Who's afraid of the Internet?

In these early days of the Internet, it looks like we both worship and are horrified by this new medium

In these early days of the Internet, it looks like we both worship and are horrified by this new medium. Many people still feel overpowered, or frightened by even the concept of it. People still ask questions such as "where is the Internet?", as if it were a single entity residing in a box somewhere. Others are blinded by love of this simple-yet-complicated communications tool; they cannot create a reasonable distance from the Internet and are unable to think rationally about it.

Compare the introduction of the Internet with how people in Ireland initially reacted to the introduction of electricity. Whole villages refused to accept the new technology, thinking they'd be fried in their beds.

The corollary of this in the Internet age is that people have wildly different reactions to the technology. Non plussed kids fearlessly dive in, becoming computer hackers before their parents can cope with e-mail, while other people are terrified, afraid of pressing any buttons in case they wipe out everything on their hard drive.

There is also a view that new technology is all-knowing, leaving us at its mercy. Increasingly, people are aware of this problem and are becoming particularly concerned about the lack of privacy online, knowing that technology is used to gather, and act upon, all kinds of private information.


The once popular expression that celebrated privacy, "on the Internet no one knows you're a dog" (1993), has been well and truly debunked. It is possible to find out an incredible amount about you once you go online - your breed, the condition of your coat, and whether your preference is for lamp-posts or car tyres. And with a bit of extra work, it's possible to find out details such as which browser plug-ins you use, whether your browser supports Java or JavaScript, the size of your monitor, the number of monitor colours you're using, and your ISP's location and identification.

Agents of the Internet like to manipulate users; marketing organisations hide behind an array of masks in order to persuade you to open their unsolicited e-mail. They pretend to know you by using trick titles such as "Hi, it's Mary from the US", or "Here's the information you requested". Such scenarios lead to people feeling insecure.

The success of television shows such as Big Brother, in which the mundane details of everyday life are recorded, may be put down to a mixture of fear and fascination. The total surveillance possible in such programmes may give us the impression that we are the masters of technology - but can leave both viewers and participants feeling vulnerable and wondering who or what is in control.

THESE days, we are further removed than ever from the machines which surround us. Not long ago, many of us knew how everyday objects worked. Because we could figure out the mechanics, we fixed, even adapted, these machines to suit ourselves. But now the widespread use of microelectronics means that the average person hasn't a clue about the inner workings of many machines. This has resulted in an ever-increasing state of dependency on technology.

However, technology can let us down. A lot of what is written about technology focuses on criticising software and hardware for being unreliable. According to PC World, 22 per cent of all personal computers sold in the US each year break down. The corresponding figure for wide-screen televisions is 7 per cent. Despite advances, computer technology is still very user-unfriendly.

The Internet is progressing along the lines of any previous major technology. According to Forbes magazine, technologies such as the steam engine, aircraft

and radio all went through a five-step process of development: experimentation, capitalisation, management, hyper-competition and consolidation. The Internet is no exception. We've struggled through the first three stages; billions have been made and lost, and now we're in the hyper-competition stage, preparing for the comfort of consolidation.

We shouldn't assume that the power that this new tool exerts is in any way unusual. Soon we will be ready to move on to the next phase, which will be "The Internet? So what". We'll have passed feeling the need to wave a red flag, warning others of all those impending dangers hurtling their way down the information superhighway.