Self-healing stupidity may be the Net's strongest suit

Rupert Goodwins: Those who fight the Net are doomed to lose. It's when they start to play along that we'll be in trouble.

The Atlantic isn't doing its job. Once, it separated the UK and the US well enough for two different languages to start to emerge from Elizabethan English. Then some cat called Marconi got his blips from Cornwall to Newfoundland, and three thousand miles was reduced to a cat's whisker. Still, everyday life remained separate -- until that darn Internet turned up. Now we can even watch each other's TV adverts. Some are good, most are bland, and some come across as plain horrible. Apple's running some like that at the moment, all about people switching from Windows to OS-X: in line with the current fad for real people doing real things, these switchers have been gawky, un-aspirational bods-next-door. Bring back Jeff Goldblum, I say.

Microsoft, clearly stung by Apple's chutzpah, has run some counter-adverts on its Web site, purporting to be true-life confessions of real people who'd switched from Macintosh to XP. You can't say that suspicions were aroused by this, as poor old MS needs only say the sky is blue for people to guess it's gone orange overnight, but they did look a bit odd. One advert showed a 'freelance writer' attractively poised over a large cup of coffee, who seemed to have swallowed the XP hyperbole whole but neglected to give her name. Then someone discovered the selfsame picture in an online library. Odd, that.

The clincher came in a file linked to the advert. MS would love to hear from you, the document said, if you've got a similar story. Hidden in the header of that document -- Word format -- was the name of an advertising agency. An enterprising journalist dug this out, phoned the agency and got a shamefaced admission that yes, they were that 'freelance writer'. Microsoft squirmed, went an uncorporate shade of red, twisted its fingers together uncomfortably and withdrew the advert. (It hasn't as yet removed the associated document and other adverts, so there's time for you to play this engaging game for yourself.)

Irony is a precious commodity, so when a company's own products have security flaws that highlight its own incompetence there should be prolonged applause. But it's just one instance of a phenomenon that may yet be our best hope for the future -- that while the gods themselves battle in vain against stupidity, the Internet may yet heal it. The facts -- and the people -- are out there, and you can bring them together, if you take enough of an interest.

Here's another work in progress. The recording industry dislikes people stealing their products, so it is seeking to introduce new laws and make existing crimes hugely punishable. Copy an MP3 in the US, and you can go to jail for five years. But that's not enough: they are trying strenuously to make it illegal to own any sort of digital device which is not licensed, limited and controlled. But the response of people hasn't been to drop their heads in shame and head for the nearest confessional: more and more files are traded, more and more vociferous opposition is raised, and the people the recording companies most need on their side -- hardware manufacturers and the like -- are coming down on in favour of their customers. Who are doing it for themselves in any case.

The beauty of it is that the music and film industries have always prospered by absorbing things that threatened them -- like the punk ethos of making your own records, and VHS video recorders -- but this time, they chose to be prohibitionist and argue from a high moral ground that only they can see. The one technology where they decided to put up a fight is the one that will transform them against their will. Like prohibition, this can only end in one way.

Until entrenched interests wake up to the fact that they'll have to distract us by offering us more and better things to do with our time than fight them -- and that's always a risk, with the Internet splintering into millions of special interest groups that don't know or care about other things -- this process will continue. Help it along by asking Google the questions nobody else has answered, and grab some of that power for yourself.

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