Expert says Internet is 'cheapening' life

Strife on the superhighway: Spread of the global information exchange condemned in new book as having little value to society
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Technology Correspondent

A new book published tomorrow attacks the Internet for "cheapening the meaning of actual experience", amid wider concerns that the explosion of information on the worldwide network is proving to be of little value to society.

Clifford Stoll, an American astronomer who has used the Internet for 20 years, says in his book Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway that the spread of computer networks "isolates us from one another ... They work against literacy and creativity [and] undercut our schools and libraries".

At the same time, the Internet is rapidly displacing premium price phone lines as the best way for office workers to waste time at their companies' expense, according to statistics collated by the Independent.

Today the Press Association, the UK national news agency, is launching a site on the World Wide Web including a ball-by-ball scoreboard of the Fifth Test match from Trent Bridge. It already runs a cricket results service on the Web, a facility for sending text and pictures on the Internet. "We usually get a big surge of people accessing the site at about 4pm," says Mark Hird, general manager of PA Data Design, which runs the site. To deal with the expected load, PA has expanded its system to cope with up to 1.5 million people every day.

Mr Hird says that most accessing comes during the week. "About a quarter come from academic sites, a third from overseas, and the rest from commercial sites in Britain."

The Internet, which is a global system of interconnecting computer networks, can be accessed by an estimated 30 million people. The number of users is reckoned to be increasing by up to 10 per cent per month.

But Mr Stoll, who went "on-line" in the 1970s, says "in 1986, the budding Internet linked perhaps 60,000 people. What once felt like a small town is now a congested, impersonal New York City of the mind, where you no longer recognise the person who's talking to you".

He adds that the Internet, where theoretically a vast amount of information is available from anywhere in the world for free, and where users can send each other messages for the cost of a local phone call, is being "oversold". "Our expectations have become bloated, and there's damned little critical discussion of the implications of an on-line world."

More than half of the Internet users in the UK are aged between 25 and 44, professional, and 90 per cent are male. But this is probably because a growing number of organisations provide their employees with direct access to the Internet from their desks.

Data gathered by PA Data Design and IBM shows that work hours mark the busiest time for sites and some organisations are trying to stop staff spending too long "surfing the Net". Oracle, a software company based in Bracknell, has about 200 of its 2,000 staff linked to the Internet. "They are given guidelines about what they can and can't do. And we monitor their basic usage. But if somebody really wants to break the rules they could," a spokesman said.

The Internet is also increasingly used for fraud. The US Securities and Exchange Commission has filed a suit against a man who put a $500,000 (pounds 350,000) bond offer on the Internet to start an eel-raising company and included "endorsements" from non-existent investment analysts. The SEC says this is the second such case on the Internet.

Richard Longhurst, editor of .net magazine, says: "Cliff Stoll has a valid point of view. There's a lot of hype around the Internet and the 'information superhighway'. As for the Web sites, people nowadays want something that's more and more instant. They want something that was updated five minutes ago, not five months."

Surfing on the Net: a guide for the unwired

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the Internet as an "international computer network linking computers from educational institutions, government agencies, industry etc."

If you have a personal computer, a modem and a telephone line, you can access the Internet by subscribing to a service provider, who supplies the software.You can then "navigate", or "surf", the Internet, and are free to access different sources of information.

As well as tapping in to data bases, subscribers to the Internet can interact, or "interface", with other users. They can also take part in general discussions, and can send electronic mail (e-mail) messages anywhere in the world.

The Internet was spawned by a project sponsored by the American government to set up a communications system that would survive a nuclear attack. In the late Seventies, the US military allowed it to be opened up to universities, government departments and research organisations. Information sharing between these groups saw the birth of the Internet. In 1992, the National Science Foundation in the US relaxed the rules and private companies were allowed to offer subscriptions to individuals.Today, around 30m people worldwide are "wired".

Connecting to the Internet can be cheaper than connecting a mobile telephone. There are three major service providers. Demon charge a pounds 12+VAT connection fee, and subscribers pay pounds 10+ VAT per month. Unipalm Pipex ask for a pounds 50 connection fee for Pipex Dial, and currently ask pounds 165 a year subscription. Cityscape charge pounds 50+VAT connection and pounds 15+VAT subscription. All offer full access to the Internet.

The Internet offers instant international communications cheaper than by telephone, fax or, sometimes, post. In the UK, the majority of telephone charges Internet users pay are on the local call rate. E-mail messages can take just seconds to reach their destinations.

The future benefits have been highly publicised. Schools, universities and individual students can have a massive library of information at their fingertips for a relatively small cost. Hospitals, too, could profit. They may soon be able to use the Internet to obtain expert advice from any other hospital in the world.

Lack of regulations has led to controversy surrounding pornographic, racist and libellousmaterial on the Internet. It is possible that children using educational material have access to all other material posted on the Internet.

The Internet can make it easier to steal and copy computer software - Bill Gates of Microsoft offered a $10,000 reward this year for information leading to the identitiy of the hacker who stole his company's new Network software and distributed it free on the Internet. It has also been said that the Internet threatens copyright.

The Internet can be a painfully slow process. Some users who use normal telephone lines are frustrated by long waits when they access information containing graphics or pictures.

Obsessives fill much of the Internet space with information that is of little use to the ordinary user. Some of the World Wide Web pages you can access include a toilet page, which describes public lavatories worldwide, and a cow page, which provides the user with pictures and sounds of different breeds of cow. You can also read inventories of users' T-shirt and CD collections

Lack of secrecy has made prospective users cautious about the Internet, and users who pay for services from the Internet by credit card may not be safe from fraudsters.

Famous people on the Internet are Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Paddy Ashdown and Stephen Fry, who wrote about his traumas on the service. The Rolling Stones broadcast video images of their latest tour on the Internet.

Research by Liz Searl