Jane Wakefield: A spoonful of Internet medicine

Has the backlash against the Internet finally begun?
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

Revolutions never go smoothly. Often there are splits -- illustrated perfectly in Monty Python's Life of Brian when the People's Front of Judea confronts the Judean People's Front at the Roman Forum and realises the only philosophical difference between them is their names.

And it would seem that the Internet too is splitting into two distinctive factions. Unlike the adversaries in Life of Brian, though, the philosophies of the two parties are fundamentally opposed. On the one hand, there is the 'hippy' spirit of the Internet as a unifier of communities and people. On the other is the world of business, busy branding and marketing the Net for its own ends.

As if this were not bad enough, the Internet may be experiencing the rumblings of a twenty first century rebellion from the ordinary people it was meant to serve.

In many ways the Internet has been thrust down our throats. We have been told it is a revolution akin to the invention of the printing press. Faced with such hyperbole, who are we to question it?

But just as a backlash against dot-coms has happened in the stock markets so too people are beginning to question what their roles might mean in the Internet age. We are no longer prepared to swallow our multi-vitamin knowledge economy medicine and instead are asking what the e-pills actually contain that is so very good for us. Up until now it has been assumed that the Internet -- still after all not long out of nappies -- needs careful nurturing and plenty of positive encouragement. Lots of buzzwords and plenty of shiny new startups gave the Internet a golden aura.

Now it is a little older and slightly less cute, people have grown tired of indulging it and are beginning to demand results.

Not surprisingly then, at the UK Internet summit this week, gone were the likes of the Martha Lane Foxes who dominated last year's conference, replaced by sober suits and the man who runs Tesco.com telling us how big his online grocery empire has grown.

Even the buzzwords and sentences loaded with Internet praise have been replaced by questions. Questions it would seem that don't always have answers.

Has the Internet become merely a status symbol? Something people think they should have but don't really know why? Has the original spirit of the Internet been hijacked by businesses that do not even know how to make a profit out of it, let alone find innovative uses for it? Has the hotbed of creativity that lies at the heart of the Web been corporatised out of recognition?

Education can be taken as a perfect microcosm of the kind of worries people are beginning to have about the Net. It has long been a goal of government to wire schools and most people if asked would agree that an Internet-enabled PC in every classroom would be an admirable ideal.

But why? What exactly is the benefit to children of having access to the Internet? Sure, it will mean they can get hold of the information they want at any given time. Making homework a whole lot easier (and, no doubt, at the same time resurrecting the ancient art of plagiarism).

As one speaker at the UK Internet summit said this week, the Internet is of no use to a child who cannot read and write. Giving children access to the Net is not, by itself, enough. While it can give them access to knowledge it cannot of itself teach them how to learn or even how to use the plethora of information it lays at their feet in a constructive way. Every primary classroom I ever taught in had a dictionary, but that did not mean every child could spell.

Without a structured approach to integrating the Internet into learning -- which I believe would need to pretty much overthrow the existing curriculum and I, for one, have seen no evidence that anyone is currently undertaking such a task -- a wired classroom is about as much use as a classroom without pencils.

More importantly in a society bombarded with information at every turn, do the children of the Western world really need another source of information? While it will sit nicely alongside traditional textbooks, think how much better it would be in a classroom that has no books at all.

Then we have another buzzword bandied about so much it has become almost blasphemous to question it -- democratisation. Apparently the Web will make us all equal but with talk of the digital divide growing rather than shrinking, I would question this as well. Given that access costs at least £10 a month and broadband access will start at four times this, I would have described the Internet as still very much a medium for the information elite. The government's plans to give families in one the most deprived boroughs of Liverpool free computers may be well meaning, but will these families really be willing to shell out a tenner for a service they probably see little value in?

Another aspect of democratisation often discussed is e-government. The government promises to put all services online by 2005 to allow for more open communication with citizens. Does this mean all the skeletons stuffed in government cupboards will at last be let out? Will we finally get our hands on the memos sent back and forth between terrified ministers in the Thatcher regime? Will we be allowed to see the minutes of current Labour cabinet meetings?

Of course not. The Internet is not democratic, it is elitist. Ninety-five percent of the world is without Net access. Ironically it is in the poorest and most remote areas of the globe that the Internet could have most power, influence and worth.

In a small classroom in the middle of rural Africa, the Internet would be more than a useful tool, it would be a miracle.

So perhaps the biggest question we should be addressing is whether the Internet has lost its way. Whether it would have been better for it to have gone first to the third world rather than plomp itself on the desks of the chief execs of large corporations. The Internet was, and is, about community and in the Western World the idea of community is as outdated as scythes. But in the parts of the world struggling to feed itself, or stay free of intimidation and war, community is alive and well. And here the Internet could have a really obvious role.

Alerting people to oppressive regimes, saving schools the expense of text books, uniting families forced to move from country to city by poverty. These are not buzzwords, these are real Net benefits.

In the West the Internet is huge and growing bigger by the day. People are shopping on the Web, beginning to manage their finances online, checking shareprices and logging on to news sites. But still email is the biggest killer app. And the exponential rise in popularity of Instant Messaging proves that talking to each other is what we like best about the Web.

Compared with the hugeness and complexity of the network behind all those Web pages, email seems like a small achievement. And it is one that has little or no economic value to the large corporations.

Which is heartening news that perhaps we may yet save the Internet from the grip of capital. But just as the dreams of failed dot-com millionaires may never be realised online, so too we must remember that the human aspect of the Net will also always be limited.

Asked what he would most like to see the Internet used for, founder of ICQ Yossi Vardi, said he would like it to be used to bring peace in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, like so many of our dreams for a wired world, his reply contained the caveat that he didn't know how that could be achieved. Perhaps the future of the Internet lies not in solving the big problems of the world, but in small and less glorious victories that we may not yet even have dreamt of. It is time to stop thinking of the Web as a high-tech panacea for all our ills. Time to stop imagining we will all make our fortunes on it and just start enjoying it for what it offers today.

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