There have been a number
of remarks in the press and elsewhere to the effect that the Internet is like the biggest
library in the world, but with the books stored in random order. To which I am tempted to
respond that if the illiterate enter the best indexed and classified library in the world,
they will still be unable to find enlightenment.
The whole point about the Internet is that it is what you want to make of it. And if
you just want to be a sofa-surfer, then you probably haven't actually worked out what
you are looking for in this library anyway. Those who bumble around seeking enlightenment
and entertainment may occasionally bump into something of fascination, but most of the
time they won't. There is a large section of the cruising public who are perfectly
happy to potter about and just trip over interesting stuff, but this is incidental to the
The real benefits of the Internet are in the more structured uses, of which email
steadfastly remains number one. In their various efforts to develop this theme, companies
like Novell and Lotus are adding bells and whistles to email schemes that add voice mail,
paging, redirection and all manner of extensions, but there are still too few tools for
managing the information effectively and creating means of classification and indexing.
There is evidence that companies like Oracle are starting to get a handle on information
management and retrieval on an Internet scale, but these solutions are a long way outside
he scope of the average surfer who has to rely on the search sites and indexes.
Systems like the Yahoo index site on the web have made a start on making the contents
accessible, and miraculously, seem to be operating fast enough to satisfy demand; but
instead of presenting the Internet as one huge haystack, such things reduce the task of
locating information to a series of more manageable smaller haystacks. There is a long way
to go in terms of indexing the "whole world", and this is any case irrelevant
since I still maintain that local networks hold the clues to the real utility of ideas
like the Internet within a "real" community.
But the reality is that we are very long way from any degree of universal connectivity.
Despite continuing rapid growth, there are still under 100,000 Internet users in the UK
from a population of 58 million. And I never cease to be amazed at low levels of email
illiteracy of businesses notionally attached to the IT trade. PR companies, whose business
is "communication" are a particular paradox. Some of them have rudimentary
connectivity in the shape of email, precious few have any idea of the web or anything
beyond the basics.
Even companies deep into the ISDN market don't seem to have a policy of corporate
email.... yet. Future Publishing is the beacon of net-savvy in the UK publishing industry,
having easily the most thorough and thought through approach, with just about everyone on
So if it was fashionable to be "into the Internet last year", it's only
to be expected that there are now those for whom the latest pose is to declare the
Internet to be a waste of time. Always remember that the Internet, like everything about
computing, is the result of what we put into it. And those who have no ability or
intention to bring constructive thoughts and creative purpose to its development are
likely to find the Internet experience less than engrossing.
It's hardly surprising that there is something of a reaction setting in amongst
those members of the media consuming public who are now suffering from Superhighway
fatigue. I've seen various gripey articles written about the Internet's lack of
structure and generally nebulous nature by pundits looking to be the first to pull the
plug on Internet mania, which is ironic because it's only very recently that the hard
evidence has started to mount that the Internet really is being taken seriously in all
walks of commercial and political life.
Oh no. They've noticed us...
The Internet machine was indeed entirely fuelled by hype for most of last year, but now
the hype has been crowned with the news that the leaders of the G7 group of nations have
discovered this Superhighway thing. They have decided that they need to do something about
it; and having discovered it exists, the first thing that any self respecting politician
starts thinking about is ways and means of regulating it: which is a precursor to taxing
it, of course.
I'd have been a lot more impressed if the G7 summit had been held on line or by
video conference. Think of the money saved in travel, accommodation and the general hoopla
that trails in the wake of such a political circus.
The response of the politicians thus far has been uninspiring, and already drawn up in
the UK along party lines, with Socialists bleating about wiring up libraries, schools and
hospitals, and Tories bleating about free markets and a "climate for business".
Yet when both sets of protagonists faced each other on the Money Program back in February,
they actually found themselves in broader agreement than I can recall seeing sets of
opposing politicians for some time. So perhaps the enlightenment brought by awareness of
the Internet can even help politicians to see the light and stop fighting like cats in a
It still seems that most of the senior political figures probably still have no real
grip on the broader implications of the Internet, but I suspect that it might yet turn out
to be a great election gimmick for a party that decides to wire the UK and offer free
basic telecoms to the entire population; after all, this probably does not cost more than
a fraction of the cost of running the NHS for a year. And there is one political party at
the moment that can only be described as desperate for some sort of gimmick to distract
attention from their lack of conspicuous popular achievement in other respects.
It seems simple enough to argue that easy access to mass telecommunications is a matter
of national advantage. Just imagine the commercial and strategic advantage for a nation
with a near 100% computer literate population, plus free general networked
It's such a good idea that the rest of Europe would be bound to follow (after a
lot of bitching about level playing fields and social chapters). No one could afford to
get left out of such a thing for long; and if the UK lead the way, then I imagine our
specialists would be in much demand since they would have the experience. We have
consistently lead the world in areas of telecoms expertise despite not really having much
of an electronics industry to speak of these days, and we've even managed to parlay
this technology into cash (unusually for GB Ltd.) through operations like BT and C&W.
Doubtless we've also squandered lots of opportunities, but on the whole, the UK
telecoms scene is one of the less depressed areas of the economy.
Plus, of course, if we get our act together first and establish the information
services and systems relevant to a wired Europe, we might have found a way to get an
advantage that even the petty bureaucracy of Brussels would be hard pressed to screw up...
Dream on. We'll probably be lucky to have 30 PCs in every school by the year 2000.
The many control paranoids that exist in government (and in business) doubtless find
the prospect of total communication for the masses to be alarming. Already the tales of
naughty goings on are being proposed as the reasons necessary to justify control, although
it does seem that the net community has got the message across to the media that this
thing is really not controllable; even if the politicians don't believe it.
Just let them try...