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by Mark Trescowthick - GUI Computing
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Some light holiday reading on the future of the Net.

As is my wont during the long days and nights of Summer, I try to catch up on all those books I'd meant to read during the year. This Summer has been no exception and, more by chance than design, I've had the opportunity to read not one but three excellent "answers" to the now-perennial question "Wither the Internet?".

The three books in question are :

"Asleep at the Wheel - Australia on the Superhighway" by John Nieuwenhuizen (ABC Books, ISBN 0 7333 0550 4);

"Release 2.0" by Esther Dyson (Viking, ISBN 0 670 87600 3); and

"Hard, Soft & Wet" by Melanie McGrath (HarperCollins, ISBN 0 00 255586 7).

Three more disparate views could probably not be imagined, yet all three share some strikingly similar opinions on where the Net (and computers in general) might be taking our society.

Nieuwenhuizen is the only Australian of the three and his book does assume a good deal of "local" knowledge, but virtually all of what he has to say has international implications - let's face it, globalisation is, perhaps, what all this is about. He makes it clear from page one that his main concern is with the lack of debate (as opposed to hype) on the implications and possible effects of our increasing use of and reliance on the Net. His book, he says, is not the "Environmental Impact Study" that should be conducted, but perhaps an attempt at it's terms of reference. I think he undersells himself - this book draws together research and opinion from a vast array of sources and provides a real antidote to some of the more ridiculous hype. I would perhaps wish for a little less "von Danikenism" at times as he stretches to make a point but this is, in the end, a most important book.

Dyson, on the other hand, sees a far more positive future for the Net - as befits someone with her extensive background in electronic life. She admits she has "that typical American blend of pragmatism, idealism, goodwill, and bluntness" (Oh, Esther, puhlease!), and this book is perhaps best viewed as an examination of many of the issues raised by Nieuwenhuizen, with a nice "community-based" solution to each. That's not to say that her solutions aren't valid or viable (in many cases I suspect she puts a vision of the future much closer to reality than any other I've heard), but be prepared for relentless enthusiasm and snippets of down-home wisdom <g>.

Melanie McGrath takes a different tack altogether in her description of her journey in and out of love with technology. A Pom with a yearning for the USA, McGrath takes a more personal view of the issues facing the Net and society, but is no less interesting or provocative for that. "Hard, Soft & Wet" covers more than just the Net, taking in techno culture at all levels from hacking to raves, with frequent diversions into the author's personal trials and tribulations, and this broader more personal view was, I found, a useful antidote to the more scholarly leanings of the other two tomes.

All three writers see, and are alarmed by, the potential for the Net to simultaneously globalise and isolate society... a neat trick, one might think! Dyson's answer to a problem Nieuwenhuizen characterises as the rise of "a community of fortresses" is to suggest that, rather than fortresses, we will see a series of "communities", though even she acknowledges that "the biggest danger of the ease of forming and enclosing [Net] communities [is] their ability to insulate themselves from the rest of society". McGrath's concern that the global community may deteriorate into "world no longer divided into Japanese, Russians, Haitians, or even into Asians, Africans and Australasians, but into the Slavic Christian Shoppers Club and the Death Penalty Supporters' Consumer Group, which moneyed little microtribes will be opposed by the largest tribe of all, the undifferentiated global poor".

Both Dyson and Nieuwenhuizen deplore Bill Gates' vision of "frictionless" commerce, education or whatever, making the point that it's the "friction" that makes for the human experience in many ways - be it around the fax machine at work, in the clash of personalities and ideas in education or in other, more obvious, ways. Cybersex (something all three books thankfully don't dwell on!) will never, one hopes, lead to cyber-pregnancies.

The possibility, or perhaps inevitability, of information overload is another common theme, unsurprisingly. This problem is with us now, and can only get worse. Nieuwenhuizen makes a number of observations on this problem - not all of them necessarily consistent (but then, perhaps, that's not his point) : he sees information overload as a problem in it's own right, he sees it as "a certainty" that the rise of the superhighway will not diminish concentration of media ownership, and he deems it pointless to consider the ability to publish your own information when everyone else is doing it too.

Dyson takes the view that we will tackle this by use of intelligent agents, and that we will choose what communities we frequent, thus in some ways self-limiting the information available to us - a prospect that appalls Nieuwenhuizen, and which he terms "akin to book burning". McGrath wonders whether the future is like Moscow ("a vast global anarcho-capilatlist web, deregulated, dynamic, dispersed, de-centred, a shape-shifting reticulate world of naked profiteering; a world where each is connected and alone...waiting to eat or be eaten") or like Singapore ("no disagreement, no individuality, no non-conformity, no rebellion, no politics, no freedom of speech... call it consensus, call it consumerism, call it multi-national corporations, call it the global village, call it what you will.").

Let's hope that "none of the above" is also an option... or, perhaps, "all of the above".

There is much to like, and to be fearful of, in each of these books, and I'd recommend them as reading for anyone seriously interested in how the Net might develop.

I end with the thought that most worried me from all this - on the problem of equity of access to this wondrous new resource we call the Net. As Nieuwenhuizen puts it, in perhaps the ultimate argument for more discussion and debate of just where all this is heading :

"It would be nice if the worst we had to fear was that being computer illiterate was the equivalent in the twenty-first century of being dyslexic. Being dyslexic is not necessarily a bar to becoming a fully functioning member of society. It will, though, be a little more serious if the more apt analogy is with leprosy."

Written by: Mark Trescowthick
January '98

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