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The Net position

The Net position

Andrew Brown for David Goodhart 8 March, 1998

I have just upgraded my internet access to an ISDN line, the fastest domestic connection you can get: this has two effects. The first is that the entire computer crashes if the telephone rings; the second is that I have realised just how much less you need to get more on the Internet. I have come to treasure sites where everything is simple text, so it whizzes down as quickly as possible without pictures or plugins. Among the best is Need To Know, a sarky little digest of industry news and comment laid out to look as if it came straight off a typewriter in Shoreditch. If you have to acknowledge the existence of the Digital Revolution, this is the way to do it. and they are among the very few people to have seized on the possibilities of imaginative domain names to have an address of "www.unfortu.net" shows that Britain still leads the world in some things.

The other site worth a visit as an example of the net as its best is maintained be a group who call themselves "the people with no lives". It is the Urban Legends Archive, containing discussions of almost everything that ought to be true. In its maniacal devotion to establishing the truth of things that really donít matter at all, such as whether anyone ever really placed a baby or even a cat in a microwave oven, the site epitomises all that is best and most pointless about the internet. Is an outgrowth of one of the very few Usenet discussion groups to have remained both useless and interesting for six or seven years now, alt.folklore.urban and it hardly has any pictures at al, though there are some glyphs suspiciously reminiscent of singed cats.

Yet sometimes, early in the morning, After America has gone to sleep and before Britain has woken up, the Internet runs fast enough to make Bob Dylan audible. His official web site at www.bobdylan.com is a model of what these things should be. It contains a complete, searchable database of every song he has ever written, which lists all the lyrics and the recordings on which each was published. Once you have found a song, you can listen to 45 seconds or so played through your speakers. Best of all, there is a growing library of complete live recordings, official bootlegs, so to say, which can be listened to in their entirety. This is where ISDN comes in useful. Since it is something between half as fast again and four times as fast as a conventional modem, the music has to be less compressed on its journey down the wires, and emerges form the speakers in much better shape. Itís not exactly CD quality, but it does sound about as good as the records did when they first came out and were played on the sort of equipment that schoolboys could then afford. This is never going to be a mass market thrill.

The Dylan site works because it is not trying to compete with TV. Very slowly and very expensively the big companies are learning that the Web is never going to be a medium of entertainment. "Content", meaning the stuff between the advertisements, must be either useful or very fashionable indeed if it is to turn a profit. Microsoft has just sacked most of its "content" providers which were meant to turn the MSN network into something like a permanent TV show. The desktop channels which were such an unpleasant feature of Internet Explorer 4 are to be de-emphasised to Siberia. America Online celebrated its purchase of CompuServe by sacking a third of the staff, mostly those involved in "content" creation. The omens even look bad for Slate, Microsoftís delightfully literate webzine, which is to start charging for access this month. Even at $20.00 a year, a ridiculously low price compared to its print equivalents, only about 10,000 people have signed up. The frenetically jokey and upbeat letter from its editor, Michael Kinsley, offering free umbrellas to any early subscribers, is one of the most depressing things I have read in a long time.

But as the list of entertaining things on the web gets shorter and shorter, the list of useful ones, sometimes in the most surprising places, gets longer. Learned journals may not be online, but lots of academics are putting their papers up anyway. Even John Lucas, the most old fashioned Oxford philosopher imaginable, who must be nearly eighty now, has a web site where you can find his classic argument from Goedel against the possibility of machine intelligence among his other papers. I find that about half the references I need to chase for the pop history of sociobiology I am writing can be found online as well as in libraries. Perhaps we have come a full circle. Before people dreamt of "cyberspace" as a kind of film you could wander around inside, there was an earlier vision in which the net was greatest library in the world. If all the other uses fell away, that would be real progress. Until that happens, Iíll sit here and wait for the phone to ring. Crash.

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