Under the Internet
HARD, SOFT AND WET: The Digital Revolution Comes of Age by Melanie McGrath, HarperCollins pounds 5.99
Sunday 01 June 1997
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.
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