monthly bill from Compuserve was less, his telephone bill was much higher.
He says, like others, that you can get to what you want quicker on Compuserve. "But you pay," he says. A common experience of new Internet users is that once you locate a source of information, you get blocked from actually accessing it.
But with a little experience, says Ahern, "you will find a way to get what you want. I don't know how. . . .Most of it I stumble on."
Ahern sounds like the great wanderer Odysseus on an uncertain journey.
WHAT GOT Lari Shea of Ricochet Ridge Ranch in Cleone onto the Internet was this: she heard she was being talked about on it. "I had a horse go over a cliff and die a couple of years ago up in the Sierras," says Shea, and apparently the accident was discussed somewhere on the Internet. Says Shea, "I wondered what they were saying."
She got hooked up a week ago but hasn't figured out how to access the information yet. It's probably in an equestrian "discussion group"--a place on the Net where people interested in horses go to talk about them--but so far Shea has only mastered email.
These days there are discussion groups on almost anything. In the beginnings of Internet, discussion groups were meeting places for scientists, engineers, and researchers to discuss erudite subjects. Not so now. No topic is too trivial.
Installing Internet in a PC can be difficult--it's not just a matter of inserting a floppy disk and typing "a:startup". Many require professional help. Shea's installation was done by her daughter and her boyfriend. The boyfriend knows "lots about computers," according to Shea, and the daughter, well, she's learning.
In addition to finding out what is being written about her and Ricochet Ridge on the Internet, Shea has another interest in getting on. She gets referrals from people who have heard about Ricochet Ridge over the Internet, and she'd like to be able to respond on-line.
But she's not yet sure if soliciting is allowed on the Internet. "Can I get on the Internet and say, 'Hi, I'm Lari Shea from Ricochet Ridge Ranch. Do any of you have any questions about my brochure?"
But so far the attractive and capable-looking horse-handler hasn't discovered what discussion group is talking about her.
NORMAN DEGROOT is a retired electrical engineer from the NASA Jet Propultion Laboratory in Pasadena. He's an import, like many on the coast now.
He lives near Caspar, a defunct mill town between Mendocino and Fort Bragg. He is a tall, grey-haired man who says he's at that time of life when you "contribute" or give something back. He speaks in measured tones; his voice is that of a man of thought. It is not hard to imagine him dressed in a white lab coat.
His interest in the Internet came about indirectly when he began doing volunteer work at the Fort Bragg library.
"I have always been fascinated by libraries," says deGroot, "so I went to the Fort Bragg library as a volunteer a few hours a week keeping the shelves straight." At NASA he was involved in international radio frequency management.
While straightening out the library shelves he heard the librarian speak of something called the "Info People Project." This, says deGroot, turned out to be a project of the California State Library to bring Internet to public libraries. Thus the Fort Bragg library got a computer and free connect time to Internet.
"My ears pricked up," says deGroot, "because I love playing with a computer." He got involved with that project, helping to set up the computer so that it was easy for library patrons to use. Fort Bragg, after all, is a mill town--not a university town like Berkeley. Not long after he got his own home Internet connection.
Nowadays at the library he teaches patrons how to use the Internet, and also works as a reference librarian by looking up information on the Internet. The Fort Bragg library is a small library with limited reference materials-- several years ago it burned down--so Internet is a welcome addition.
DeGroot points out that the Internet is a real boon to the many political activists in Mendocino County. Says deGroot, "The current Congress is very interested in pushing through some fairly major legislative changes in a real hurry. What that means is, there's no time for people to mount up a counter argument." That is, prior to Internet.
The other day, says deGroot, there was a row over language in legislation related to renewing the Paper Reduction Act. "There were some people who were very disturbed about the language in part of this," says deGroot. They got on the Internet and the result was a flood of email and faxes to Washington.
"That part of the bill got changed," says deGroot. "And this happened withing 72 hours." His voice has the astonished sound of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith goes to Washington.
ANN JOHNSON is a potter from Mendocino. The grey-haired, middle-aged woman says she spends about an hour a day on Internet. Prior to Internet she was on Delphi and On-Line America, two commerical services that require long distance hookups. But Internet is a bargain, she says. Her attraction is the clay-art newsgroup.
Robert Borse is a thin, aesthetic-looking man with blond hair; he's a confectioner. He seems a little hesitant to talk about his interest in Internet, which he says is purely personal. So far he hasn't been able to install the software.
Attorney Tim Stoen, with the help of Internet as a research tool, is planning to become a syndicated newspaper columnist.
The list goes on.
ASIDE FROM cheap access to Internet, the availability of cheap, powerful PCs has made this phenomena possible. And contrary to popular conceptions, there are as many PCs out in the country as there are chain saws and guns. Igniting the trend a few years back was Vice President Al Gore's hype of the Information Superhighway. Some times trends take a little longer to reach the country.
But the trend would seem to have a special significance in rural areas where unemployment is higher than in the cities. For those looking for new ways to work, Internet--which does not discriminate between geographical boundaries-- levels the playing field, offering hope to those seeking a new direction. And California's rural counties are loaded these days with idealistic people seeking new directions.
An additional attraction to the Internet is purely experiential: if feels organic; to the on-line user it seems alive.
Rennie Innis, business manager at the Mendocino node, says about half the Mendocino coast accounts are business related. The others, he says, are for "personal interest." He objects to calling them a hobby. Naturally he sees "big growth" of interest in Internet, having sold some 240 accounts in the last six months. Per year that generates $60,000 for the lab.
The amount of press that a subject gets is a pretty good indication of public interest. If that's so, then the Internet is a public obsession.
Searching the Internet for the word "Internet" yields 44,052 documents containing that word. That is using the Lycos 5 "search engine" at Carnegie Mellon University. Lycos 5 declined to print more than the first 10 documents.
Mendocino County has two Internet providers or nodes, and a quick Internet search around California showed that Modesto has 3 providers; Felton, a backwater of the Santa Cruz mountains, has 2; and Eureka 1. Big Sur, however, has 0.
Regional information on Big Sur produced a single line: 100 miles of rugged coast line! Translation: No Net. Does this mean Big Sur has an "attitude"? You could ask the Net.
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