What the web means to me
When AOL asked public figures for their views on the internet, their answers revealed man's complex relationship with technology
Wednesday 11 January 2006
I worked for Tony Blair for almost a decade, but did not use a computer. I should add that the Prime Minister is not much better. He, too, is at heart a pen and paper man.
So it is with some humility that the Prime Minister leads Britain towards technological progress. And it was without the faintest knowledge of how such progress was delivered that I oversaw a revamp of Government processes to take account of the internet's growing significance in communication with the public.
Out of Government, I have had to learn to do things for myself. I am now addicted to my BlackBerry, but I am still way behind when it comes to using the internet. However, I have a better understanding of how much it matters, and the potential it has to reshape political communication.
The appeal of the internet, in our very aggressive media marketplace, is that it offers the prospect of more direct dialogue. And just as the public have grown very canny about Government spin, so they are very canny about media spin, too. The internet gives them the chance to put themselves in the driving seat. They can have their opinions, and find the arguments that help maintain them, rather than have people tell them what to think.
But we should not overstate all this. I believe one lesson of the last election is that the internet is unlikely to replace TV as a medium to broadcast to mass audiences in the short term. I think its future for politics lies in different directions, in the building of campaigning networks and fund-raising.
But how do you turn the internet into a tool for genuine two-way debate? The best of our MPs have developed really exciting ways of re-engaging with their constituents. But it is slow, and I think even they would admit that pressure groups, such as Make Poverty History, still lead the way.
To connect with young people, political parties are going to have to view the web as an essential part of their campaigning mix. They should also see that with the press as negative as it is, with TV and radio reporting as press-influenced as it is, that is an opportunity not a threat. Even I, technophobe that I am, can see that.
The internet is, simply, the most important human invention since the introduction of printing. It has grown so quickly that it is easy to forget how recent it is. Introduced only 32 years ago by Vinton Cerf, it was followed in 1991 by Tim Berners-Lee's world wide web.
Today, there are more websites than there are human beings alive on the planet. As a communication system it has no equals.
Because of its global power it has many enemies. It allows anyone with a computer to say anything they like to anyone else with a computer, anywhere in the world, regardless of political suppression, religious bigotry, or puritanical censorship.
In human terms, its significance lies in the way it gives us back our ancient birthright. For a million years our ancestors lived in small groups, probably of only 80 to 100 individuals. Within each group everyone knew everyone else personally. Then, with the advent of the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago, our small tribal settlements grew into large villages, then towns, then cities and now into mega-cities containing millions of crammed-in citizens.
In these new urban environments, it is no longer possible to know all the people where you live. If you tried to talk to everyone as you walked down a city street, the whole urban system would grind to a halt. Strangers have to be ignored - treated as non-persons.
We evolved as tribal beings and, thanks to the internet, we are now tribal once more, only this time it is a global tribe. Unfortunately, while the internet may provide us with a high-speed global communication system, it does this at the expense of face-to-face encounters. Instead of sallying forth into the hurly-burly of the human marketplace to find answers to our questions, we remain alone, huddled over our screens in the privacy of our rooms. We may have made contact with a global "tribe", but it is a faceless one.
The greatest loss here is the information we receive from body language - from tone of voice, facial expression, gesticulation, body movement and posture. In face-to-face encounters it is this non-verbal communication system that tells us so much about the personalities and changing moods of those we are talking to. On the internet we have no idea whether the gossip in the chatroom, the "authority" pontificating on an issue, or the seller on eBay, is charming and reliable, crazy and eccentric, or devious and cunning. The internet gives us facts and figures by the million, but it tells us nothing about a stranger's true worth.
Among the many scare stories that accompanied the rise of the internet in the 1980s were reports of a Japanese techno-cult known as the Otaku. These young men, in their teens and 20s, were said to sit in their bedrooms for months on end, barely communicating with the outside world while they immersed themselves in virtual domains. In the future, many predicted gravely, the dominance of the internet would mean we'd all live as radically atomised individuals only capable of communicating with each other via cables.
The fears expressed in those reports remain: that the internet will foster an empty, passionless society that subsumes the real beneath the virtual, losing sight along the way of ordinary human hope, desire and emotion. Just check out the Matrix movies or the early novels of William Gibson for a glimpse into that future. Yet rather than tearing societies apart, the internet has brought us together.
For evidence, just ask the subscribers to sites such as Friends Reunited. Online communities like these can actually have the edge on real life. Unlike the relationships among families or in offices, you elect to join and can leave any time you like. More than this, they have a powerful social function, as any group of cancer patients who've formed their own chatrooms to swap advice and offer mutual support will tell you.
Yet, the same elements that create strong online communities - the ease of exchange and the sense of intimacy fostered by long distance anonymous relationships - are also to blame for the some of the most troubling aspects of the internet, such as sexual predators targeting children via chatrooms.
At their bleakest, the fixations of online communities can turn bleakly nihilistic. Last April, news services in Japan reported that two men and a woman had been found dead in a car outside Tokyo. The victims had met over the internet and arranged to die together. In chatrooms with names like Suicide Club, thousands of young Japanese people are now meeting online to talk and plan their deaths. Internet suicides in Japan in 2004 claimed 55 victims. In 2005, that had grown to at least 75.
All of this proves that far from providing an alternative to real life, as was once feared, online communities are only a reflection of the ambitions and anxieties of the ordinary world. For better - and sometimes - for worse.
It was 1996 when I acquired my own state-of-the-art PC and internet server. E-mail was a revelation - the new medium seemed to have the ease of a phone call, while calling upon one's interlocutors to revert to the niceties of a more epistolatory age.
When people talk about "information overload", I'm inclined to think that - to paraphrase Marshall MacLuhan - they are projecting their own message on to this essentially "value null" medium. These are, I'll wager, the same people who mindlessly surf cable TV stations, or who constantly use their mobiles to tell others where they are.
We need to balance against this electronic obsessive-compulsiveness the very real and important ways in which the vast amount of information accessible via the web has freed up global society. It is precisely the impossibility of concealing secrets in the wired-up world that has prevailed upon governments as formerly secretive as Britain's to introduce their own Freedom of Information Acts.
This mercurial character is also what makes the net so worrying to those who perceive a terrorist threat lurking everywhere in the post-9/11 world. While in no way wishing to belittle the obscenity of terrorism, I doubt that the internet itself is a factor in all this. If people wish to conspire to commit violence, the safest way for them to communicate remains by word of mouth. It seems to me rather that the internet has become a metaphor for the terrorist mind itself: ubiquitous, burrowing through our healthy arteries of communication like a dangerous nematode.
I am neither an obsessive surfer, nor an enlightened researcher, but I engage in both sufficiently to know that the responsibility for them lies with me. The occasional nugget of golden information mined from the shaft of cyberspace fills me with a kind of awe at this outgrowth of our collective psyche, just as an old book, bought with a few keystrokes, fills me with a childish glee.
As a writer, not a futurologist, the internet remains almost as ungraspable 20 years on. I'm not sure that I don't like this modern mystery: at once so visually apprehensible and immaterial. It's a secular form of a revelatory text: a mighty scroll unrolling in an electronic empyrean.
This is part of a series of articles about the internet commissioned by AOL. To add your views, visit www.aol.co.uk/discuss
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