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#1
Old 02-03-2006, 07:15 PM
paul750
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Default Will Self on the pros and cons of the internet

The year after next it will be two decades since I first heard about the internet. In those days it was still dubbed 'the information superhighway', and the people who canvassed for businesses working with it were, as I recall, offering the human equivalent of today's search engines. I was running a small corporate magazine business in London and introducing the new electronic publishing equipment. From a strictly business point of view, this other, new technology seemed as incomprehensible as DTP was demonstrably 'What You See is What You Get'.

The salesman was offering a desktop accessible information service: we would put questions to his people via a modem and they would in turn source the answers on the superhighway and reply to us electronically. He spoke volubly about the network of supercomputers left over from the Cold War that were now 'talking' to one another, but for someone such as myself, who had been educated in a pre-computer era, I found the entire concept extremely hard to grasp.

While I applauded the notion that these silicone swords were being beaten into researching ploughshares, I couldn't understand how it was that giant US defence computers could be used so promiscuously. I was wedded to the idea that a technology must be 'owned' in order to be viable. That the actual location of these information nodes was - to all intents and purposes - immaterial, made my head spin. Added to this, while our design computers - Macintoshes - were operating on a click-and-point user interface, we still had older computers which depended on keystroke commands.

In 1990 I left the corporate world to become a full time writer and regressed to yet more primitive technology; so it took another six years before I acquired my own state-of-the-art pc and internet server. Then, as a working journalist, what most impressed me about the internet - as it had become - was the ease with which I could file copy. At that time the national newspapers were only just beginning to put their archives on-line, and such phenomena as on-line shopping, blogs and ubiquitous commercial web sites were still in their infancy. The phenomenon whereby I could instantaneously transmit text, then respond to editorial interventions with equal rapidity, made me a complete convert. It was curiously satisfying - like some peculiar kind of mental evacuation - to despatch large wads of text with a push of a button. And, of course, in time these became larger and larger, until my most recent novel - all 160,000-odd words of it - was 'delivered' by email to my publisher.

Email itself was a further revelation. I loved the way that quite dizzying exchanges of gossip and witticism could take place. The new medium seemed to have the ease and rapidity of a phone call, while calling upon one's interlocutors to revert to the niceties of a more epistolatory age. Added to this I was becoming increasingly phobic about using the phone at all - an occupational hazard of the self-employed. All sorts of ugly situations could be defused, it seemed to me, via the agency of keyboard and modem.

When people talk nowadays about 'information overload' and the way the internet has clogged up their lives, I'm inclined to that - to paraphrase Marshal MacLuhan - they are projecting their own message on to this essentially 'value null' medium. These are the same people who mindlessly surf the innumerable cable tv stations, or obsessively do Sudoko and Crosswords - their cooption of the internet into their psychic realm of point and click. I would wager these are the same types who find it impossible not to use their mobile phones to tell someone else where they are, or their satellite navigation system to get to the supermarket. It is they who have - as a self-fulfilling prophecy - dubbed the Blackberry the 'crackberry', and cannot forego from checking their email in-boxes every few seconds.
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#2
Old 02-03-2006, 07:15 PM
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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 enabled a general freeing up of global society. If I speak to academics, journalists and campaigners who are concerned with countering the abuses of both governments and the multinational corporate elite, they tell me that the internet has become an essential tool in their endeavours. Setting to one side the more egregious evidence of pressure groups coordinating their demonstrations via the web, we also find individuals able to amass at great speed the necessary evidence to counter propaganda. I don't think it's fanciful to argue that 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.

By the same token, when we see the attempts made by the Chinese Government to limit its citizens' access to 'seditious' web sites that propagate ideas of democracy, they seem, quite frankly, laughable. Outflanking the internet is surely an impossibility, and the effort to do so reminds me of my own bafflement when I was first presented with the concept: how can something that is, by definition, quicksilver and untenable, be grasped and suppressed?

It is, of course, precisely this mercurial character which makes the net so worrying to those who perceive a terrorist threat lurking everywhere in the post 9/11 world. I was very much struck by the British police's argument for seeking to hold terrorist suspects for 90 days without charge in the wake of last summer's London bombings. We were told that, even with the most advanced programmers at work, such was the quantity of information stored on suspects' computers, and so fiendish were the encryption devices they employed, it could take months to print out cubic metres of encoded information. Buried in this haystack might well be the vital clue necessary to avert an apocalypse.

And yet, while in no way wishing to belittle the obscenity of terrorism (and surely, those web sites which glorify terrorist acts are the political equivalent of child ****ography), I still doubt that the internet itself is a factor in all this. If people wish to conspire to commit violent act the safest way for them to communicate remains by word of mouth. Devastating terrorist campaigns existed before the internet, and the international character of contemporary terrorism is by no means attested to by the 7/7 bombings which were committed by Britons.

