Communication breakdown


Cruel winds of fate have blown me to Rome twice in the past three weeks: sitting in a hotel lobby, I still can't believe people pay me to come here and write about interesting things. But enough of that; you want to know about the Internet. So here is a story from the Dark Ages of the web, three years or so ago.

John Gilmore is a stringy little Californian hippy who looks as if he should be busking in the streets and whose acute promotion of reliable free software has made him about $2 million - or so he guessed a couple of years ago when I asked him if he could afford to buy the Independent. In those days this was the only question that occurred to its staff when they met a millionaire - any millionaire would do, so long as he was not David Montgomery.

Two million dollars wasn't really enough: it would have covered about two months of the paper's losses then, and there are more fun ways to spend the money. But later that day, in a discussion about what laws should rule in cyberspace, Gilmore said something priceless, which was almost as good. We were listening to a rant from John Perry Barlow, a former cattle rancher and lyricist for the Grateful Dead, who now travels the world renting out his opinions, because, as he says, "there's more money in bullshit than in bulls".

Barlow was then promoting what he called "a declaration of independence for cyberspace", which would establish it magically as a sphere where earthly constraints did not apply. Gilmore snorted out loud at this, and rose from the audience to say, "The Internet is just a telephone network with pretensions."

Since this is wonderful and self-evidently true, it leaves only one question to ask. If the Internet is no more than a telephone network, why won't it bloody well work? I can shove my Switch card into a magic money machine belonging to an Italian bank and get out lire as easily as pounds. My wife can ring my mobile phone as I walk across the Piazza Navona with a piece of news so startling that I lose sight of all the glories around me.

Yet attempts to get my e-mail leave me crouched, snarling, in the darkness of a phone booth at the Vatican's press room with a broken widget in one hand and a Vatican city phone card in the other; and e-mail is far harder to replace than cash.

The tragedy of the widget is familiar to anyone who travels with a computer. There are 20 or 30 different phone sockets in the world, and it is a safe bet that in a strange hotel room none of them will fit the thing on the end of your modem cable, whatever it happens to be. I went into a shop in New York once and asked for "equipment to break into hotel room phone sockets" and they sold me a kit without hesitation. But it's harder in more law-abiding cities.

Once you plug into the socket, there is the problem of the hotel switchboard. Nothing I could do with the modem would persuade it to get an outside line from my hotel; so in the end I wandered down to an Internet cafe. I had never been to one of these places before: it was a little like placing a telephone call in Kiev: unbelievably slow, and with no privacy whatever. It would suit someone who wanted to play correspondence chess in real time, but not anyone more excitable. If the timer on the machine ran out, it would throw you off, leaving your e-mail on screen for the next user to read.

It made perfect sense, instead, to talk myself into the Vatican press room, photocopy my passport and my press card, find a photo booth and get four Polaroids showing a severely depressed inmate of Broadmoor to prove to the Holy See that I really am who I claim to be; and then, fumbling with the equipment in the dark, to snap one crucial wire in the linking widget. Yet all this time, the mobile was working perfectly.

I suppose the only real answer is to get a wireless modem and plug the laptop into my cell phone so that important news can get through, like that with which my wife stunned me in the Piazza Navona - that I had left my spectacles on the terminal bus at Stansted airport. Is it too much to ask that the Internet should grow up and become a reliable, global mechanism for the delivery of trivia?

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie