The phone-in you can't hear

Interactive Evening Radio 1

The language of computer communication throws up a few minor ironies. One is that, while it's supposed to be a means of emancipating discourse, the names invented for it are borrowed from things that do the opposite - the Net, the Web. Another is that the word "interaction" gets chucked around with abandon, but modem-based life is extraordinarily atomised and individualistic: sitting in front of a computer screen you may be able to make some great friends in Finland, but it takes its toll on more common forms of interaction, such as, you know, talking to people.

That irony seemed particularly acute listening to Radio 1's "Interactive Evening" on Sunday, an event frankly short on interaction. The main interactivity was an on-line interview with Dave, the drummer from Blur. An on-line interview is, in effect, a phone-in in which the listeners can't hear what's being said - in terms of participation, surely a step backwards, though in this case probably an advantage. When Dave was asked to sum up the proceedings at the end of the evening, it turned out that most of the e-mail he had received was either pure abuse (a decidedly non-interactive approach to conversation) or concerned with masturbation (a decidedly non-interactive approach to sex). Contrast that with the preceding programme, the Top 40: what could be more interactive than millions of people using their collective spending power to determine in what order the nation's most popular records are played?

Interactive bits aside, the evening consisted largely of familiar hype about the Internet, its creation being held up as the most important event since man captured fire, even the most important since man evolved the neural cortex. Unfortunately, the most significant event that anybody could come up with was Courtney Love grieving for Kurt Cobain on her own Web site (hey, Michael Stipe joined in).

Matt Black, one of Jo Wiley and Steve Lamacq's guests, suggested that, "We are evolving, in a way, towards a different type of humanity." Sounds lovely, but you'd like to know just how this evolution is supposed to take place, and what selection mechanism is involved here. Are people who netsurf going to reproduce more successfully than those who don't? You doubt it - if anything, the reverse: aside from the fact that they have eliminated the possibility of physical contact from many of their social relationships (and the effects of radiation from PCs on their generative organs), nobody wants to mate with computer nerds.

The net effect - no pun intended - of the evening was to make claims for the importance of the Internet seem a good deal less plausible than before. The only people to come out of it with any real credit were Wiley and Lamacq, partly because they both have a tendency to sound embarrassed, which in these circumstances seemed entirely suitable. In the end, the part of the evening I enjoyed most came right at the end, when you got the chance to apply the most direct form of interaction: switching it off.

Robert Hanks

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