It seems to me rather that the internet has become a curious metaphor for the terrorist mind itself: numinous, ubiquitous, burrowing through our normal, healthy arteries of communication like a dangerous nematode. You have only consider the way in which the net itself becomes a villain in that other contemporary hysteria: the witch-hunting of child abusers and other sex offenders. Again, I have no desire to downplay the awfulness of these perverted and criminal practises, but child abuse was anterior to the web. Indeed, the most persistent paedophile rings operate in institutionalised contexts where adults who have been inadequately vetted are placed in loco parentis. Arguably the internet could be as much a tool to frustrate such activities as it is a means of facilitating them.

In suggesting that the internet is 'value null' when it comes to child sex abuse and terrorism I don't mean to ignore the fact that it can be used for unsavoury purposes. I am, perhaps, in a minority among socially permissive liberals in not viewing ****ography as a 'victimless crime'. On the contrary, I think ****ography is the propaganda of the sex industry and that the women who are employed in its production are exploited not empowered. The vast quantity of it on the internet attests to an unholy symmetry between click-and-point and the solitary, masturbatory act itself. Yet once again, this chthonic realm - a midden of erotomania enveloping the globe - is surely only the Freudian id transmogrified into pixels? We may engage with it and contain it, we may limit access to it for a minors, but we could never eradicate it anymore than we could annul our own darkest sexual fantasies.

This has been a brief tour d'horizon of the internet and I could expatiate at much greater length. I am neither an obsessive surfer, nor an enlightened researcher, but I engage in both activities sufficiently to know that the responsibility for them lies with me: I am not being electronically entrapped. 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 - on a more prosaic level - the occasional old book, bought with a few keystrokes, then received by mail days later, fills me with a childish glee.

As a writer, rather than a futurologist or a techno-geek, the internet, for me, remains almost as ungraspable as it was 20 years ago. I'm not sure that I don't like this modern mystery: at once so visually apprehensible and so immaterial. It's a secular form of a revelatory text: a mighty scroll unrolling in an electronic empyrean.

Anti
I'm writing this piece on a 9-year-old desktop computer, when it's finished I'm going to email it with a 9-year-old modem. I still have the same internet server I had in 1996, and I still use a dial-up connection. Over the past decade I've taken an increasing satisfaction in my increasingly outdated equipment. I believe - perhaps erroneously - that in my own small way I'm putting a brake on the hurtling wheels of technical innovation, and especially the relentless infiltration of the internet into every corner of our lives.

I have never deleted an email, sent or received, so that my in and out boxes are now hopelessly clogged. It never occurs to me to delete text because I'm a paper maven and always imagine that sooner or later I'll print all the emails out and add them to my archive. It now takes me as long to send electronic mail as it used to do to handwrite a note and walk to the postbox. This too I find obscurely satisfying. When someone phones me up in frustration and says: 'I've sent you an email about this...' I, in good conscience, tell them that this may be so, but that I only pick up my emails every few days.

It's true that I've begun to find my constipated electronic mail system irritating, but I'm convinced that it makes me think about my communication more: Is it worth responding to something at all, and if so how? As with mobile phones, it appears to me that the internet allows more people to say less to still more people, than ever before in our history. A vast majority of the emails I receive (or at any rate used to) are completely useless, the textual equivalent of 'Honey, I'm on the train'; and I'm not even talking about spam.

Some say that the internet has led to a renaissance in the epistolatory style of communication, but in my experience emails tend more to the banjaxed syntax and spelling of predictive texting than the careful felicities of so-called 'snail mail'. I particularly abhor the kind of sloppiness that comes over even perfectly literate people when confronted with a email message. No upper case for personal pronouns; 'Hi' as a salutation; 'Cheers' as a valediction. I come over all Lynn Truss when I read these despatches from the front line of the war prosecuted by cliche against sensibility.

Setting email overload to one side, there are those - and there are many - who view the net as an invaluable research tool; one that for both specialists and ordinary people opens up an entire realm of information at the push of a button. Again, I'm unconvinced. In keeping with most writers - both novelists and journalists - I am 'broadly shallow'. I know quite a bit about a wealth of things, but not too much about any one of them. Those things I do know about I've read about - and read about in books. I have thousands of books in the house, and when I write I am usually echoing the contents of one of them.
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#3
Old 02-03-2006, 07:16 PM
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If I need to go in search of fresh information the internet can be useful - but it's by no means essential. In part, I suppose, this is because I've never learnt to use it as an effective research tool and am as likely to waste time surfing - and crashing - as I am reading. The information I do need tends to be in newspaper archives, and in the bad old days I'd simply ask the paper's librarian to look it up for me, or even - gasp! - attend the British Newspaper Library myself.

However, I'm not convinced that in the gulf between newspaper ephemerality and weightier paper there exists much that we need to know on a daily basis. If in-depth information is required a hard copy still seems to me better, and preferably a bound one. To know something - it strikes me - is to labour hard in its acquisition. There is no quick-fix in knowledge any more than there is in most other aspects of life.'Virtuality' is also a tricky concept. Internet surfing from site to site confers a bogus equivalence on everything the researcher apprehends, and blurs the distinction between different levels of veracity: after all it's all happening the same de-contextualised, virtual realm. Is it any surprise that the most enthusiastic users of the internet for 'research' are those old enemies of reason, the conspiracy theorists?

