Net Gains and Losses
The webs we weave
Although the Internet is not new, the last 10 years has seen it explode into our lives and affect the way we live, work, and relax. A recent survey indicated that 37.3% are now connected to the internet, and it has already replaced the phone and fax as our main electronic communication tool, and the television as our entertainment centre.
But what is the Internet exactly? Basically, it's just an interconnected network of computers communicating through telephone lines, a sort of fibre optic spaghetti junction that pulsates out into cyberspace. It was originally developed in the late sixties/early seventies as a part of the US defence department's communication system. This was when the red menace, and the possibility of nuclear attack still formed part of the American neurosis. Rather than just one huge central computer holding vast amounts of data, it was deemed prudent to disperse this information around the country through thousands of machines (inadvertently creating thousands of new targets for enemy missiles).
As with everything new, a set of rules had to be devised. These rules were named protocols, and they allowed miscellaneous machines to work together. These protocols became known as TCP/IP, (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). Since those early days, it has been upgraded, expanded and improved so that TCP/IP is now an internationally accepted standard.
Today billions of people world-wide use these protocols on the net to receive and share information, make contacts, or just spout their problems. They include students, businessmen, journalists, consultants, programmers, paedophiles, con-men , prostitutes and corporate giants. Even supermarkets are getting in the act, with Tesco's stacking high and selling not so cheap computer hardware, as well as operating its own Internet site.
To get on the net, and access the World Wide Web, your computer needs to be connected to either a 'modem/router' or a WAN (World Area Network). You also require an ISP (Internet Service Provider), like Microsoft, Virgin or one of the thousands that have suddenly appeared. Your ISP usually supplies you with a CD which will configure your settings and allow you access to the World Wide Web (or 'Superhighway' as it is also known), through their gateway (for a charge of course). And it is from there that the web really starts to get interesting.
It comes as no surprise that the original World Wide Web was conceived by Swiss, scientists, as they're proven masters at finding ways for people to overload their circuits (after all, they discovered LSD). They originally wanted a mechanism for fellow scientists to share their work, and as they progressed, they cultivated what was to be the first true universal multi-media environment for publishing information. With commercial investment, the web has grown and sprouted many new and fascinating attractions including; clubs, chat forums, On-line shopping, and an unlimited range of activities depending on taste, fetishes or fantasies.
But there are also the down sides. A survey conducted by Glasgow University, showed nearly 16% of users felt tense, depressed and irritable when not surfing the net, and more than 25% feel guilty about the time they spend On-line. Another 4% said it had a detrimental effect on their mental or physical health (in other words, it's driving them nuts).
In America, this phenomenon has led to the creation of what is termed 'On-line addiction', and like AIDS, it's not that fussy who it infects. Shrinks reckon it's not only computer nerds who are suffering, but also many middle aged and elderly people who could have been previously called technophobic. Psychiatrists do agree that the symptoms are psychosomatic, leading to headaches, lack of concentration and tiredness. But never fear, in true American pioneering tradition, Internet Anonymous and Web-Aholics are two internet sites that offer help, but only by logging onto the net - the equivalent of Gazza bringing a bottle of whisky to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
A survey by 'The Economist', estimated that of the 2 billion people who are estimated to be On-line world wide, 65 to 70 per cent are male, and according to some female net users, sexual harassment and innuendo are abundant on the web and many women have a problem with the male dominated attitude of its users.
For research, I decided to check out if this was true by finding out what the most popular search words on the Web are. The keywords sex, porn, free porn and porno pretty much blow any other keywords out of the water. The amount of exact match volume for these 4 terms alone is 22,820,000 searches a month. Individually they are:
- [porn] 11,100,000
- [free porn] 7,480,000
- [sex] 2,740,000
- [porno] 1,500,000
Again, this is almost 23 million searches a month just for these 4 terms. Maybe the women do have a point, and it's a question of 'men behaving badly' in cyberspace.
One possible reason for this behaviour is because the net is invisible, and everything takes place in a computer generated environment. The World Wide Web can't be touched, felt or seen, except on a computer terminal, so there is no way of actually controlling its content. And let's be fair, we have enough problems with idiots in the real world, so how in hell do you control what people do in a virtual reality?
It's true to say that many people on the 'Superhighway' are behaving like a bunch of underage schoolboys, and in a totally unacceptable manner. If computers are the key to knowledge, the Internet is a gateway to unlimited information and some attempt must be made to use it fairly. That's not to say you can't have fun, or do what the hell you like, it simply means that you don't have to degrade other users.
