Published in December 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
Stephen Fry reveals in the Daily Telegraph how the Internet “saved his soul.” I suppose I should not be surprised to hear that spiritual salvation can now come from cyberspace. After all, the Vatican is planning to train a special group of priests to deal with the conversion of extra-terrestrial beings.
Still, the Fry case is worth looking at a little more closely. As we all know, following his very public desertion of the West End stage, he felt he needed to get away for a while to work out a few things. I suppose we have all felt like that from time-to-time, but Fry did not want to cut himself off entirely and cause further worry to his loved ones.
Step forward the e-mail system, still the most common use of the Internet. Fry pointed out that having to telephone and explain things involves you immediately in re-living all the angst you were trying to get away from. Conventional post is not any good because if the postman can find you then so can the News of the World. Then you are back where you started from. Faxes are traceable too. Only e-mail offers the possibility of complete geographical anonymity, for good or-no doubt occasionally-ill.
The Internet as an aid to therapy or self discovery is yet another example of the doctrine of unintended consequences. Fry also notes that, far from killing off the art of letter writing, e-mail is forcing people to write again, leading to a revival of that creative art.
Regular readers of The Net Position might have detected a sceptical attitude towards the brave new digital order. But just occasionally something comes along which cleanses the jaded palate and reminds us all what can be achieved if the right people and the right resources are put together. The fact that the midwife in this case was the Millennium commission and the principal benefactor the national lottery adds a certain piquancy. I refer to the recent announcement by the Millennium commission that it will be investing ?7.5 millions in Scran 2000. “Scran” is the only information technology project which has been selected for support by the commission. The acronym stands for the Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network and its ambitious objective is to create a database of Scottish cultural and historical artefacts, presently housed in over 200 museums and academic institutions north of the border. When completed Scran will contain over 1.5 million records, linked with more than 100,000 images and 100 interactive multimedia programmes which will be accessible over the Internet and on CD-Roms. Given the size of the place, and the remoteness of so many small communities and educational bodies in Scotland, the potential for Scran is enormous. However the joy of the Internet is that, once created, people anywhere in the world, even in England, can share the pleasure of this important cultural resource. Well done the National Museums of Scotland which were the driving force behind this idea. I look forward to hearing about other academic bodies taking similar steps to share their precious resources with the world.
By the time you read this the Budget may have come and gone. If so, you will have missed the chance to “be your own chancellor” in cyberspace, courtesy of the Institute of Fiscal Studies. The IFS has established a Web page (www1.ifs.org.uk) making it disturbingly easy for anyone with a modem to see exactly what would happen if one or other of a range of different taxation options were adopted. I know a lot of economists and accountants who must be thinking that this particular technological inovation has surely gone too far. Where will it all end? At the Job Centre?
Still on a positive note, please take a look at “Epicurious” on www.epicurious.com. It is set out in a pleasingly kitsch 1950s style and claims to be “for people who eat.” Well, maybe they should have employed a “Web titles terminology consultant,” but I think this is a great idea: a practical illustration of how the very modern can serve the very ancient. “Gail’s recipe swap,” may seem a little twee. But next time you are in a remote corner of a South American jungle staring down at a dead alligator and wondering what sauce to use with it, you will remember this article in Prospect and thank the gods that you have your laptop and a satellite telephone with you. Even if there isn’t a recipe for Alligator Hollandaise waiting for you, a note to a Usernet group will doubtless bring helpful suggestions flooding in.
There are some very odd things on the Internet. Take a look at www.sandman.com/intimist. There you will find an advertisement for the “world’s best toilet seat”. It boasts “an electronic, heated toilet seat with two heated water bidet streams and a hot air dryer… all electronically and water pressure controlled.” I am not sure whether it is reassuring to be told that 70 per cent of all Japanese households have something like this product. The man who is trying to sell you this product calls himself a Chicago telecom expert. If you’re having trouble with the Christmas gifts… n
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