The Irritations of Modern Life

21: Surfing on the Internet
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The Independent Culture
FIRST, THE film version. A handsome astrophysicist is hammering away at his keyboard. He's surfing onto the outer reaches of the web, searching for the secret that will help him prevent nuclear holocaust, and because time is running out, he is gritting his teeth and muttering: "Come on! Come on!" Finally he is one password away from success. Turning to his gorgeous female companion, he says: "Think of something!" and she suggests the villain's mother's maiden name. No go.Then she exclaims: "I know! It's his dog!" Our hero types "Rover" and presto! The world is saved.

The desperate eleventh hour internet search has become a Hollywood staple. To save the world these days you don't need muscles or brains. All you need to know is how to surf. This is not just a film formula. There doesn't seem to be a single person who uses the net who doesn't believe it.

They back up their blind faith with amazing stories about the secret government documents they've happened on to while surfing. They wax poetic about Amazon.com, which can get you any book your heart desires, and have long , boring discussions about the relative merits of search engines with names like "Yahoo!" and "Dogpile".

But you know, when I log on, I'm lucky to get past my university home page. Even if I do, the simplest little surfing trip takes me hours. Say I try to order something from the stationery office. I press a key and then I wait 10 minutes while its logo appears. I choose an option, then discover that I've chosen the wrong option, but there is no way out, as all the keys seem to be frozen. Twenty minutes later, I get a flash on the screen informing me that there has been a network error. When I do find the right page and make my order, all I get is some stuff about there being "no configuration". I am invited to download a form but the document that emerges from the printer is a recipe for "Zippy Banana Pie".

Cyberfanatics assure me that all my problems will be over once I've offloaded my ancient (ie three-year-old) 386 and equip myself with a "decent" computer. But the fastest machine on the market is not going to solve the problem of access. Sites I've visited so far fall into two categories. Either they are open to everybody, because they're run by cranks, or they're worth visiting but impossible to get into unless you pay a subscription. Even then, access depends on you remembering your password and managing to type it correctly without actually being able to see it on the screen. Because a password is not a password unless every other figure is an * or a > and all the letters are upper case. It's only in the movies that you can save the world by typing "Rover". In the real world, we will one day fail to be brought back from the brink of nuclear disaster because some poor astrophysicist types "??" instead of "??.". Or chooses the wrong search engine. Or gets stuck inside Yahoo. Or lost inside a website with logos that take so long to configure that you could walk there faster. If this is surfing, I'd rather take a mud bath.

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