TECHNOFILE: POLITICAL CORRECTION

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The Independent Culture
Because the Web as we know it is no more than four years old, it's easy to overlook the possibility that material of real historical interest is going to be lost before we realise it's there. If there are any curators working on this, the Florida Department of Corrections site has got to be on the hot list for preservation. The folks who run Florida's public-sector prisons have put together a site intended to speak to the relatives of prisoners, crime victims, and the taxpayers who pay their wages. The result is an extraordinary document which expresses more of the spirit of the age than a thousand Millennium exhibits.

Viewed from the departure end of the Miami tourist run, the Florida site is familiar in many respects. It responds to the same public concerns about whether the criminals are being treated harshly enough. Several features address "fallacies" or "misconceptions" (they resist the temptation to speak of "corrections", though there is a link to a penal site called the Correction Connection). These include the beliefs that life doesn't mean life, and that prisoners have cable TV; it does, they don't, and they aren't permitted colour TV sets either. Air conditioning is another bone of contention. Only seven of the Department's 55 public-sector prisons have it, the site assures the public, and several of these are in the southern part of the state - where to deny it would be cruel and unusual punishment indeed. Prisoners housed by the private sector do, however, enjoy the comfort of air conditioning. To show how a modern cell is built, there is a virtual-reality model. As in Jack Straw's domain, the prison service is under pressure from privatisation. Florida's Department of Corrections has come out fighting, with a feisty page which seeks to demonstrate that privatisation does not really save the taxpayer money. It would be interesting to see British institutions break away from their Yes, Minister style of lobbying, and adopt an upfront approach to open government like this.

It's not the similarities that make the site so interesting from a British perspective, but the startling combination of similarities and differences. The most striking dog that doesn't bark is drugs. US taxpayers may be concerned about many aspects of prison life, but drug-taking does not seem to be prominent among them. Perhaps the most noticeable difference in the way that prisoners are represented lies in the American obsession with race, which meshes smoothly with other frameworks of categorisation, thanks to Web technology. The "Escape" page allows the visitor to search the database of escaped prisoners by offence, race and sex. Alarmingly, another category is "escapes within the last thirty days". Even this pales by comparison with the options for information about legitimately released prisoners: "Choose either sexual predators or early releases from this site." On a lighter note, the default setting on the "sex" category is "all".

You really know you're a long way from the Home Office when you reach the Death Row Facts page. Here you can read about a day in the life of a Death Row prisoner: four hours a week in the exercise yard, showers permitted every other day, and "inmates occasionally play chess with a cellmate on either side of him/her". The electric chair has three legs, is made of oak, and was built by inmates. Not mentioned is the incident last year, when flames shot out of a prisoner's mask during execution, and a similar grisly episode in 1990. Nor does the Department of Corrections appear to notice any irony in using the latest electronic technology to communicate with the public, while killing prisoners with a contraption made in 1923.

MEDIA STUDIES CRASH COURSE

Any magazine that calls its literature section "Balzac Nation" is a step ahead of the game. Crash Media has the right style too: lots of text and brackets on a cool grey background, but not many images, making it look like a fashionable art magazine. Based in Manchester, it appears both on paper and online, the latter version being based on the "threads" used by newsgroups to structure discussions. Readers are encouraged to post responses to articles, or stories, blurring the distinction between the webzine and the discussion list.

Crash Media is heavily concerned with what were once known as alternative media; not just computers, but old favourites such as radio - a circuit diagram for a low-power FM transmitter is included, for DIY enthusiasts. There is a forum on "electronic civil disobedience", while for less political hackers there is a photo of a Bulgarian with a mouth full of nails, whose mission is to insert images of himself into art museum Web sites. The Balzac Nation files include short stories by JJ King which take cyberparanoia into Iain Sinclair territory, in a vision of a London full of consumers under the surveillance of nannyish networks with a sharp eye for bad language and overeating. And for serious light relief, there is an outrageous account of "how to get bent when you're straight", the diary of a lost weekend at Sydney's Mardi Gras. If half of it is true, there's no need to worry about what drugs do to short-term memory.

TECHNOTIP

Big corporate hitters like EMAP may be carving up the Web's commercial territory with their supersites, but the indies are still out there. John Hatt's Cheap Flights site is a handy guide to fares for a wide range of destinations, with contacts for the agencies offering them, plus links to background travel information.

OBJECT LESSON

PHILISHAVE COOL SKIN HQ 5620 SHAVER

For men, the debate on the relative values of wet and dry shaving continues. Wet is closer, but more fuss, and you can easily cut yourself. Dry is easier, but not as satisfying. (I never promised this debate was anything less than stultifyingly boring.) Now, there is a Third Way for shaving. Philishave's rechargeable Cool Skin shaver seeks to have it both ways. Tiny green buttons, when depressed, secrete Nivea for Men moisturising emulsion from proprietary cartridges on to the skin as you shave, giving a sensation which is mildly baffling at first, but which quickly comes to feel like second nature. The shaver itself (which costs pounds 99.99 with replacement Nivea cartridges at pounds 3.99 for five), is well designed, although the clip-on moustache and beard trimmer is a little cumbersome. The shave is certainly satisfyingly close, and the only fuss now comes from having to clean the shaver afterwards - the blades are made from stainless steel so you can just hold the heads under the hot tap. Now if only they could come up with a self-cleaning version. Stockist information on 0845 601 0354. David Phelan

WORLD WIDE WEB

YOU'LL FIND LINKS TO ALL THE WEBSITES MENTIONED IN TECHNOFILE ON ITS HOMEPAGES AT: http://www.poptel.org.uk/technofile

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