Under the Internet

HARD, SOFT AND WET: The Digital Revolution Comes of Age by Melanie McGrath, HarperCollins pounds 5.99

It's a title you could kill for. Subtitled "The Digital Revolution Comes of Age", Hard, Soft and Wet is a travelogue around the frontiers of digital technology, from Internet cafes in Iceland to Moscow programmers making computer viruses. Caught unawares by the speed of the digital revolution - "I feel like a dazzled rabbit caught in headlights, a mere witness to the ballooning din and flux that is digital America" - and "lost in the blizzard of youth culture", the book is as much a journey of selfdiscovery for Melanie McGrath as an exploration of a new technology and a new culture.

McGrath begins her journey in San Francisco, where she is visiting her friend Nancy, who sells software. She ends in Singapore, whose authoritarian, undemocratic, centralised society McGrath takes to be symbolic of the new Internet, dominated by corporate giants like Microsoft and CompuServe. In between she criss-crosses the globe, taking in London, Reykjavik, Berlin, Prague and Moscow, searching out the local digital culture.

McGrath approaches the Internet generation like an anthropologist investigating a strange culture. She is forever the outsider, trying to make sense of a world that "is alien to me". And like an anthropologist going native, McGrath takes Mac, her first e-mail correspondent, as a lover. The crossed lines between 19-year-old Mac, "just risen from childhood", and McGrath, "long-adult with my bluewhite flesh just at the edge of age", symbolises the mutual incomprehensibility of two cultures separated by a generation and a technology. Mac, she observes, is uninterested in her real-life travels. "For Mac, adventures happen in the world beyond the wires. I suppose everything else must seem to him to be some lesser reality."

Hard, Soft and Wet is written with McGrath's usual grace and panache, and flashes of mordant humour. Yet it is a strangely hollow work, for beneath the surface gloss, McGrath affords us little new insight. Reading the book feels a bit like an evening spent surfing the Web - you keep skimming from one flashy site to the next, then end up wondering where you've been all evening.

McGrath isn't sure whether she is writing about digital culture or youth culture. Much of the time she assumes that the two are the same, and that this explains her estrangement from the digital world. But why should this be? Technological revolutions in the past - from the telephone to the television - were neither perceived as, nor were, the property of a particular generation. So why should it seem to us that digital technology belongs to youth?

McGrath makes much of the digital generation's contradictory obsessions with high technology and a romantic yearning for the primitive. She spends a day "skip-raiding" - searching skips for discarded motherboards and modems. One of the skip-raiders tells McGrath that this is his "urban hunter-gatherer ritual" which keeps him "in touch with his primitive side". Mac takes her on an antiroads protest. "I find this anti-car mood of his slightly odd,"McGrath observes, "because he's always seemed so fond of machines." Yet she delves no further to understand why a generation that seems born into the digital revolution should also loathe the machine age.

This might be because of McGrath's sense of the "otherness" of the digital generation. It is as if the two generations are incommensurate, each able to observe the other, even speak to the other, but inhabiting different worlds. McGrath observes, for instance, differences in the nature of protest. "When I was a teenager it was nuclear war and trades unions. These days it's animal rights, antiracism, ecology and homelessness. We didn't really think about that stuff."

Ultimately, McGrath's estrangement seems not so much from the digital generation as from the possibilities of her own future. McGrath sees her flirtation with the digital world as a "nostalgia trip" pulling her "back into her own adolescence". It allowed her to believe that "the future still belonged to me; which of course it doesn't". The future isn't hers, she writes, because "I am no longer adolescent, but fully adult." It seems an uncommonly melancholy attitude, but it's one that fits in well with today's zeitgeist. It used to be that becoming an adult was about taking control of the future. Today it seems to be about giving up on it. Perhaps it would be better if we all stayed adolescent.

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'