Over the last ten years, we have witnessed an explosion in 'On-line' shopping, or E-commerce as it also known. This explosion has ended up literally blowing some high street retailers out of business, as they see their products being sold over the net at cut-throat prices. You can now buy or order anything through the net, from Tele-tubby toys to transvestite hookers. On top of this, the 'virtual retailer' has far lower outlay costs, and this allows them to undercut high street rivals and still skim off nice fat profit margins. While most retailers would look for profit margins of 6-10 per cent, a net retailer's is looking for around 18 per cent. Naturally, your high street shop would love to grab a slice of these higher margins, but it causes havoc with their existing structures. If they do nothing, then the net companies will grab some of their market, it might not be much, but even a small loss of volume could be enough to turn a profitable shop into a loss-maker.
What really annoys many people is that every time you contact the web, you give away information about yourself. Despite what many people think, there is no such thing as anonymity on the net. Companies trace and track your every move, and with no 'please tick here' boxes in cyberspace, your E-mail address is an easy target for commercial junk mail, twisted philosophies, scams and chain letters. The reason this so easy, is because every computer connected to the net has its own unique address, which contains information giving the name and address of the computer you are working on, as well as the one you are contacting. Armed with this information, it's not a problem for hackers, companies, government agencies; or any other interested party finding your E-mail address.
Using modems, computers can chat along telephone lines, and as every modem has its own telephone number, it's not even that difficult for people to find your home telephone number. When they have it, they can enter your system by dialling from their own computer. This is called 'hacking', and it's seriously pissing off corporations, institutions and governments alike.
Ironically enough, it's the US and the UK that are most at risk from computer hackers, mainly because both have invested more rapidly in advanced technology, and this leaves them more vulnerable to attack by hackers. Last year alone, there were over 250,000 attempts to hack into the American military headquarters at the Pentagon.
A former director of the FBI was quoted as saying; "give me a select group of ten hackers, and I could bring the US and the UK to its knees."
The chaos that can be created through hacking is enormous. It has already been termed 'cyber-terrorism', and with no more than a few small home computers, terrorists could really screw the system.
To prove this, an exercise was conducted on behalf of the American Secretary of Defence, and it sent the proverbial flying towards fan. Government hackers using only small home PC's and techniques readily available, simulated a cyber-terrorist attack from the middle-east on the US and its closest allies (unfortunately that was mainly Britain). Within hours the cyber-terrorists used their computers to knock out the power in California, destroy Saudi oil refineries, crash commuter trains in Washington and London (although in London, they could have left that to Railtrack), infiltrate the Bank of England's fund transfer system, destabilise the New York Stock Exchange, place a virus inside Pentagon computers, crash a Boeing jet into Chicago and close down the telephone networks in both London and Washington. How's that for serious fun and games! Although it was only a simulated exercise, it is known that many competent hackers are already capable of doing all these things.
With such lax security in computer and telephone systems, the message is clear. Cyber-terrorism, or cyber-warfare will give developing countries a level playing field. What use are nukes, or an expensive 'Star-wars' type defence program if some spotty faced nerd can enter your system and reprogram it? If nutters with money require experts, he can hire them. Bulletin boards on the Internet are littered with people offering their services.
'Unleash the cyber dogs of war,' they cry, and there are enough anarchic, anti-social loonies with a grudge against authority who would take delight in disrupting establishment systems just for kicks. If an unfriendly government, or group were to give these people financial incentive, they could easily turn a hobby hacker into a digital mercenary.
So the message we conclude from this is clear, we are becoming more addicted to our computers, but we do so at our own peril. The old systems were slow, expensive and subject to a lot of human mess ups, but new systems can be infiltrated by anyone with skill operating from an unknown location, and once he has gained access to the computer system he is after, he can cause an unlimited amount of damage and havoc.
Like every thing else, you have to way up the pro's and con's of the situation. In one corner we have advanced communications, access to information, cheaper goods (possibly), mind boggling games, and the ability to run your own life more efficiently, along with all the advantages it may bring. In the other corner we find new forms of stress related illness, unregulated sexual material including child pornography, where perv's can remain anonymous and undetected (unless they bring their computers in to get fixed at Dixons), lack of Net security leaving you open to any interested party and finally, the possibility of 'cyber-terrorism' and the mass destruction this can cause.
So who says computers are meant to make your life easier?