Falling out with the Net

Laurie Taylor says goodbye and good riddance to a narrow circle of contacts
LAST Thursday morning there was a frantic telephone call from Bob. What did I think about his plans for Friday? Were we going to eat at the Star of India ? And when did the band start their second set at the Jazz Cafe? I asked gently what he was talking about. "Don't you ever read your bleeding E-mail?" he bellowed. "l sent all this stuff to you on Monday."

It was the first time I'd been forced to face the fact that I'd now completely fallen off the Internet. In the early days of the information superhighway I'd have been in front of my Apple at half-past six in the morning, sitting up in eager anticipation as it dialled my Internet connection number. Seven messages! All for me.

I went along with this madness for nearly three months before I opened my E-mail one morning and realised I was now so interested in counting my messages that I'd almost completely stopped paying any attention to their actual content. But the real discovery was that this made absolutely no difference to my life. Most of the messages were of such utter banality that no one would have dreamed of sending them via any other form of communication. Imagine ripping open an envelope and finding that someone called Charles in Birmingham had written to say (and I quote from an actual E-mail): "Hi Laurie. Was in York yesterday. Still the same as ever. Had tea in Betty's. Keep smiling".

But there was another discovery. Only two of my 25 regular E-mail correspondents were people with whom I would normally want to have any sort of contact. The rest were largely the type of sad schmucks who'd warrant a serious detour if I spotted them on the other side of the street. When I talked to other former Internet enthusiasts they agreed that once the sheer pleasure of being able to send and receive messages so quickly wore off, the medium lost much of its fascination. I wasn't at all surprised to learn at a management conference the other day that top executives now routinely ask their secretaries to read their E-mail and junk the rubbish.

Real Netties will tell you that E-mailing is only one tiny aspect of the Internet (even if, according to the latest figures it accounts for more than 50 per cent of its use). What they love are the personal interactive forums which allow them to chat for hours about any subject under the sun to a huge variety of people from around the world. I found them altogether less fascinating. It didn't take me long to discover that the Internet is about as representative of the real world as the dining room at Groucho's. The largest international survey ever carried out found that the mean age for all users was 31, that 90 per cent of all users were men, 87 per cent were white, 70 per cent lived in North America and half dialled in from academic sites. Finding women to talk to on the Internet is like hunting for blacks in senior management. There are plenty of Sandras and Jills and Sallys lurking around the user groups but these are invariably men posing as women for a little bit of illicit fun.

It wasn't only the homogeneous nature of the user groups which eventually killed off this aspect of the Internet for me. It was also the mindlessness of the conversation. If you have a specific query about a subject which doesn't normally feature in the standard encyclopaedia, an enquiry, say, about the top places in Colombia to buy good quality cocaine, then there's no better place to go. But don't expect anything which resembles a normal argument. I slowly discovered that the Internet is largely a place not only for "techies", who revel in a kind of acronymic cultivated illiteracy, but also for crass inductionists, for all those who believe that the mere assembly of more and more bits of information will somehow yield a kind of truth. The Internet is facts without frameworks, data without analysis, knowledge without wisdom.

Outside the user groups there are, of course, huge databases with enough theoretical material to satisfy the most demanding analyst. But the problem here is finding your way around. I soon learned that if I was in a rush for information then there was little point in starting with the Internet. Even if you can get into the system you need (and long waits at peak times are now as predictable on the net as on the M25), you can spend hours chasing between topics and sites before you discover what you want. There was only one more attraction which I had to learn to live without - the pages and pages of pornography. There's a conspiracy of silence among Internet users about this aspect of the network. They'll chat happily for hours about their favourite sites on the World Wide Web, but they'll totally fail to mention that up to 20 per cent of their Internet time is taken up by peering at explicit pictures of men and women's private parts.

On the face it, it's odd that a phenomenon which is always talked of in futuristic terms should be so reliant upon traditional pornographic images. But then all the evidence suggests that cable television in the States would never have succeeded without the enticement offered by the sex channels, and that the very lack of anything quite so explicit in the British-based cable companies' portfolio may well mean some of them are going to lose an awful lot of money in the very near future.

I soon found that I could live without Internet porn. It wasn't pleasant to find oneself spending an entire evening pursuing smut, particularly when one wasn't being led on by the material but by the peek-a-boo character of the Net, the dance of the seven clicks, which only allows you to look at the pictures of "lesbians" doing naughty things after you've made your way through such worthy outer garments as Culture and Society, Society and Sexuality, and Human Sexual Behaviour.

I don't suppose Internet pornography will ever stunt anyone's growth but one does wonder if it might ever occur to those who are now busily downloading the props for solitary masturbation that but for their fascination with the Internet they might have actually acquired enough social skills to make out with a non-digitally assembled person. But then, as we ex- Netties are fond of piously saying to each other, there's nothing quite like the reality of the real world.