When I was a kid growing up in the Chicago suburbs I loved westerns. Maverick was my favorite, of course, and James Garner — along with Mad Magazine, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and the Cubs — did a lot to shape (warp?) my personality during my formative years.

When I grew out of Mad Magazine I graduated to the Chicago Daily News and Mike Royko. I remember one column in particular, in which Royko took an alderman to task for complaining that teachers earn less than garbagemen. Royko favored better pay for teachers but complained about the comparison with garbagemen. After all, he pointed out, if garbagemen walked off their jobs the city would be rocked by disease, whereas if the city council walked off its job the city would be rocked by applause.

Royko taught me to respect everyone who does something useful. The Daily News went to the great beyond years ago, and now Mike Royko has followed it. Requiescat in pace.

Good westerns are mostly a thing of the past too, so today’s youth don’t know much about the fencing in of the Old West. Since Hollywood scriptwriters take care to ensure historical accuracy, I can say with confidence it was a tough and dramatic time. Cowboys were the last rugged individualists, and closing off the range with fences durned near killed ’em.

Life weren’t worth livin’ no more in the Old West once those fences went up, but even so, I think we need to seriously consider fencing in the modern equivalent of the Old West, the Internet.

The Internet’s technology has proven remarkably scaleable. The Internet’s culture, like the Old West’s, has not. Anarchy can’t survive population growth, because you just don’t want your neighbor building a slaughterhouse right next door, and you’d rather not have to kill him to prevent it.

The signs of cultural breakdown are everywhere on the Internet, from spam-based marketing schemes to trademark disputes to the most recent and telling symptom: lawsuits over hypertext links.

Ticketmaster, for example, has sued Microsoft. Ticketmaster claims that Microsoft’s link dilutes the value of sponsorship on the Ticketmaster Web site. Ticketmaster is undoubtedly right, and since it costs money to run a Web site this is serious business.

On the other hand, it is the unrestrained ability to put in hypertext links that gives the World Wide Web its charm and value. Having to ask permission may be a perfectly reasonable requirement when two corporations interact, but it is the antithesis of the Web.

It’s time to enact zoning laws for the Web. Zoning is an appropriate reward for businesses on the Web, which have been an ungrateful bunch anyway. Every time I hear criticisms and complaints over the Internet’s poor security, lack of guaranteed packet delivery, and so on, it sounds like someone’s wealthy Aunt Petunia who moves in, demands breakfast in bed every day, and then complains about the cooking.

So let’s zone off a section for businesses. They can set up rules, regulations, and conditions for lawsuits and arbitration. Each site in the business section can include a page of terms and conditions, and visitors will be held responsible for understanding the restrictions before entering or linking.

Then we’ll fence off a Hobbyists’ Free Zone (HFZ) where you can do anything except spam or transact business. Here’s where you can pretend to be the Christian Coalition Home Page, complete with thousands of pornographic images showing only really ugly people and text explaining in graphic terms just how awful it is that “you can find pornography like this all over the Internet!” It’s okay in the HFZ, because Internet users know that for reliable information they should set their filters to the Trusted Information Providers’ Zone, or TIPZ, which will have its own rules and standards.

For the most part, this zoning could be accomplished without government intervention, with each zone established as a for-profit business by various enterprising Internet service providers.

All the feds would have to do is accept each zone as a private community and recognize the right of adult Americans to engage in acts of anarchy within the privacy of their own zone.

“We have to plan for the future,” a systems executive told me recently. Well yes, that’s probably far more useful than planning for the past or present. It is, however, much harder.

Two weeks ago we explored the subject of worthless statistics and the odd preference so many people have for bad information over unbiased ignorance. (See “Pie charts and bar charts may bring comfort, but wisdom is another matter,” May 5, page 74.)

This week we talk about forecasting, an activity that fulfills the need many people have to know and plan for the future. Throughout history that need has created professions and industries. In the earliest days, the tools of the forecaster’s trade were tea leaves, entrails, the Zodiac, and crystal balls. More recently, tools like Doppler radar and computer simulations have been added to the arsenal.

Forecasting hasn’t improved much, but forecasting tools sure have. (A recent article in the local newspaper compared the performance of the National Weather Service, television meteorologists, and a guy who predicts the weather using a combination of Radio Shack gear and homemade tools. The backyard hobbyist won by a wide margin.)

And that brings us to the most pernicious forecasting tool yet devised: the market survey. How many articles have you read in this and other reputable journals presenting some industry forecast or other in which the future is presented as a fact: “Within five years, the market for bubble memory will grow to over $5 billion”?

Oops. Bubble memory flopped. It must have been personal digital assistants I was thinking of.

The accuracy of both market and weather forecasting begins to plummet beyond about one day into the future for the same reason: The systems we’re trying to predict are chaotic. And although the mathematics of chaos theory are daunting, one of its basic conclusions is pretty straightforward: When systems (actually, nonlinear systems) reach a certain level of complexity you can’t predict their future state very well.

Now what’s involved in predicting a future market? Oh, just the behavior of large numbers of individual humans. If someone would just invent Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory we could get somewhere.

Market surveys seem so scientific. But what are they really asking? “Do you expect to implement Windows NT Advanced Server in your enterprise within the next three years?”

Now who’s going to answer with an unequivocal “no?” We’re talking about a Microsoft product and a three-year planning horizon. And what does “implement” mean? Replace Novell’s NetWare? Or install a test server? Forecasts of NT Advanced Server sales have no value because there are unpredictable factors involved: Will Microsoft ship the next release on time? Will it have any crippling bugs? Will Bill Gates burn out, causing all of Microsoft’s customers to lose confidence? Will the sun turn nova and wipe out my capital-procurement budget?

Not that I want to single out NT Advanced Server. Whether it’s network computers or wireless data communication, any innovative technology just entering the market faces too many imponderables for forecasts to mean much. Why? Because market success depends as much on unanticipated details as on the basic ideas. Is the advertising campaign exceptionally stupid? Has innovation extended the life of a moribund technology? Did the designer misread the market?

So don’t let forecasts paraded as facts serve as a substitute for your own insight. Except, of course, for the enlightened predictions of your friendly IS Survival Guide soothsayer.

Satire alert

A few weeks ago, I expressed some concern about the Software Publishers Association’s and the Business Software Alliance’s admission that they inflate their software piracy estimates. (See “The Romans had some words for it,” April 7.) Some alert InfoWorld readers told me that the admission was a joke, originally published in the San Jose Mercury News and later picked up as fact elsewhere. By the time I read it in Edupage, the humor had been removed and it looked legitimate.

So here’s the situation: The numbers are still suspect for all the reasons expressed in the satire, but the SPA and BSA haven’t admitted it after all.