Here's a little story, which I offer as anecdotal perspective on Martha Lane Fox's "Manifesto for a Networked Nation" – which was launched yesterday and which argued for universal digital enfranchisement with as much urgency as a 19th-century social reformer campaigning for municipal sanitation. With its talk of "nobody being left behind" and its description of the unconnected as "isolated and disadvantaged" Lane Fox's manifesto is a kind of cyberspace equivalent of Disraeli's The Two Nations – a portrait of an unconscionably divided country in which 10 million people still languish beyond the light of eBay and online banking and the Twitter feed. My experience suggested that not all the disenfranchised quite see it that way.
I currently look after a holiday cottage in Yorkshire, and the other day received a call from a visitor saying that the curtain rail in the bedroom had fallen off the wall. Since another guest was due the following day it needed fixing immediately but unfortunately the handyman I would normally ring to ask for help was away on holiday too. I didn't have the name of a back-up so I did what I invariably do these days when I haven't a clue what to do next. I turned to Google.
I typed in the name of the village and the word "handyman" and within a fraction of a second had a list of possible candidates. A couple of telephone calls later and I found someone who was both able and – given that this was Saturday morning – almost miraculously willing. He would, he said, walk across the green right away, have a look and let me know if he could do anything. About 20 minutes later I got a call to say that it had been fixed.
I don't know the exact age of this good Samaritan but I think it's safe to say that he was closer to the end of his career than the beginning – maybe one of the 50 per cent of 65-to-74 year olds who cause Lane Fox particular anxiety by stubbornly remaining offline. He didn't seem to be a technophobe – since he called me back on a mobile phone. But when I asked him whether he had email (so that he could bill me for the work he'd done) he replied, in affable tones, "Don't be daft". What is for me a professional and social essential – a utility as important as mains water – was obviously for him a faintly comical frippery.
I don't know why this is the case. He may feel, living in a small village, that the local post office and local shop supply him with all the network he needs and may quite like the fact that he has to use his legs to go online. There may be some other reason. But I'm pretty sure he doesn't think of himself as a victim of unfair exclusion. "The disadvantages of being offline are so great", says Lane Fox in her manifesto, "that for reasons of social justice and economic necessity we must act now". In a lot of cases she's right. But there are a lot of cases where she isn't.
And these people aren't disconnected or "offline" (a word that implies some kind of deficiency). They're just not that fussed. I bless the internet almost daily – as I blessed it on Saturday for solving a problem that would have been 10 times as complicated 20 years ago. But I like the idea that there are still people out there who can live perfectly happily without it.
Through a glass weirdly
It's happened to all of us sometime. You spot a cameraman out of the corner of your eye and realise you've just been recorded for posterity. Unfortunately the shutter has clicked at precisely the moment when an eyelid drooped or your face briefly adopted an expression of supreme gormlessness. You would prefer this picture to be wiped from the memory – electronic and human – but everybody else thinks it's hilarious and before long it's up on Facebook so everybody can share the joy. How embarrassing though for this to occur at the heart of a media circus, as it did to the Taser-wielding policeman whose Hollywood snarl became the public face of the final showdown between Raoul Moat and Northumbria Police. For that split second, he looked like some paint-balling fantasist playing at cops and robbers.
I'm sure this is unfair. A few milliseconds either side and it might very well have been a flattering image, capturing a sense of steely professional command. As it was though, his mates will be teasing him for weeks to come (I understand you can get T-shirts printed with photographs for a very modest rate) and it may well have shaped public perceptions about the way the police conducted themselves on that occasion. All done in one awkward snap.
* Stanford University has been building itself a new engineering library – a process that for the last 2,000 years has almost invariably meant an expansion of shelf space. This time round, the new library, to the librarians' professed satisfaction, will contain 85 per cent fewer books than the old one. There are obviously limits to how one can generalise from this fact. Without casting any slurs I would never have had engineering students down as big readers – and the technical tomes they need to consult obviously make more sense in a digital and searchable form.
But it is a kind of straw in the wind too, since searchability is just as important for the users of history text books (or even primary sources) as it is for engineers. One day, not very far off, the disappearing perspective of book stacks will be as quaintly antique as a rack of parchment scrolls. Instead the library will be a place to download and data-plunder. I'm not hugely sentimental about this myself – it's what's in books that matters, not how they smell. But librarians will need to think of ways to preserve one quality that has been crucial to the pleasure and utility of libraries for centuries – which is the ability to get lost in them.
Search engines – like satellite navigation systems – will take you where you know you want to go with great efficiency – but how much in human culture has flowed from taking a wrong turning and bumping into something you never knew was there?Reuse content