Demos Daily: Network wonderland

In 1994, just 3 years after the World Wide Web was first made available to the public, Rael A Fenchurch took a glimpse into the different world that was emerging on the ‘Global Information Superhighway’ – aka the internet. Recognising that ‘people feel far more free to say what they wish’ on the ‘Net’, this article predicted that the online world would eventually become a major tool for democracy. But has it lived up to its promise? Many would argue there’s still a long way to go before the internet can be considered a positive tool for democracy. Countries such as Taiwan have already started to take advantage of this opportunity, to the benefit of many of its citizens. Will we soon see the UK follow suit?

Read Rael Fenchurch’s article from a 1994 edition of Demos Quarterly below.

Network wonderland

We have all heard of the Global Information Super-Highway. It seems that all of a sudden every newspaper and every magazine is crying ‘I’m late, I’m late’. Big Business, in its usual bandwagonesque manner is blindly flinging itself after the rabbit, to come face-to-face with the Internet. The question has to be, what does Alice find when she takes the plunge? Essentially there are two things – information which is widespread and patchy to say the least; but possibly more importantly, a culture. The Internet (Net) has begun to develop its own culture in the tried and tested manner, namely by dint of being a community of its own. It’s a culture that is dichotomously both more real, and more unreal, than life outside its virtual boundaries, and a culture that will very soon be a force majeure across the globe. Like Wonderland, the surreal and exciting society found on the Internet is itself Real Life (or RL, as Net parlance would have it), or at least a parody so recognisable as to be indistinguishable from reality. Actually, it could be argued that, by offering such an unadulterated form of conversation as can be found across the Net, the Super-Highway is offering a far more real experience than RL ever can.

There are many different ways of communicating on the Net (too many to go into in such a short article), but inherently they all boil down to the same idea – allowing two or more people from anywhere around the globe to exchange ideas and information without the standard emotional baggage that face-to-face discussions inevitably carry. To take an example quickly, prejudices are limited greatly because you cannot initially see whether the people you are conversing with are the same as you, or whether they are of a different race, age, sex, religion or class. There is also no body language to cloud the issue – what you type is what people read. Interestingly though, this doesn’t always favour the more intelligent. Commonly, we consider quick, witty repartee to be an indicator of intelligence. The time delay that some Internet conversations are subject to as individual messages span continents, and time zone differences can be large. This means that participants are not at their computers at the same time, and those not so quick with their minds can compose deliberate, incredibly accurate responses.

A consequence of the lack of direct contact is that people feel far more free to say what they wish, and are normally therefore more honest. Of course, this is often abused and people are also more belligerent than they would be in the RL, but like every culture, its ups are counter-balanced by its downs. This concept of speaking your mind without fear of physical reprisal means that Net people have developed other ways of dealing with somebody who says something that really is ‘out of order’. The art of the written insult (The Flame) has been raised to Old Master levels, and old-timers take it upon themselves to compose the most insulting, yet still witty and intelligent, rebukes when needs arise. Although there is no Net Police’, the more experienced Netters are often found being judge, jury and executioner when a person fresh on the Net (a Newbie) makes a mistake. The punishment is often a Flame, but for a serious crime, a Spamming may ensue – thousands upon thousands of pointless, and often very large messages sent to the newbie’s address, often causing temporary damage to his computer system and thus pointing out the error of his ways. So, whilst there is freedom of speech (an idea greatly defended on the Net), there is also accountability for your opinions. See – even better than the Real Thing.

Once again, because you cannot see the person you are talking to, it’s very possible that they are not at all who they claim to be. This happens most often in Multi-User Dungeons (a.k.a MUDs), where people join an alternative reality for a time and play out an adventure scenario; or, more often, just stand around and chat. It is not uncommon to be talking to someone who claims to be female when the fingers on the keyboard across the world belong to a male (though it is less common the other way around – the lack of women is notable throughout the Superhighway). And because the description you receive of a person comes directly from them, it is again not unusual to end up talking to a whole gamut of tall, blonde, well-muscled Adonis characters when none are more than five foot eight and only two are out of puberty! The Highway allows people to enact their dreams, to be who they want to be, or at least not to look stupid trying. As the culture would have me say – Unreal!

Net denizens build up their own hierarchy of class, normally equivalent to length of time on the Highway – although there are other factors considered; intelligence of messages, or otherwise; quantity of posting; or the outlandishness of ideas proffered. The opportunity to become, as Warhol said, ‘Famous for fifteen minutes’ is offered freely upon the Net. With people increasingly becoming their own publishers, either through the medium of the Electronic Mail, or through Bulletin Board Discussions, or even by creating their own magazines in electronic format (E’Zines), people all over the world are finding audiences who would never otherwise have seen them, and all for little more than the price of a ‘phone call’. That concept alone imbues the internet, and ultimately the entire Information Super-Highway with a kind of mystique, an allure that is almost too potent for the exhibitionists within our society. There are already famous figures on the Internet – a list of them is compiled and distributed regularly. More importantly, perhaps, the concept of reflected glory is already rife. One such luminary, James ‘El Kibo’ Parry, has created a concept called the Kibo Number that is an indicator of your distance from him, not in terms of mileage, but in terms of e-mail stature. Any civilised culture has a Mad Hatter, a Queen of Hearts and all spectra of in-between. Real life.

Just pointers perhaps, but these cultural milestones are all recognised on the road to civilisation and have all already been surpassed on the Superhighway. The Net is the world’s only functioning political anarchy but it could soon become a major tool for democracy. By allowing anyone, anywhere access to the information and opinions of anyone else, anywhere else, a morsel is being given to mankind with one instruction: ‘Eat Me’, so that we may grow.