Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
You have to hand it to CompuServe. In a short space of time it has transformed itself from a boring near-monopoly into one of the most dynamic service providers on the planet. The threat of competition from the Microsoft Network had everything to do with it. First CompuServe cut its prices and increased the number of free services. Second it provided a full Internet connection. Now it has abandoned its quirky practice of insisting that your e-mail address could only be expressed in numeric format, allowing you to pick an alias instead. I know several companies that refused to join CompuServe simply because they couldn’t get their company name, or an abbreviation of it, into their e-mail address. I’ve now switched from being a non-intuitive 100073,2711 to being John_Carr, though you will still get me on the old numeric address (and on the Prospect address at the end).
And now CompuServe is allowing every member to construct their own Home Page on the World Wide Web. You can have up to 1MB of information on your Home Page, and again, it’s free. If you promise you won’t laugh, I’ll let you know my Home Page address. It’s: http://ourworld.compuserve.com:80/homepages/john_carr. After downloading the free web-page creation software I completed the whole routine in about 30 minutes. It was all very easy but it made me realise that I do not really need a Home Page of my own. I mean, what do you say to complete strangers? Such diffidence has not deterred quite a few Brits from putting up their own home pages. I spotted a firm of solicitors advertising themselves, and several computer companies. But the first two personal pages I actually looked at had been created by evangelical Christians. The third was a reassuringly unusual one created by someone who is plainly pleased that he is about to become a father. He’s posted a picture of his wife’s sonic scan. Is this a world first? On the Net before you’re even born!
The Times and Sunday Times have joined the growing list of newspapers that have gone on-line on the web. In the UK I counted 22 altogether on a site called www.newslink.org. Alongside Wapping’s finest you can look at the Blackburn Citizen, the Chorley Citizen and the Leigh Journal, not to mention the Financial Times, the Guardian, Observer, and the Telegraph. However, pride of place must go to Socialist Worker. The library the SWP has constructed contains all the usual chunks of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky but also a small sound file which you can download and playback to amuse your friends after you have passed the port at dinner. “The Internationale” may no longer have pride of place in Russia or Romania but the good old SWP is keeping it alive in cyberspace. Sad to relate, the far left project is clearly in a distressed state: no material appears after April 8th 1995. Did the revolution happen and I missed it? Otherwise, except for news-starved or homesick ex-pats living in far-flung corners of the globe away from regular newspaper deliveries, I am puzzled about who exactly would want to use an on-line newspaper service. It is definitely easier to flick through an actual paper than it is to manipulate pages on the web. If there were an extensive on-line newspaper archive then I could see that would be useful. But if you seriously want to keep abreast of the news you would use Ceefax or Teletext on the television.
Are we ahead of the news, or what.
The Net Position raises the question of pornography on the Internet in January and, within days of publication, worries about the attitudes of the German courts leads to the withdrawal of access for a whole load of Usenet Groups by the larger Internet suppliers. In the meantime I have been trying to bring you more news of life on the wrong side of the track. I looked up the latest additions to the “Alt.sex Usenet Group” and, tantalizingly, with mocking insouciance, their names and addresses were readily viewable. However, I failed to get into them, thus proving that something is working right. Now I am left wondering what was being discussed in “Bestiality.hamster.duct-tape,” or “Cthulhu” or “Bitch.pork.” It was easier to imagine what “Fun.with.Steve” could be about or “Monica Chung, Korean-American goddess of cyberspace.”
One of the virtues of the Internet is its role as a great big electronic reference book: a fact-finder, fact-checker and egregious information source. It does that wonderfully well if you persevere, learn its little ways, can afford a modem, a subscription to an Internet service provider and the telephone call charges. However, the rate at which computer-readable compact discs are coming out will soon challenge the assumption that the Internet is the only way to access information in volume and across a broad range of subjects. Compact discs operate much faster than most people’s Internet connections ever could, and there are no charges every time you use them. Having bought Microsoft’s Encarta ’96 (UK version), Microsoft’s World Atlas, Music Central and a few others, I think I could avoid having to go on-line for quite a few enquiries I or my children might need to make. n
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