It's embarrassing for me to admit this, as someone who writes a column on the Web, but I almost never pay for online content. Till yesterday I made an exception only for the Wall Street Journal. But if it cost money to access the New York Times, I'm afraid I would cough for that too, Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg notwithstanding. The Times is still the paper of record, even though the record is broken.
So when the Times sent me an e-mail this week announcing a charge for its formerly free News Tracker service, I didn't hesitate long. Its customized alerts have made me look smart more than once already. Without even scanning the front page, let alone reading the articles, I can keep up with the news in the areas I care about simply by checking my e-mail. Twenty bucks a year is nothing for that kind of savings in labor.
This is a plug not for the Times (plugging is the least of its needs these days) but for the basic idea, which is probably not original to www.nytimes.com, but which was news to me when I found it there. Every site should offer this service, though if it did, I'd soon find my in-box unmanageable and would need to get more selective. (Do I really need an alert every time Elisabeth Bumiller mentions Douglas Feith?) Having made my choices, I'd then feel as well informed as John Poindexter.
Speaking of total information awareness, wouldn't it be nice to have a tracker service for the entire Internet: a continuously crawling version of Google? The moment even the most obscure blogger posted anything that fit my parameters -- a mention of my name, say, or a scanned photo of Monica Bellucci -- Outlook Express would chime and show me the link. (For all I know this application already exists, in which case I'll know about it minutes after this piece gets posted. Thanks in advance to the readers who will tell me.)
By extending this hypothetical service to e-mails (and forgetting for a moment all about privacy), I could know almost instantly about any electronic correspondence on any particular topic. And of course the first topic I'd choose would be myself.
Considering how much time people spend online now, this would come awfully close to fulfilling a dream I had nearly 20 years ago, when I first learned about Nexis. My dream was for a database called Dixis, which would contain all the words ever spoken after the inception of the database. You would be able to search it and find out what your wife said to her sister in that long discussion about your marriage after dinner last Christmas -- a conversation you didn't even know about till you came across it on Dixis. Or you could learn what your boss said to his assistant about your chances of getting promoted.
The possibilities are endless, which is of course the problem. Such knowledge would be more than anyone could manage to digest, let alone use, no matter how refined the search engine. Fortunately such a danger still seems remote, and far outweighed by the manifold benefits of information technology. Which reminds me to add "Terrorism Information Awareness" (as Admiral Poindexter's program has been modestly renamed) to my personal roster of News Tracker topics.