Computers: How I learnt to love the superhighway: Richard North reports on his cautious first steps into the world of Internet, avoiding meta-networking 'inadequates' to discover genuinely valuable forums

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The Independent Online
Recently I was asked to attend a meeting of various luminaries at the headquarters of a think-tank. We were to discuss the future of the world. Not least, we would discuss the world of the information superhighway, the world of the Internet.

Suitably struck by my new importance, I chatted with the various invitees. We had introduced ourselves before our host turned up, distracted and late. 'So sorry,' he said, 'but I had 476 E-mail messages waiting for me this morning.'

He was, I guess, trying to impress us with the range of his contacts, and he did. I sheltered behind the idea that he might be so disorientated that any electronic Tom, Dick or Harry could have his attention before it turned to us.

He was, I think, a little peeved that out in the real world, we had been talking to each other, one on one (as they may still say somewhere).

This is the information superhighway I love to hate. I see it as producing lives in which we are condemned to masses of empty communication with people we know little of and care less. It would be a world as clerical as any 18th-century office, with half-baked apercus flying around instead of invoices. We would be as busy as the Duke of Wellngton with his correspondence, but without the old boy's sharpness of tongue.

I fancy the Netropolis - as the Economist magazine calls it - to be a place where clever inadequates will cling together, swapping critiques of bad rock concerts, or lists of reasons why living in Minneapolis is OK, really.

Worse, I sense from reading The Internet For Dummies - which tells you more than it is reasonable for anyone to want to know - that most networking is meta-networking: it is an endless discussion about computing and the telephone.

That, roughly speaking, was what I was thinking before I strode the superhighway a little more seriously last week. I have been playing with two computer networks - subsets of the giant Net - and have begun to see their merits.

First, I signed up to Compuserve and used it mostly to access - in old-speak, 'to gain access to . . .' - back numbers of newspapers. That worked well, though American papers are much cheaper to abstract than their British counterparts. Because I am interested in environmental and Third World development issues, I played with various US government databases with surprising ease.

And then I joined Compuserve's Earth Forum. In short order one discovers that information is posted in the 'library' while 'conversations' take place in the 'message' section.

Trawling the library, I discovered an interesting article by an American professor who has studied the way the prairies of the West may indeed be in quite good hands (those of modern cowboys) and should stay there - while conservationists mostly long for a pre-bovine world.

Then I found news of a forthcoming book written by someone who sounds sensible and argues that Prince William Sound in Alaska may have survived the Exxon Valdez oil spillage better than it is fashionable to say.

By now the superhighway was showing its real mettle. Across its giant scatter had emerged a sub-universe ('greenery') which it divided into specialisms ('politics', 'forests', 'professional corner', etc). What struck me was the depth of the material and the neatness of the signposting.

I am less sure I shall find 'conferencing' - exchanging messages on the bulletin board with other contributors - worthwhile. I had placed a message announcing that I was interested in getting help promoting my latest book, which suggests the planet will survive rather well the presence of 10 billion people.

'Sysop' - the systems operator, the person who runs the conference - sceptically asked me for more information. One of my two other correspondents suggested that I was in the wrong forum and that I was, in any case, 'evil' and did not love the world.

This is what I dreaded: the political correctness of the personal computer, or PC-squared.

I am, naturally, interested in the 'alternative' world of computer networks. This is partly because in the 1970s I remember reading radical accounts of the 'wired society' and it struck me then - as it does now - that hippies understood the real world at least as well as, and perhaps better than, the 'straights'.

The heart of the radical enthusiasm for the network world was, and remains, the idea that entry could be cheap and orderly in an organic rather than a controlled way. The network would be a proper anarchy.

I asked GreenNet - a member of the Association for Progressive Communications - for membership and advice and have since had a go-round some of their conferences. I have had good and bad times: one 'address' I visited offered me Greenpeace press releases, but for 1990. The superhighway seemed to be stuck in a lay-by at that point.

On the other hand, I have seen informed discussion on human rights in northern Africa and have begun to explore the computer networks of that continent - to discover, so far, that the ANC's environment spokesman feels that eco-soundness has been sold short in the aftermath of democracy.

I am, cautiously, becoming excited by the Net. But I still have not had any electronic mail. Go on, make my day. I have this target: 476 items, or die. Talk to me on Compuserve 100141,1441.

The Internet For Dummies; John R Levine and Carol Baroudi; IDG Books Worldwide.

GreenNet, 4th Floor, 393-395 City Road, London EC1V 1NE. Tel: 071 713 1941; Compuserve freecall 0800 289458.

JOINING THE INTERNET

THE three simplest ways are:

Compuserve (voice 0800 289458). With 2.2m members worldwide (60,000 in this country) Compuserve offers access to many valuable databases and news services, and technical suport from all major manufacturers. It is slowly adding connections to the wider Internet as well. Compuserve members can send and receive E- mail and have just acquired the ability to read and contribute to the global discussion on Usenet.

Cix (voice 081 390 8446; modem 081 390 1255) offers almost all Internet services that do not require graphics. It is smaller, friendlier and cheaper than Compuserve, if less professional.

Demon Systems (081 343 3881) offers a complete Internet connection more cheaply than anyone else. Connected through Demon, your computer becomes a part of the Internet. You can run Mosaic, a graphical program which makes the wider Internet seem simple and comprehensible.

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