I have just upgraded my internet access to an ISDN line, the fastest domestic connection you can get. This has two effects. The first is that the computer crashes every time the phone rings; the second is that I have realised (more than ever) that less is more on the internet. I have come to treasure web sites where everything is simple text, so it whizzes down as quickly as possible without pictures or plug-ins slowing things down. Among the best is Need To Know, a sarky little digest of industry news and comment laid out to look as if it came straight off a typewriter in Shoreditch. If you have to acknowledge the existence of the digital revolution, this is the way to do it. They are also among the few people to have seized on the possibilities of witty domain names. The address www.unfortu.net shows that Britain still leads the world in some things.
The other site worth a visit as an example of everything that is best and most pointless on the net is maintained by a group who call themselves “the people with no lives.” It is the Urban Legends Archive, containing discussions of things that don’t matter at all, such as whether anyone ever really placed a baby or even a cat in a microwave oven. It is an outgrowth of one of the few Usenet discussion groups to have remained both useless and interesting for six or seven years now, alt.folklore.urban (www.urbanlegends.com) and it hardly has any pictures at all. Though there are some glyphs suspiciously reminiscent of singed cats.
yet sometimes, early in the morning, after America has gone to sleep and before Britain has woken up, the internet runs fast enough to make Bob Dylan audible. His official web site at www.bobdylan.com is a model of its kind. It contains a complete, searchable database of every song Dylan has ever written, all the lyrics and the recordings on which each was published. Once you have found a song, you can listen to 45 seconds of it played through your speakers. Best of all, there is a growing library of complete live recordings-official bootlegs, so to speak-which can be listened to in their entirety. This is where ISDN really comes into its own. Since it is something between half and four times as fast as a conventional modem, the music has to be less compressed on its journey down the wires and emerges from the speakers in much better shape. It’s not exactly CD quality, but it does sound about as good as the records did when they first came out and were played on the sort of equipment that schoolboys could then afford. (This is not going to become a mass market thrill.)
The Dylan site works because it is not trying to compete with television. Very slowly and very expensively the big companies are learning that the web is never going to be a medium of entertainment. “Content,” meaning the stuff between the advertisements, must be either useful or very fashionable indeed if it is to turn a profit. America Online celebrated its purchase of CompuServe by sacking one third of the staff, mostly those involved in “content” creation. Microsoft has just sacked most of its “content” providers which were meant to turn their network (MSN) into a permanent television show. The desktop channels which were such an unpleasant feature of Internet Explorer 4 are to be de-emphasised to Siberia. The omens even look bad for Slate, Microsoft’s delightfully literate webzine, which is to start charging for access this month. Even at $20 a year, a ridiculously low price compared to its print equivalents, only about 10,000 people have signed up. The frenetically jokey and upbeat letter from its editor Michael Kinsley, offering free umbrellas to any early subscribers, is one of the most depressing things I have read in a long time.
but as the list of entertaining things on the web gets shorter and shorter, the list of useful ones, sometimes in the most surprising places, gets longer. Not many learned journals are online yet, but lots of academics are putting their papers up anyway. Even John Lucas, Oxford’s most old-fashioned philosopher who must be nearly 70 now, has a web site where you can find his classic argument from G?del against the possibility of machine intelligence (users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas). I find that about half the references I need to chase for the pop history of sociobiology I am writing can be found online as well as in libraries. Perhaps we have come full circle. Before people dreamt of “cyberspace” as a kind of film you could wander around in, there was an earlier vision in which the net was the greatest library in the world. Even if all its other uses fell away, that would be real progress. Until that happens, I’ll sit here and wait for the phone to ring. Crash. n