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AT LARGE: Net drift

AT LARGE: Net drift

ARN's Matthew JC. Powell returns from the tuna catch to smear wasabi on some common misconceptionsI love the Internet. It's fun, it's informative, it's convenient. It lets me shop for CDs in the US somewhere, and I don't even know where. It gives me Dilbert and Snoopy every morning. The most fun I get from the Net, though, is from speaking to people who think the Net started around 1995 or so. I do get the giggles. I have decided that periodically, I shall use this space to Get It Straightª and let you know the facts as they really are. I make no guarantee I will be right.

The Net was built by the military in the very early 1970s as a means of providing secure communication away from phone lines. Because there was a great deal of cross-pollination between military research and pure academic research, universities were brought on-board shortly after. Most people my age remember the Internet as this thing you got to play with at uni.

The Cold War ended, the military and academia divested themselves of as much of the infrastructure as they could sell, and we all got e-mail. As a result, this fantastic notion of the Internet as some kind of global cyber-hippy commune emerged. Somehow, somewhere along the line, people got the notion that the Internet was an anarchist Utopia where everyone was free to say or do whatever they wanted without involvement from the government or the ''military-industrial complex'' (MIC). When people talked about the Internet ''fulfilling its potential'', they kind of meant some sort of new country where there wasn't a government, but everyone had high-bandwidth connections and full-motion video. This ignores obvious historical points.

For example, a couple of years ago CompuServe dropped certain newsgroups from its service because a German court ruled them to be indecent or inappropriate or something. In response, the free speech campaigners attempted to blockade Internet access from Germany. It was only a matter of hours before loopholes were found and almost full access was restored. Putting aside for a moment obvious considerations of hypocrisy, these libertarian censors had forgotten the Internet was built to survive a nuclear war. The very MIC that was supposed to be the bogeyman, had ensured long ago that no one, not even cyber-hippies, would undermine free speech on the Internet.

Now you guys (and we media types) want to co-opt the Net for our own ends. Which is to say, we want to make money. Lots of it. We (media) want to pour content onto Web pages and sell adver- tising -- exactly like print publishing, only more ''dynamic''. You (vendors) want to flog stuff to people who don't like to leave their home or office; computer buffs are an ideal target. The big players (Microsoft, Netscape, Sun) want to make huge sums of money from the Internet, although it's not entirely clear how. When we talk about the Net ''fulfilling its potential'', we mean filling our pockets.

The Internet that has the potential to fill our pockets is the one that gazillions of people have access to, with graphical browsers and high bandwidth. Those gazillions have come to accept that the only way Utopia can happen is if those who want money from the Net invest in infrastructure. The military past of the Net means you can rest assured that not even the apocalypse will interfere with your online transactions.

Letters at large

This column will publish, with occasional irregularity, letters from nutcases with strong views -- like the one which follows. We take no credit for its contentSir,They're telling me there's something wrong with Bill Gates having a browse. Well, if a man can't idly wander through shops without the pressure to buy something, then something's gone very wrong indeed . . . I'm reminded of some Kiwis who I once let a flat to. A few hours before they were scheduled to move in, I nipped out to the shop, bought a handful of gooseberries, and alighted back to Chez Patch (which I had no intention of letting to anyone). Quickly, I arranged the gooseberries -- or ''kiwis'', if you will -- around the room: one -- the ''father'' -- relaxed in a chair after a long, hard day being an oblong fruit covered in rough brown skin; two others reclined on the sofa, secure in the notion they weren't really New Zealanders; and a fourth -- quite small -- ''played'' on the floor with a toy truck.

At any rate, the Kiwis arrived at the appointed hour (sex o'clock, naturally). They strode up happily and knocked on the door, and I opened it -- just a crack.

''Can I help you?'' I asked in a low, sinister voice.

''We're here to move in,'' they said, all bright-eyed.

Old Patch was loving this; I could barely contain myself. ''It's no good, I'm afraid. I've already let the flat out to another group of kiwis.''''But . . . I don't understand,'' said the main fellow, looking confused.

With impeccable timing, I flung open the door and in my wildest voice howled, ''I told you! I've already let the flat out to some other kiwis!!!'' I was motioning like a lunatic to my little brown, furry friends positioned around the room.

By the time I looked up, my new tenants -- my dear, dear friends from across the Tasman -- had fled. Where could they've been headed?

Now back to the matter in my hand . . . if that beady-eyed Gates chap wants to have a browse, I say let him. He'll buy something when he's ready -- probably the shop.

My mind keeps on racing with so many questions: is Ian Penman wearing a wig? Where has Tony Jansz gone and how long has he promised to stay there? Is David Henderson really Scottish? Or does he simply enjoy wearing skirts in his free time? (Nothing wrong with either answer, mind.) Well look, I'm off. Pay the bills and forward the post.

-- Sir Dennis Patch, QVB


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