Computers: Drunk in charge: Andrew Brown explores the intoxicating opportunities provided by specialist on-line publishing

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The Independent Online
Today, on April Fool's Day, it is a pleasure to report one of the first large-scale electronic hoaxes: Senator Edward Kennedy's office has had to put out an official electronic denial of the rumour that he is to sponsor a Senate Bill to make it illegal to be intoxicated on the Information Superhighway: in other words to use a modem while drunk.

The rumour originated in an April Fool's Day spoof by John Dvorak, a columnist in PC Magazine.

He wrote: 'The moniker 'Information Highway' itself seems to be responsible for SB 040194, which is designed to prohibit anyone from using a public computer network (Information Highway) while the computer user is intoxicated. I know how silly this sounds, but Congress apparently thinks being drunk on a highway is bad no matter what kind of highway it is. The bill is expected to pass this month.'

I owe this story to Risks. Digest, one of the most delightful publications available by electronic mail. People have been predicting for years electronic publications will replace paper ones and then discovering that they do not, since it is much more pleasant to read a book than a screen.

But as the number of computers connected to the Internet, the global information network, rises and rises, certain niches for electronic publication do appear in which conventional paper publishing cannot properly compete.

The first to appear was discussion and help for computers themselves. But this is not really surprising. If you are prepared to spend a couple of hours working through the vast software archives on the Internet in search of a good mail program for the Atari ST, you already think computers are useful and interesting, or at least more useful and interesting than everyday life.

It is the discussion groups for people who would normally shun computers that I find fascinating. The point here is that the Internet acts not as a global village but as a virtual city: that is to say a place where there are so many people that everyone is bound to find someone who shares an interest with them, no matter how obscure.

Medieval numismatists, fly fishermen, fundamentalist Christians interested in setting up communities without churches - all can find two or three hundred others out there on the net and set up a mailing list. All have in fact done so.

The principle is simple. Everyone on the list can send and receive messages to everyone else on it by sending a message to a single address, a computer known as a 'Listserv' which will then distribute the thought to all other members.

These mailing lists are both more primitive and more sophisticated than the discussions on Usenet - the collective name given to discussion groups on the Internet - that grew out of them. They are more primitive because they are harder to use: there are no dedicated programs for reading them as there are for Usenet. They are harder to find, too. A big Usenet service will dump a list of 3,000 or more discussions, sorted into topics or 'news groups' onto your hard disk.

All that sort of information is automatically maintained. Lists of mailing lists, on the other hand, are much harder to find. There are some lists, but none are complete. There is no central authority or mechanism responsible for collating them. This means, however, that anyone who finds their way to a mailing list wants to do so. Usenet groups are so easy to reach that all the wrong people have arrived already.

Most sensible people have long since given up most of Usenet newsgroups as a desert populated by shrieking Yahoos and egomaniacs. One friend, after a couple of days trawling around, remarked that he never wanted to hear another opinion from a computer science student in the Midwest about anything ever again.

If the Usenet newsgroups are full of students; mailing lists are where the faculty hangs out. This ensures at least that all the bores you meet are well-informed. At best, it provides a high standard of interdisciplinary discussion.

Somewhere out on the Internet, we know, all sorts of the world's most serious research is going on. Mailing lists are not that. But they can provide a kind of enormous junior common room, in which all the interesting research in the world is being discussed.

Comp. Risks is an example of a mailing list which has grown too large for its own good. It is now available as a Usenet group and even by fax. It is also 'moderated' - which means that it is a digest of material submitted to and approved by Peter Neuman, a computer scientist in California. The interest which unites it is a profound and well-informed suspicion of technology: it is written by people at the cutting edge of progress and the noting of what and who gets cut down in swathes as a result.

Recent issues included, as well as the Senator Edward Kennedy story, an account of the use of computers in gambling: casinos use them to record how much people bet, so that they can pick out the high rollers, who need to be offered free weekends so that they can bankrupt themselves.

The original story appeared in an American business magazine. The man who contributed it to Risks pointed out how the technique could be adapted to toymakers. 'It wouldn't be that hard. You could actually get a toy to do the explaining. Each product from a given toy company would contain a single chip with a small microprocessor, a simple RF receiver, some memory and a speech synthesis device. When the toy goes through the check-out, an RF device built into the cash register downloads the toy with a demographic profile of the family derived from credit files pulled up through the purchase transaction. Then, as the child plays with the toy, the toy explains to the child the virtues of various other toys from the same company, along with suggestions for persuasion tactics that consumer research has shown to work well on parents in that particular market segment.'

Then there are stories about the trust people put in plastic cards. A French manufacturer has just announced a range of new, secure cash dispensers for banks, to be housed in special lobbies. It boasts that they are programmed so that, if a stolen card is used, the doors will lock automatically, trapping the thief until the police arrive.

The first commentator pointed out the obvious risk that whoever keys in the report of a stolen card may miskey the number; and the slightly less obvious risk that an enemy could report your card stolen, thus condemning you to an unpleasant half-hour next time you try to withdraw money.

Not half as unpleasant, the next commentator points out, is the predicament of an innocent person withdrawing money next to a crook, so that both are trapped and waiting for the police to arrive.

All of us know, deep down, that computers are making the world worse. Only the readers of Comp. risks know just how much worse and in what ways.

Services which allow access to the Internet include: WinNet, 081 863 1191; Compuserve, 0800-289458; Cix, 081-390-8446; and Demon, 081 343 3881.

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