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Remote control

In a world where much is out of our control, the Web allows us to prepare ourselves. But are we becoming a society of lurkers?

In a memorable episode of Absolutely Fabulous, frustrated fashionista Edina blurted out "I don't want more choice, I just want nicer things!". It's a sentiment that carries surprising weight in a world that offers four varieties of sugarless Coke.

My social theory #45 about the Web is that we like it because it allows us to regain some control over our lives. Want to go to a new restaurant? Research the menu, location and opening hours online, then print out a map from WhereIs or use your in-car GPS to get there. You'll know exactly what to expect when you arrive, because you read reviews on Eatability, took the 360 degree virtual tour on the restaurant's Web site and discussed whether or not to tip in an online forum.

This desire to be prepared, informed and in control strikes me as a reaction against a society that increasingly foists things upon us. On a typical day, most of us will grab a coffee to sip as we impatiently await the tardy arrival of a bus or train. We'll squish in with the other harried commuters and try not to scald any of them on the journey, during which some Very Important Businessperson will take a Very Important Mobile Phone Call. Advertising will fight for our attention on buses, in supermarket queues, and even on toilet cubicle doors. We'll put in eight, nine, maybe 10 hours at the office and then repeat the public transport rigmarole with clothes and hair more rumpled than the morning.

It's all a bit much, really. No wonder we feel comforted by the idea of knowing what we'll get.

My contention though, is this: has the availability of information made us less willing to be vulnerable? Has it removed the element of surprise, or even made us more timid? By timid, I mean that we would rather assume the "lurker" role and investigate things online than venture into the real world and meet with human beings.

Here's an example. Say I was organising a red hot and happening party. To find a venue, I'd perhaps swing by the Vogue forums (frequented by scores of young women who like to discuss everything from the ethical issues arising from drug trafficking to the agony of wearing heels that squeak). I'd do a search for "party venue", see where the young and gorgeous are going on Saturday nights, and investigate the room rates and function packages available in PDF format from the Flash-intro'd sites of various bars and clubs.

...then I'd probably lose patience and spend the money on cask wine and a rotating disco light, but that's not the point. The point is that I would have been able to plan my entire party without ever having to talk to pretentious club owners or intimidating event organisers. And even though I'm no sociophobic recluse, that lack of need to interact with strangers is pretty appealing.