A new Channel 4 series which looks at the growing power of the Internet, and of the people behind it, clearly sets out its essentially haphazard development. The Glory of the Geeks is presented by Robert X Cringely, Silicon Valley author and columnist, and is the celebratory sequel to his series on the birth of the computer industry, Triumph of the Nerds.
Once again, Cringely steers clear of technical jargon as he explains this time how the Net spread from its roots among the boffins in the Pentagon in the Sixties to become a key global industry. Talking to luminaries of geekishness such as Marc Andressen, Bob Metcalfe and Scott McNealy (founders respectively of Netscape, 3Com and Sun Microsystems), as well as Bill Gates, Cringely tries to get close to the essence of the geek and find out exactly what makes these disparate billionaires tick.
"They are all extremely smart and, by the very nature of their entrepreneurism, willing to take risks," Cringely told The Independent. "These people are out on the edge."
The increasing power and financial clout of Internet moguls will, he believes, determine the shape of the next century. Yet the influence is likely to be anarchic, rather than sinister. "The money they have means little to society because nearly all of it is on paper and hardly any of it is spendable," Cringely says. "One can hope this group will discover philanthropy, but don't expect it soon. They're still in the fast-car- buying stage.
"What their power means to society is something else, because this is the next important medium we're talking about and I have my doubts that these folks give any thought to news judgement, for example. The result, I fear, is a lot of volatility before the Internet becomes what it is actually meant to be."
The Channel 4 series, which offer the Net novice a glossary of geek lingo, will go on to examine the possible future of the Net by interviewing some of the American students who are potential super-geeks of the future. In episode three, Wiring the World, Cringely visits "Excite", which was started up in 1994 in a Silicon Valley garage when six "nerds" from Stanford University got together. It now employs more than 200 people and is valued at pounds 1.5 billion.
Cringely attempts to cover the historical and technical bases as he charts the growth of the Internet's influence, and yet, it is the impact of the individual, and not the machine, that has emerges as crucial. For example, Cringely salutes the work of Tim Berners-Lee, the British man who is credited with creating the World Wide Web; and acknowledges the importance of Andressen, who created the first browser that enabled the Web to become user-friendly.
Cringely, who started working for Apple Computer as far back as 1977, wrote his jokey best-seller, Accidental Empires: How The Boys Of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition And Still Can't Get A Date in 1992. But in spite of his consistently good-natured acceptance of the sad labels "nerd" and "geek" and all that they imply, he is actually pretty bullish in defence of his own kind. He rejects the suggestion that the persistent surfer on the compulsive programmer is simply hiding away from everyday life.
"That would be to assume that everyday life is offline and that whatever is online is weird. It's not," he argues. "Just as some people spend a lot of time on the phone or reading the newspaper, these people are on the Net. It's not weird. It's just new."
And for Cringely, the newness of his favourite medium is all. Even for an old hand such as himself, the eventual form that Internet communication might take is hard to contemplate, let alone to accurately predict.
"We will clearly be getting all our communication over a single link and I think the prospect of two-way video communication is good. This opens up the possibility that people will have less need to travel, which I think is very good. To hell with business travel. When I travel, I want it to be for adventure."
'The Glory of the Geeks' begins on Channel 4, Sunday 20 September.
A new image for nerds, page 13