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The Independent Culture
Are you hooked up to the Internet yet? Have got your own Web page, or received any e-mail lately? Have you decided which browser you prefer? Or are you still a slave to the written or printed word and linear thinking? If so, you'd better hurry to catch up with the digerati, who already carry personal communicators with wireless links that mean their virtual office exists wherever they sit down. It isn't just working life that's changing. The information revolution is transforming our entire culture. We can now meet people in virtual reality, shop with e-cash, read hypertext books, take in a multimedia experience, check out what's available on DAB. The world is growing smaller yet also more complex, with more things packed into every moment. The only way to control the space around you is to understand it. Your manual starts here.

Internet: a global network of computers, with no central authority, which can pass data to each other using the Internet Protocol. Originally developed in the 1960s by the US Department of Defense to withstand a nuclear attack, it has grown since 1994 from 2 million to 12 million machines.

Web page: a screenful (or many screensful) of personal or corporate data, available to people using a subset of the Internet, known as the World Wide Web - usually abbreviated to the last word. A Web page is a collection of data sitting on a computer connected to the Internet, and can contain any sort of data - text, pictures, sounds, videos - stored in digital form. When another computer contacts it, the computer sends over the contents of the page. Web pages or "addresses" are easily identified because they start with the letters http://www. These stand for "hypertext transfer protocol" and "World Wide Web" (though www is not included in every address). The Web was invented at CERN, the European particle accelerator facility, in 1991 by an Englishman, Tim Berners-Lee. It is the fastest- growing aspect of the Internet, now encompassing millions of pages.

E-mail: electronic mail, the ethereal form of letter. Faster and cheaper than the real thing, it can zip around the world in seconds. Nowadays, very complex drawings, videos or sounds can be attached to an e-mail - meaning that physical distance has no effect on the efficiency of standard office functions.

Browser: software programme enabling users to gain access to text, pictures and sound on Web "pages". Two leading programmes, Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Explorer, are currently fighting a bitter battle for dominance of the global market.

Linear thinking: an outmoded, inflexible, one-dimensional approach to absorbing information and culture, based on the physical limitations of the written word and the printed page, on which much of Western civilisation rests.

Digerati: the electronic literati, including - at the front - such names as Bill Gates, head of Microsoft, and Marc Andreessen of Netscape.

Personal communicators: phones combined with computers, including screens and keyboards. Inspired by the handheld, fliptop versions from the 1960s TV series Star Trek.

Wireless links: radio, microwave or infra-red connections which can carry data or digitised voices from one point to another in the wider telecommunications network.

Virtual office: a place where you work, regardless of whether it has walls, desks or filing cabinets. An organisation that wants its staff to spend the maximum time with clients or customers will prefer a virtual office to a fixed one.

Information revolution: the replacement of existing labour and pay structures - in which people are paid for processing objects (such as in manufacturing) - by newer ones in which you are paid for processing information, often from diverse sources, in order to create a new idea or strategy.

Virtual reality: a means of creating a false experience for users of a computer. It can let you "walk" around a ship or building or aircraft that has not yet been built, by holding its details in a computer database that is projected on to eyescreens, which track the movement of the wearer's head and change the picture accordingly.

E-cash: the electronic form of the real thing. Just as you can send e-mail, so you can send e-cash across the Internet and the world. Presently limited in scope, but gathering pace following experiments by Mondex (in Swindon, Wiltshire) and Visa (in a number of venues). The "cash" takes the form of a stream of digits stored on a computer chip mounted on a a credit-sized card. To pay for something, you insert the card, which passes over some of its store of digits.

Hypertext: a piece of text which is electronically connected to a related piece of information, accessed by "clicking" on a highlighted word. Common on the Web, where following hypertext links is a favourite pastime.

Multimedia: a much-abused word which essentially means that something combines digitised sounds and visual elements. The first to hit homes was the CD-Rom (a compact disc lookalike), which could store encyclopaedias of information, including film clips.

DAB: Digital Audio Broadcasting, thought by many to be the way forward for conventional TV channels. It should mean interference-free signals and allow many more channels to be packed into the same group of frequencies. Due to start making an impact in the UK in the next century.