New Internationalist

Introducing Steve Parry

Issue 447

Our brand new columnist takes a humorous look at the internet’s past, present and future.

Suhaib Salem, Reuters
Online antics: protesters prepare a Qadafi caricature inside a burnt state security building in Benghazi. Suhaib Salem, Reuters

On 25 December 1990, scientist Tim Berners Lee escaped the interminable festive punishment of turkey and board games meted out at Christmas, and instead did something way more exciting: he sent the first successful communication between an HTTP client and a server. Which in techno-dolt terminology means he sent the first ever message over the internet. Two decades down the line and all of us are endlessly clicking away like a shoal of arthritic dolphins.

So, next month the internet comes of age and, like all 21 year olds worth their salt, he’s blossomed into a right bolshie little sod. He’s also watching far too much porn.

Until recently the internet – and more specifically, social networking – had been viewed by critics as a frivolous banality. A mindless virtual playground for geeks and freaks to gossip about life’s inanities, like what they had for breakfast or how long they took to have a wee (toast and jam/37 seconds in case you’re wondering).

But not any more. If you listen to the hysterical ravings of the hang ’em and flog ’em foghorns of the press, you’d think that the internet was responsible for everything from those naughty student riots to those scary real people riots, not to mention striking the match that lit the Egyptian powder keg.

People haven’t been corrupted by social networks but by social conditions

But could the upsurge of riots, insurrections and revolutions across the world in the last 12 months really be the fault of Facebook, a site whose main contribution to my life has been to halve my work rate? Or could it instead have something to do with the introduction of the most aggressive austerity programme since the days when a spoon was considered the pinnacle of cutting-edge technology? People haven’t been corrupted by social networks but by social conditions.

Nevertheless, as a propaganda tool it knocks spots off the megaphone, and the fear it instils in governments is undeniable. At the height of the revolution in Egypt, the authorities pulled the plug on the internet. A predictable enough assault on democracy and also a right bastard for all those caught in the middle of a ferocious bidding war on Ebay.

The British government also wasted no time in attempting to crush dissent by all those foamy-mouthed pinkos on Facebook and Twitter, recently putting a 22-year-old man in the dock for drunkenly setting up a page inciting a riot that never even happened. They gave him four years of prison. Four years for arsing around at home on the PC and then going to bed. Isn’t this exactly the type of riots that governments want?

That ill-conceived online antics could get you banged up had me worried. Shamefully, as it turned out, my slurred posts were nowhere near as insurrectionary as I’d remembered. Here’s one uploaded well after the sun was past the yardarm:

What I want to know is, when did Qadafi have his head replaced with the clay model of Lionel Richie’s from the Hello video from the 1980s?’

I know, hardly a clarion call to revolution – but thankfully not seditious enough to have me martyred.

OK, so my online presence verges on the puerile, but there’s no doubt that social networks offer the best organizational tool for agitation we’ve ever had. Until they switch it off, of course.

As the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, once said,

The internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand – the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.’

The fact that he’s clearly never hosted a child’s birthday party aside, let’s hope he’s right.

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