A modem miss from cyberspace

Hard, Soft & Wet by Melanie McGrath, HarperCollins, pounds 16.95; Cosmo Landesman is won over by the digital dream scene
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The Independent Culture
Hard, Soft & Wet is the story of one woman's love affair with digital culture, America, Youth, Modernity, a computer called Apple and a boy called Mac. Judging this book by its coverline - "the digital generation comes of age" - I was quick to conclude that here's one for every cyber-bore in Britain. But I wuz wrong. McGrath is such a good writer that even a cynical Luddite like me could love her book.

Visiting America, Melanie discovers computer culture and quickly becomes a born-again cyber-babe. Clearly, on-line chat and other techno- opiates filled an existential hole in her world. "I must have felt the need to join in the game ... fill up the empty hours ... of my adult life."

Although she goes through a brief period of computer addiction, it's the digital dream she's really hooked on; the promise of a bright, brilliant future full of infinite possibility. And that future is being forged now by a new generation. The book's premise is simple: if you wanna see tomorrow, then check out the hi-tech kids of today.

That's exactly what McGrath has done. She's created a travel book that's all about looking for a faraway country called the future. Hard, Soft & Wet represents a perfect match between form and content. For what is a travel book but a printed form of virtual reality - the chance for us to experience strange places and people from the safety and sloth of home?

As a tour guide, McGrath is a state-of-the-art VR helmet. (Her best friend Nancy - one of the most vivid and likeable people in the book - actually turns out to be a composite, a virtually real person). She has a sharp ear and eye for dialogue and detail: "I flip through Nancy's manual of the Net ... but soon find myself struggling for comprehension... ftp, tcp, pop, ppp. I mean, what is all that? It sounds like radio interference". She also has - which net-heads never have - a nice dry sense of humour. When Nancy contemplates a future where "the digital revolution is just a rerun of The Stepford Wives", McGrath replies, "Well, whatever happens they can't take baking and periods from us."

It must have been tempting for her to stay at home, sit in front of her screen and see the world. But like an old-fashioned reporter she decides to go out and talk to people on this new frontier for herself - which itself admits the limitations of computer power. With McGrath, we get the digital grand tour - Silicon Valley, MIT, Interactive cinemas, Internet Cafes in Iceland, amusement arcades in Bristol, techno clubs in East Berlin and the computer bandit scene in Moscow.

We meet Alex, a three-year-old who doesn't know the alphabet yet but can navigate around star systems in virtual reality. There's Isaac - another "futuristic prototype" - who at 14 has his own computer consultancy business; and then there's a whole army of young techno-pagans, hackers, arcade hustlers, virus programmers, geeks and sadsacks.

So what are tomorrow's adults like? Are they a new breed? Sweet kids or scary monsters? McGrath is too smart to go in for simple generalisations - which doesn't exactly help the book's premise, but never mind. To me they seem a freaky cocktail of the puerile and precocious. The trouble with this generation is that they sit around saying things like, "Every time you have a thought it's like new universes are created and there's an infinite number of universes bifurcating and it's a Telsa." It all sounds like geek to me.

Instead of this portrait-of-a-generation stuff, I preferred the story of McGrath's own life. Usually revolutions like the digital one begin with a bang and end in a backlash. And there has been a growing literature of digital disenchantment. But this book is not another one of those American Been-There-Done-That-It-Sucks polemics.

The older and wiser McGrath concludes, "The Net is a Peter Pan machine, the screech and the bubble of the modem always promising some new identity, some novel reconstruction." McGrath hasn't burned out and become angry; she's simply grown up, lost her religion and found herself.

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