Jane Wakefield: In search of Internet truth

13.5 million of us are now surfing but what exactly are we looking for?

The Internet, we are told, is about to change our lives forever. We stand at the cusp of a revolution but while the economic changes are obvious to see (dotcom mania followed by stock market crash), the personal revolution is less easy to gauge.

The Net boom has created new jobs for research firms who now spend copious amounts of time telling us how many of us are online, where we are going and how long we spend there. We learn bizarre facts about Outer Mongolian fondness for online chess or the German love of Net banking.

Now research has moved on from head-counting and listing the most popular Internet sites to the more fundamental question of what impact all this knowledge and technology is having on our lives.

A Microsoft-sponsored three year enquiry into the effects of technology on society was launched by the Industrial Society last week and the government is about to monitor how computers are used in the most deprived areas of the UK.

The initial survey for the Industrial Society's iSociety project suggests we have a love/hate relationship with the technology that surrounds us. Despite the all-pervasive surveillance society we live in, people do not see technology as a malevolent power in society.

(I beg to differ. I have noticed that the standard recorded message at railway stations have started using the voice of Hal to tell you how late your train is going to be. It is very scary.)

While others are not yet ready to accept that we are moving gradually towards a technologically aided dictatorship they are happy to blame technology for lack of freedom at work. Generally this comes down to the mundane factors such as information overload from too many emails, people taking their work home with them on laptops and the fact that mobile phones mean we are always contactable -- I have heard people having business conversations in the toilet for goodness sake. Our attitude to technology is, says the author of the research, strangely schizophrenic.

Startingly, nearly half of the thousand people interviewed for the iSociety research believe that since the inception of email people have more friends. As if in future the number of mates we have is directly correlated to the number of emails we receive. By that reckoning I have about 150 pals and it is growing every day. Some of them aren't particularly friendly, offering me hair balding cures which if they knew me at all they would know I do not need. Some are over-friendly, inviting me to online sex parties and porn sites before we have even met.

Online friendship is all very well but it can never really be a substitute for the real thing as a 28-year-old Yorkshire man found out when he flew to the US to meet his love-match and found out she was a pensioner with a dead husband in her freezer.

This incident betrays two aspects of online culture little explored by research so far. First it illustrates something quite touching about human nature and its tendency, if lonely enough, to trust the words of a complete stranger tied to you only by a computer screen. Conversely, it proves that the Internet has made liars of us, re-introduced us to the kind of role play most of us abandoned as children, allowing us briefly to relive our fantasies and hide behind any mask we chose.

While the idea of email increasing the number of friends we have may seem absurd, what definitely is true is that for groups of wired friends email has become as important a tool in their friendship as a visit to the pub. It seems to be increasingly true that an email is used as a substitute for a conversation or a meeting so although it may be making it easier to stay in touch it is also making it less likely that people will keep in physical contact. At the end of the day cyber friendship is not as good as a real concrete meeting merely because it demands less effort. Any friendship that is not based on visits to the pub is, in my eyes, bound to failure.

The government is less worried about how technology is affecting our social lives but very interested indeed to see if it is helping us to be good citizens. As part of its £10m spend on getting PCs and Internet-enabled set-top boxes out to the most deprived areas of the UK it is also demanding to keep an eye on what we use them for.

There has to be an element of paranoia here when you consider that one of the most successful uses of the Internet so far has been in organising anti-authority demonstrations such as Reclaim the Streets and the marches against global capitalism. On this front the government is busy installing black boxes into telephone exchanges and Internet Service Providers premises to spy on such activities. By comparison this survey as part of its Wired Up Communities programme is far less controversial -- it is hoping to find that home surfing is raising educational standards and increasing job opportunities.

In some cases but not all the Internet access for this project will be paid for. Where it isn't I would guess the Internet will have little or no impact on people's lives. With Internet access averaging about £10 a month, there is little doubt that in a family in which every penny is accounted for Internet access will come way down the list of household essentials. If the family is lucky enough to have a leisure budget, I would bet that it would go on Sky TV before it went on the Internet.

Some areas will be getting set-top boxes but there is little if any Web content that is ready for a TV audience and anyone whose first introduction to the Internet is via TV is, I would suggest, going to be put off for life.

I will be following with interest what the government finds out from the residents of Carpenters Estate in Newham, East London or the Framlington area of Suffolk, or the BeaconNet estate in East Manchester, just three of the areas pinpointed by the Department of Education and Employment for special treatment. If anyone is sitting their with their government-wired PC on at the moment and happens to be reading this I would be very interested to hear from you and how you imagine the Internet will change your life.

I suspect the government is in for a shock. I used to teach in the East End, and literacy among those pupils from the most deprived areas was a major concern. At the moment the Internet is largely about information and without the skills to sift, disseminate and manipulate this information there is little use in having it. Information for information's sake is not enough. If the government wants people from the poorest regions in the UK to join the Internet revolution it has to realise that it requires more than a few training sessions on how to use the Web.

Recently the e-Minister pointed out that one woman in a deprived area of her Leicester constituency was using the Internet to find out about a rare disease that her daughter had. It may well be that this woman was able to use the information to her advantage but equally she could be sourcing her information from a place that was completely misinforming her.

There is an awful lot of nonsense online and the Internet without education in the homes of those the government has pinpointed as information-have nots is about as useful as a set of garden furniture would be to a resident on the twelfth floor of one of these estates.

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