Independent Decade : Caught in the Net and snared by the Web

Computer Age
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The Independent Online
In the past 10 years, we have unconsciously taken EM Forster's imprecation to "only connect" very seriously. A decade ago, only a few military and academic scientists and experts knew what the Internet was. Hardly anybody had a personal computer (PC) at home, and not that many more could boast one on their desk. Mobile phones were expensive and heavy, suitable only for yuppies and builders (one could afford them, the other could lift them).

Science was still struggling to turn the concepts of genetic engineering into processes. Even the brightest scientists had only realised how you could use a novel laboratory technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) on hair and blood samples found at the scene of crimes. The result - in 1987 - was DNA fingerprinting, now used regularly as evidence in trials.

Computers and telecommunications, the keys to connection, have been the decade's two fastest-growing industries. PCs have quintupled in power for a given price since 1986, and are now sold in the high-street, in superstores, by mail order, as big or tiny as you like. The language of computer programming (upload, download, booting up) has reached the street. The launch last year of Microsoft's Windows 95 software received more publicity than that of any car, film or rocket. All for a program which did nothing radically new. Except having it, and using it, made people feel they belonged to the emerging information aristocracy. They were Getting Connected.

Paradoxically, while linking up, we have created a world in which we are much less tied down, and where the idea of "place" has almost ceased to have meaning. Mobile phones and pagers are widely owned, and they can be used across large reaches of the northern hemisphere. I recently saw a photographer in Morocco use a mobile phone to call his office in London. Ten years earlier he would have had to find a callbox, deal with uncomprehending international operators, unfamiliar coins and crackling lines. Now he just punched a few buttons.

But connection carries a penalty: you cannot escape. You may be walking in a mountain range when your phone goes: the office, the boss, your spouse wants you. Less the global village, more the global telephone box. Whatever happened to time off? And whatever happened to the space between places, and being uncontactable?

The opening up in 1991 of the Internet to users around the world has been another destroyer of distance. With the World Wide Web, anywhere is just as far away as your screen. We do not need to wait for a postman to arrive at the door; we can jack our laptop computer into a telephone socket and scan our email, which might have a song or a short film attached, fire off notes, "chat" to people in other time zones. As was once said (disparagingly) of Oakland, California, "There's no 'there' there." The same is true of the Internet.

Communications and computers have also demolished the idea of a "workplace". You do not need a head office if you carry your talents in your head and a phone in your pocket. Plumbers and drug dealers were among the first to realised this. The middle classes have been slower to catch on. Work, and the workplace, is changing, now that we can do more things at once.

While technology mutates our work and relaxation, science has changed our perceptions of ourselves. PCR (which makes multiple copies of any tiny strip of DNA) has made gene-hunting possible - and revolutionised our ability to understand ourselves, by making it possible to peer at the functions of individual genes.

But do our genes carry our destiny? Should a mother be allowed to demand an abortion on the basis that her child carries particular genes that might lead to a disease late in life? In our increasingly networked world, such decisions can never be made alone.