Magazine article The Spectator

Caught in the Net

Magazine article The Spectator

Caught in the Net

Article excerpt

TONY Blair is not a man easily humiliated, which is as well, but the other day he confessed to the 'humiliation' he felt when he watched Cherie and the kids surfing the Net. He promised that he would take a half-day course on how to use a computer. To show he was serious - he was speaking at an innovation centre in Cambridge he sent a 10.50 pot of begonias to Cherie via the Internet.

The Prime Minister may soon wish he'd remained in blissful, if humiliating, ignorance. If there is one thing the Internet does not give you, it is a good time unless you happen to be an anorak or a pursuer of on-line porn. Nor does it provide much useful information, or at any rate information that could not more easily be gained from other sources. Do you remember when Ceefax and Teletext first appeared? Soon, said the techno-nerds, nobody will bother to read newspapers. And now similar claims are being made for the Net. We're all told that we have to have it, but does anyone really use it all that much? Just as scouring Ceefax or Teletext felt a lot like trying to flick through the Yellow Pages wearing a pair of oven-gloves, the Internet is often so slow that by the time you've dispensed with all the useless sites and logged on to a halfway decent one, you could have walked to your local bookshop and bought a reliable reference book instead.

Whoever first applied the word `surf to wading through the advertorials that infest this virtual bring-and-buy sale was a marketing genius. Trawl is a more accurate verb, since you never know what rubbish your `search engine' will dredge up. The only other search engine that operates by word association is geriatric memory. `Did you have a nice birthday, Grandpa?' `Nice? It's a seaside town in France, isn't it? No, I've never been there. However, I have been to Eastbourne. That's by the seaside. But never mind that. Aren't you going to ask me about my birthday?'

Scrolling through endless reams of onscreen text is a laborious business compared with thumbing through a well-indexed book. As someone who watches too much telly and only resists satellite because I know a dish would leave me insufficient time to eat or sleep, I'm the first to admit that the small screen has been a huge success. But what it does best is pictures. Reading text on-screen is a hopeless task, which is why people print out drafts from their word-processors and line their bookshelves with hardbacks instead of floppy disks. One of my few exciting Internet finds was stumbling upon the complete text of The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs. However, I soon discovered that it was impossible to read on-screen, so I decided to download a hard copy instead. I'd already spent an age printing the best part of this bulky document before I remembered that I could easily buy a pocket edition of this, or a whole host of other popular classics, in a bookshop for a few pounds.

Wandering round the Net isn't really like browsing in a bookshop. It's much more akin to rooting through the random ephemera of an infinite flea market. I have learned some new things from the Net, but I would have learned far more in the same time at my public library with a librarian on hand to help me find the right books, recommend which titles were required reading and which ones weren't worth the bother. …

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