July 3, 1999
Mr Ian McDonald in a recent Sunday column somewhat humorously suggested that the Internet may lead to less reading and social intercourse. Mr Gordon Forte and Mr McDonald have since exchanged letters on the topic.
Talking sense about the Internet is difficult, mainly because there seem to be as many different experiences of it as there are users. Type one address in and you can read book reviews in the New York Times; type another and your browser plunges into a subculture of Holocaust revisionists and White Supremacy. Start again and you can send e-mail, buy plane tickets, check a weather forecast or monitor the stock markets. There are millions of websites, chatrooms and newsgroups to explore, so the surprises and contradictions are virtually inexhaustible.
More than l00 million people are currently `wired' to the World Wide Web. A disproporationate number of these, in global terms, speak English and live in rich countries. Accept that, and you can begin to make a real judgement of what the Internet has made possible, what it has improved and what it has brought to the `global village' that we are better off without.
It has connected us in strange ways. Modems can screech such staggering amounts of data into a telephone line that most of us have no idea how to use them properly. Many multinational companies now have internal e-mail systems or `intranets' which allow the entire management to send messages, and copy memos and documents to each other, worldwide. Unfortunately, this leap towards the myth of the `paperless office' has, as often as not, created a glut of pointless, low-level information which wastes time and tirvialises the network. The Internet suffers an extreme version of this problem. Again, much the same is true of personal e-mail. When we used to write each other with ink, we would often try to craft what we had to say. Now, with the point-and-click virus hot in our veins, second-hand jokes, circulars, questionnaires and other cultural debris are the commonplaces of personal correspondence. Add to that the (almost) inevitable misspellings and non-sequiturs of the average cyberstyle and it's arguable that e-mail has cheapened the way we talk to each other, paradoxically, by making it too easy. Sending a few lines of e-mail when we could as easily send the full text of the King James Bible is a bit like taking an elephant gun to shoot a mosquito. Yet for most of us this Brobdingnagian mismatch goes unnoticed.
It is with pictures and sounds, search engines and the easy navigation through vast quantities of information that the Net really distinguishes itself. The thrill of cyber-access is unique, and it eclipses the old powers of the phone and fax. Visit an on line music store, browse an antiquarian books catalogue (www.bibliofind.com), or book theatre tickets in London, before you fly there, and you'll soon understand the surreality of cyberspace. These are experiences without parallel in the non-digital world and they ought to be seen and felt by everyone who gets a chance.
There is a therapeutic side to the Internet, where drug addicts, rape victims or abuse survivors can discuss their problems anonymously. And there is activism: human rights and environmental groups use e-mail to collect and publish information from all over the world on a daily basis. There are literacy campaigns like the Gutenberg project, which collects electronic versions of classic books which can be downloaded (and printed) and read for free. There are even `cyberangels' who patrol the world's chatrooms protecting children against paedophiles who are trying to lure them into dangerous liaisons. These are a small fraction of the community initiatives on the Internet.
Cyberspace is the most beguiling means of exploration and expression ever devised. Its wonders and disappointments are in many ways a map of the cultures which produce them. It remains, essentially, a morally neutral technical marvel which we must fill with uses and meanings. As Hamlet tells Rosencrantz "[T]here is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so".
A © page from: Guyana: Land of Six Peoples