And along with this bowdlerisation of the knowledge economy comes a more insidious threat: while academic researchers may, quite legitimately, praise the internet for giving them instant access to a plethora of original sources, their students are using it for precisely the opposite object: to produce unoriginal work by downloading off-the-peg essays and assignments. My brother is an eminent academic, and he was one of the first people I knew in the mid-1980s who had a laptop computer. Despite being an early adopter, he was already remarking on the tendency paperless writing and thinking had to conflate different levels of knowledge and produce a certain 'sameyness' in the work his students did. As an author I've also noticed this, and in recent years I've moved away from writing on-screen - for book-length projects - and back to a manual typewriter.

When you talk to non-professionals about their net-based research it almost always seems concerned with health issues. Sparked by some anxiety - the MMR/Autism link was a classic case - they embark on a deep and narrow trawl of the electronic ocean. Most of the fish they encounter there, far from being new and useful specimens, are of the same species as themselves, animated by anxiety into a thrashing about after certainties that are simply not available. The internet seems to fire-up what could be a specifically modern malaise: the neurotic fear whereby statistical regularities are perceived, increasingly, as causal relations.

Now I'm almost 10 years out of date, and have failed to download the applications necessary to adequately display web sites on my screen, most e-commerce is beyond me. I cannot order airline tickets or even purchase a Fortnum's hamper with any great ease. Predictably, this causes me not a jot of discomfort. While not objecting in principle to the idea of ordering goods and services via the net (after all, telephone ordering, which has existed for well over a century, is effectively the same thing), I still think that e-commerce represents another of the ways in which the internet assists the erosion of personalised bonds in society and their replacement by anonymous ones. Human communication is a gestalt, made up of gesture, tone and the infinite vagaries of the living face. Computer-based commercial transactions are essentially decoupled from emotionality, trust becomes a security code, a bond a secure server. The recent E-Bay frauds are, in my view, unlikely to be the last instances of massive bad faith perpetrated in cyberspace.

When the internet - then dubbed 'the information superhighway' - first began to crystallize in the early 1990s I foretold a doomy scenario, in which a world became so wired-up that a crash in the net meant that people who had looked entirely to their VDUs to tell them what to think and do and say, crashed as well. It seemed to me that just as the great stock market crash of 1929 would have been impossible without tickertape and telephone, so the great market implosions of the late 20th century were, in part, a product of mass electronic dealing. Surely it wasn't fantastic to imagine that as it was to the global monetary economy, so might it be to the global knowledge economy?

I now think this unrealistic; the worldwide web is, as its name suggests, is simply too gossamer, too strong and too ubiquitous for it not to be repaired by innumerable spidery techies should even a large part of it become inoperable. And yet... and yet... it doesn't seem to me overly apocalyptic to imagine a collapse in civilisation would be enormously catalysed by our dependence of electronic information and computerised business. It's a grim thought - but one worth entertaining if only to regain the peace of mind afforded by its dismissal. Personally, if it does happen, and I'm still here, I'll laugh bitterly as I feed another sheet of paper into my manual typewriter and consult whichever volume of ancient wisdom is close to hand
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#4
Old 02-05-2006, 02:57 AM
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um ok what? do it again!
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Old 02-05-2006, 01:19 PM
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I thought this was a great article.
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Old 02-05-2006, 01:20 PM
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will self thats the guy that was on shooting stars right?
the one who looks a little like pete townshend from the who
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Old 02-05-2006, 01:23 PM
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will self thats the guy that was on shooting stars right?
the one who looks a little like pete townshend from the who
Yeah he's been on other things too, he' a very articulate and intelligent guy.
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Old 02-05-2006, 01:26 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by paul750
Yeah he's been on other things too, he' a very articulate and intelligent guy.
yeah he comes across as very intellingent and he has a great sense of humor he was great on shooting stars
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Old 02-06-2006, 09:07 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by paul750
I thought this was a great article.
do it again
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! do it again
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! nah i read it and yes it is very very good
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! he he i kinda feel that way still
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#10
Old 01-23-2010, 05:10 PM
MANGLER
Sex Tape Flop Artist
 
Join Date: Feb 2008
Location: In a bunny hole
Posts: 38,416
Quoted: 2 Post(s)
Rep Power: 251 MANGLER has a reputation beyond reputeMANGLER has a reputation beyond reputeMANGLER has a reputation beyond reputeMANGLER has a reputation beyond reputeMANGLER has a reputation beyond reputeMANGLER has a reputation beyond reputeMANGLER has a reputation beyond reputeMANGLER has a reputation beyond reputeMANGLER has a reputation beyond reputeMANGLER has a reputation beyond reputeMANGLER has a reputation beyond repute
Points: 4,000,000,031,075.04
Bank: 33,627,403,820,284.50
Total Points: 37,627,403,851,359.54
Happy new year! - Toney Loc have some brew - arraamis Have a TV - eddie_monster here's something different. - chiguy91 Top man - komodo 
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Not readin all that ****.

But the net is tight, especially if you got a job that requires it.

Easy $.
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