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The Digital Skeptic: Eerie How Web's Future Looks Like Useless Erie Canal

PITTSFORD, N.Y. (TheStreet) -- Bob White will tell anybody who'll listen that the Web is far from the world's first zillion-dollar trench to nowhere.

"It's 350 miles through swamps or what have you, built by hand. Folks considered it the eighth wonder of the world," White told me as he piloted the Sam Patch. "But these days, it's just us out here, using it for fun."

No, White's not piloting some riff of AOL's troubled hyperlocal news service, Patch. Rather, he's the skipper of a roughly 60-foot packet boat replica that takes groups of 40 or so paying tourists on day trips in this scenic west central New York State section of the Erie Canal.

Business is brisk. The Sam Patch, along with her sister ship the Mary Jemison, runs about 80 such 90-minute trips a week during the high season. Most folks could care less about the backstory of this long, murky stretch of once-commercial water. But when I pressed White on the details of why this network was not commercially viable in a world where waterborne container transport dominates, this passionate representative of this bygone waterway simply sighed.

"At the time the Erie Canal revolutionized commerce. In the 1800 and 1900s, it was the way to go," White said. "But now, times change and nobody uses it anymore."

The dial-up canal
On the surface this mostly abandoned waterway -- exactly two boats and two jet skis passed us -- hardly looks like the stuff of a modern interconnected information system. But if you listen carefully, this thing was absolutely, positively the Web of its day.

There was talk of a national interconnected canal system early in our history. Robert Fulton actually lobbied President George Washington directly in 1797. But it took nearly two decades of bickering and serious taxpayer dollars fronted by then-New York state Gov. DeWitt Clinton to get the Erie Canal open in 1825.

And like the Web of today, the fleets of fast-moving, easy-to-load barges of the time immediately -- and dramatically -- lowered the cost of transporting goods and information by a Web-like 95%, White said.