The Guardian, required reading here at Big Bubbles but sometimes just for a laugh, has spent the week promoting the Internet, or at least the bit they registered for their agonisingly slow site anyway. Beginning with a "startling" new survey that purported to show how net usage in the UK was booming (oddly, the take-up is rather lower than poll support for the Tories, who are considered to be "struggling"), each day's edition has included net-related articles and diverse comment. In particular, they've featured several "site seeing" (note lack of upper case to denote coolness) pieces in which vaguely leading authorities briefly describe web sites relevant to their interests.
In Saturday's paper, Jonathan Romain, "rabbi of Maidenhead synagogue", visited the Cybrary of the Holocaust and was mostly impressed. And then bitter. After a short, irrelevant and unoriginal comment that the Internet "shouldn't be used as a substitute for meeting real people" (snore...in case one stays at home surfing instead of attending a place of worship, perhaps?), he expresses worries over the "volume of abusive material on the Internet". Well, we're all offended by much of the commercial crud that's overwhelming the net today. Whoops, he means racist and sexist content!
"That television, books and radio should have to conform to the Race Relations Act while the Internet does not is wrong."
Uh, Jonathan...are you offering to police the enforcement of the Act on the Internet? In which case, here's your PC and we'll pop back from time to time to remind you to get out and meet some real people occasionally.
"...All sorts of nonsense is being put out on the Internet because it's a quick and easy means of self-promotion for people who can't get published any other way."
Pish and tosh, you think to yourself. Man's a fool! Surely the point of the Internet is that it can't be regulated, or at least that we don't want governments trying to legislate the life out of it. Race Relations Acts are all very well for irresponsible broadcasters and publishers who don't know any better, but here on the net we think about what we read and are able to respond quickly when we disagree. Heck, that's half the trouble with USENET. Sure, every halfwit neo-Nazi and far right militia is able to put up a site espousing their plan for a better world through discrimination and hatred ("We don't discriminate!" I hear them protest. "We'll shoot anyone we don't like!"). But the Internet gives us the chance to be more responsible in our thinking, to intelligently reject the crazed, the ignorant, the propagandists and the lunatics (well OK, most alt.* newgroups prove me wrong on that one, but all the smart folk deserted those stagnant backwaters ages ago, didn't they?). Anyone who receives spam in their mailbox (alá the Disney vacation hoax that caught some of my newbie friends this week) automatically receives practice for this.
And then, a few pages on in the same paper, the rabbi's fears are confirmed. Here's Sister Lavinia Byrne visiting the Christian Classic Ethereal Library:
"Christianity is about spreading messages, and here we have the perfect media for putting messages in the public domain. On political and religious fronts, the Internet allows ideologies to be challenged."
By golly, crazed, ignorant lunatic propagandists are using the Internet as a means of self-promotion! And it's not even as if some of these people can't get published "any other way" - there's too many bloody ways already for this lot.
But there's the beauty of it. Sister Lavinia is welcome to put up a site espousing her messages, and I am equally at liberty (check that word in the dictionary, Jonathan!) to put up another denouncing them. I can't quite force her to link to mine, but I can link to hers and ensure that my pages are listed next to hers in Altavista. The true Aryan believers out there can also publish their inarticulate and frankly unpersuasive rubbish, but delivering it via TCP/IP won't make it any less laughable.
Jonathan - the Internet is at least a quick and easy way for someone like me to say "Bollocks!" to your theories, and also much of the garbage propagated in the name of organised religion. We all have a voice here, and no one is yet able to effectively silence any of them. That cuts both ways, but then as adults we can handle sharp implements. Wishing to legislate the net is a fairly hopeless wish anyway, but the belief that it is required is simply misplaced. We're gonna show that we don't need laws to guide us in what is and is not ethical or humanitarian, because we're capable of applying our own personal race relations acts and other necessary regulation to what we browse.
Plus, it's not as if half this stuff ever gets read by anyone anyway...
18th January 1999