A non-anorak wearer's guide to The Internet: All you wanted to know about the global computer network, but were too afraid of being bored to ask

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Indy Lifestyle Online
MOST of us can remember a time when you would never, in the run of general social chat, have to deal with the question 'Are you wired?' - unless for some peculiar reason people thought you were an American policeman.

But increasingly, questions about personal wiring and 'Cyberspace', or sentences involving the word 'net' that are plainly not to do with fishing, are making otherwise pleasant conversations worrying and imcomprehensible.

Somewhere between 20 and 40 million people across the world are wired, connected, on the Net, using the Internet, in the web, using cyberspace, on E-Mail, in the Micropolis, Netties, cyberpunks - or however they choose to describe themselves. A new one joins them every 10 minutes. BBC TV currently has a series running called The Net, about, well, the Net.

In the first nine months of 1993 there were 2,300 articles in the press about Internet, and there is now an entire UK magazine, 3W (Internet address 3W@3W. com) devoted to it.

A worrying social question is - should I, too, be on this Net? And more worrying still - what in the name of bo-byte is it?

What is the Internet?

Those who claim they can answer this in simple terms are lying. They will begin in plain English, then, within four seconds, will have said the words Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), and it will be downhill all the way from there.

To put it simply, the Internet is the collective noun for all the computers in the world that are currently talking to each other through a computer language that is called Tranmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP).

To have another go: millions of computers are all linked together, speaking the same computer language, and that network is the Internet. The world you inhabit when you go on the Internet is known as Cyberspace. (Though beware, some Netties are beginning to deem this word 'geeky'.)

Who runs the Internet?

To quote from the American computer magazine, Wired: 'In cyberspace the lunatics not only run the asylum, they helped build it, which may explain why no one has been able to shut it down or control it.'

No one runs the Net. It has no centre. In the words of 3W editor, Steve Bowrick, it is 'a vast, unregulated, phenomenon maintained by its users, which could become the most powerful communications system in history.'

Where did it come from?

It began in the late Sixties, when the American defence department decided it wasn't smart to have its computer hub centred in one nukeable spot.

A collection of academics, communications gurus and government bodies worked out how to link computers over long distances using, essentially, telephone lines.

This alerted the attention of a lot of Sixties' ex-hippy types who set the tone and agenda of the Net. A web was formed and spread like a bushfire.

Now, anybody with the right equipment can get in there and range around as freely as their 'techno-savvy' allows. At present, 137 countries are wired. Governments, financial and academic institutions, and commercial companies are jumping on the bandwagon.

How do you get on it?

First, you need a computer terminal, a telephone line, and a modem (a box which can send computer signals down the phone lines). Then, you have to open an account with a 'connectivity provider': a commercial company (such as Demon, Compuserve, and, from June, the BBC) who will provide you with your 'gateway' (access) to the system.

The world's computer links are joined through a series of major connection points - like the stations on a tube map. Your 'connectivity provider' will join you up to one of these and then the Net, becomes, as it were, your oyster.

What can it give you?

Many things - repetitive strain injury, more information than you could ever want or conceive of, emotional problems, 20 million new friends, and an extremely odd new vocabulary. 'Bio moo,' you will find yourself saying. 'Sysop, zine, Mup.'

What is it intended to give you?

(a) Information: Access to almost limitless archives, libraries, news services, and other users' brains. Teleshopping and advertising are at this moment preparing to invade.

(b) An Electronic-Mail (E-Mail) name and address: which means that you can type messages into your computer and send them to anyone else on the Net.

(c) The ability to send whole documents, even books, to any other computer who will have them.

(d) Access to 'Usenet' - a collection of discussion groups with a stultifying range of titles: Plastic Utensils; S&M Porn; alien. vampire. flonk. flonk. flonk. You name it . . .

Will it ruin my bank account?

It depends how addicted you are. The connectivity providers charge individuals a fee of about a tenner a month.

On top of that you have to pay for the use of the phone line. The good news is that you only get charged for the call as far as the nearest connection point, so connections to, say, America get billed at a UK rate.

