Magazine article The Spectator

Net Loss

Magazine article The Spectator

Net Loss

Article excerpt

Mr Blair now has two patron saints for his project. Diana, Princess of Wales, had been co-opted as the symbol of Britain's new-found emotional freedom. Now Bill Gates, head of Microsoft, has joined the team as a token of New Labour's commitment to technology. The partnership was sealed with Mr Gates's promise to help the government connect every school in Britain to the Internet.

As Mr Blair's spin doctors doubtless predicted, this pact with the world's richest person has met with almost universal approval. Where there has been criticism, it has centred on Microsoft's domination of the programs, or 'software', that allow computers to connect to the Internet. Some fear that the deal may entrench Mr Gates's already powerful monopoly position. In practice, Microsoft's domination of the market is so complete that special access to British schools will make little difference.

So far, however, few have questioned whether connection to the Internet is a valuable goal. In any case, from humble beginnings it has become a modern myth, appearing to free its users from the shackles of geography, allowing instant communication from country to country. It encourages freedom of thought, being almost impervious to censorship. Its very existence poses a threat to repressive regimes everywhere. It is also proclaimed to be the new commercial frontier, where Britain must compete successfully if our economy is to thrive. Last, but by no means least, it is hailed as the cornerstone of a truly modern educational system.

This is all premature. In a free country the Internet does not promote positive values, but poses instead a powerful moral hazard. Obscene images, banned under British law, are freely available on the `worldwide web'. Many of Britain's Internet users, and most of those making money out of putting material onto the Net, are supplying or using sexual services.

The impact on business has been much exaggerated. Other than the suppliers of sleaze, few if any companies are making money from advertising or selling their services on the Internet. The British remain unenthusiastic about `home shopping', preferring to make their purchases in person.

It is also difficult to see how access to the Internet will improve children's education. It can be used to acquire information, but the process of finding it is usually so laborious that it becomes an end in itself. For the most part, surfing the Net is an entertaining waste of time. There is also much evidence from the United States that excessive use of computers inhibits the development of creativity in children. …

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