But, if you end up addicted to vampire. flonk. flonk. flonk discussions, your phone bill could hit quadruple figures.

Will it ruin my life?

That depends what you mean by life. RL (real life)? Well then, yes. A current advert for a computer game - 'Still living at home, no job, no friends, never kissed a girl, but I finally defeated the green blobs in the fifth dungeon' - says it all.

But then the Net is a whole alternative community that can make up for what you wreck in Real Life.

As community spirit, manners and ethics retreat from RL they are reappearing in cyberspace (though the enthusiasm for porn rather clouds the rosy picture). Communities of Net users develop their own 'netiquettes', help each other out after fires and earthquakes, and exchange advice, pornography, plastic utensil hints and so on.

Can the Net cause pregnancy?

Yes, be careful. Emotions range out of control in cyberspace.

The system has all the immediacy of a phone line, without the inhibiting factor of instant reaction from the other end, in a tone of voice you can gauge.

Beware of the 'Ohnosecond' which is the moment after you sent the message when you realize you wish you hadn't.

'Flaming' is netspeak for crazy rows which blaze out of control for months. Romantic passion can flare up in a similar untempered way. If you stay behind the screen you can always Perot (to Perot: netspeak for 'to unexpectedly quit'). If you decide to try and transfer your cyberspace romance to RL without due care and attention, you might get stuck in an Ohnolifetime.

Will it alter my personality?

Yes. For many, this begins with the choice of an E-Mail name. The urge to reinvent personally, and call yourself Skippy T Sky Raider becomes overwhelming. You begin to write and speak as if you are on drugs and it is the Sixties. 'Spooky' will enter your vocabulary. You will contract Attention Deficit Disorder and not be able to concentrate on anything for more than three seconds because too much else is going on in the Net.

One day you may find you have turned up for the office wearing acid green lycra cycle shorts and a fez.

You will, however, believe that anyone who disapproves is a 'total geek'.

Will I be left out if I don't get on the Net?

Probably. The thing is growing so fast, it's unlikely that it can stay out of the British mainstream for long. Cyberspace has already become the alternative America. The Net only took off here three years ago with the deregulation of the phone system. It has far to go. Spooky huh?

Will everyone think I'm a nerd if I do?

The jury is still out on this one. In this country, Netties are still branded with the computer boffin tag. Along with bunjee jumpers, trainspotters, and other specialised hobbyists, they have an air of restrained, reverential excitement at finding fellow enthusiasts for things incomprehensible to the rest of us; and a tendency launch instantly into gibberish on meeting.

The image may change. For the time being the best thing is to go on about the educational benefits and try to keep quiet your ongoing flame with Rammer P Martianbopper.

Is it safe for a woman out there?

Good question. Newsweek recently devoted a whole eight-page section to gender and the Net. There are complaints of sexual harassment and of the whole system being unbearably macho-cyberbore dominated. Of course you can always keep your sexual identity a secret, or confine yourself to all female user groups, of which there are many (but how to check for imposters?).

Will the Internet take over the world ?

Maybe. It could become huge: it could transform communication, publishing, human relationships and shopping. There is much debate about the Net being the last refuge of true freedom of speech (buzz phrases: the Open Platform, cyberdemocracy).

There are dreams of a Net political party, based on the idea that centralised politics is becoming archaic. The American presidency is certainly taking it seriously. Netties are currently in a frenzy over US Administration threats to destroy the openness: to encourage users to use 'encryption' - codings which would be secret from everyone except, er, the American administration.

There is paranoia, too, that the Net will destroy itself by becoming an irritating global advertising and shopping network.

These much vaunted world- changing innovations sometimes have a habit of regulating themselves. It may be, over here, that when the thrill and mystery wears off, the Internet settles back into a solemn domain of academia, government and big business. The Usenet freaks may be sidelined as a quirky social strata, like a particularly huge group of CB radio enthusiasts.

If that happens (which is not looking likely) then people who ask you if you're wired at parties can be told to to Geek Off with confidence . . .

(Photographs omitted)