'Technology is producing less white heat than white noise, but broadband is like the jet engine'

Just as some people fly to Nepal and the majority go to Ibiza, so some will use bigger bandwidth to

Almost a century ago, Marcel Proust wrote that a certain technology was "a supernatural instrument, before whose miracle we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or order our ice cream". The instrument in question was the telephone. But the same progress from amazement to absorption into everyday life characterises our relationship with mobile phones, microwaves, e-mail, the internet - and now broadband, too. The first experience of downloading a document using broadband, for someone used to watching the slowly filling bar across the bottom of their computer screen using a dial-up connection, is inescapably thrilling. By the 100th time, the speed barely registers. We employ 512Kbps without giving it a thought.

For evangelical commentators, broadband none the less has near-miraculous qualities: it will boost productivity, enlarge leisure, revolutionise the media industry and put the internet at the centre of our lives. Broadband Britain must be the country of all our futures. Technology is producing less white heat than white noise. The trouble is, we have heard all this before. The new economy was going to sweep away the old rules, institutions, economic principles and politics. In the aftermath of the dot bomb, messages of a coming revolution driven by technology are treated with justifiable scepticism.

Yet the current scepticism may prove as mistaken as the earlier enthusiasm. For hiding behind the hype, there are some profound possible implications of wider broadband use. In particular, the dramatic lowering of the barriers to the acquisition of information could have significant consequences, in the long run, for the way we think, the media we consume, the social contacts we make and the pattern of our working life.

These trends are likely to be incremental rather than immediate, because broadband is a technology that makes other, already existing technologies - especially the internet and computers - work better, rather than representing a wholly new direction. It is not the width of your band but what you do with it that counts.

The Royal Institution recently devoted a day to the cultural impact of electricity - we are unlikely ever to see a similar event for broadband, which is more like the jet engine. Without jets we would still have aeroplanes, but they would be slow and expensive to run. There would be no cheap flights to Rome, no package holidays to Florida. Easyprop would not have been a commercial success. For good and ill, jet engines made air travel the norm in affluent societies. The Wright brothers may have invented the plane, but Frank Whittle is the father of mass air travel.

Broadband gives the internet similar mass appeal. The combination of speed and being "always on" simply makes the already existing stuff - e-mail, search engines, instant messaging, online video and audio - much more accessible, and therefore useful. And just as some people fly to Nepal to complete the Annapurna trail and the majority go to Ibiza, so some people will use broadband to research the history of bilingualism in Patagonia and most will order their groceries.

There are four areas to watch, starting with the acquisition and development of knowledge. In the short run, it may be that the ability to download vast quantities of information quickly will make for some lazy thinking, unoriginal journalism and wholesale plagiarism. And there are fears that the very speed of broadband will reduce the time given to reflection and thought. The writer and theologian Karen Armstrong worries that instant access to information will further reduce the "patient waiting for truth" that often characterises creative advance. She has pointed out the "need to train children to wait for long, apparently unproductive periods before achieving insight . . . what Wordsworth called 'wise passiveness'".

The virulently anti-IT Kurt Vonnegut suggests that luddite families such as his own, eschewing the advantages of the internet and e-mail, will raise "more interesting children" and that "computers are cheating people out of their sociability and also out of their relationships with other people - out of something as exciting as food or sex. People are becoming uninteresting to themselves."

There is certainly a danger of an instant-access, cut-and-paste culture. But it will hopefully be short-lived. The brighter prospect is of a world in which the mere collection and collation of information ceases to be admirable, simply because anyone can do it. Although broadband is seen as a central plank in building a "knowledge economy", once it is the norm for computer users - which is a matter of when, not if - the value of information could in fact decrease. There is little value or kudos attached to knowing that Whittle invented the jet engine, for example, if you can discover that fact for yourself in 0.012 seconds.

In a narrowband world, success can flow from collecting information. As Theodore Zeldin parodies academia in Happiness, "the only safe way to keep the esteem of colleagues was to be no more than a glorified clerk, classifying information in different ways, sticking new labels on old ideas, and above all copying. Most scholars [are] copyists, with or without quotation marks." The same is true of "experts" in many fields. All too often, their only distinguishing feature is the possession of information that has hitherto been inconvenient and time-consuming to acquire. To know about a particular disease required hours spent scouring journals in a members-only medical school library. Now you can google it and know more than most doctors within 30 minutes.

Montaigne once complained that "there are more books on books than any other subject: all we do is gloss each other. All is a-swarm with commentaries: of authors there is a dearth." But as information becomes ubiquitous, the value of accumulating and commenting on information should lessen. The real kudos will begin to attach to the ability to process, synthesise and - most of all - add to the stock of knowledge in society. To authorship, rather than commentary. It is even possible that broadband will signal the return of some reverence for wisdom.

The second area of impact is likely to be in the consumption of media. With the instant availability of online information sources, current forms of media - especially newspapers, magazines, DVDs and CDs - will face a less certain future. The competition between picking up your morning paper and dialling up to slowly download it was never an equal one - but broadband could change that. Newspapers beat narrowband, but downloading your personalised morning paper on to your laptop could become standard. At the same time, video and audio can operate through broadband in ways that have the entertainment industries justifiably terrified. A test of governments' commitment to wider access will be their willingness to stand up to the pressure for regulation.

As well as personalised consumption of media, the less anticipated growth of personalised forms of production - weblogs, or "blogs", in particular - will be given a huge boost by broadband. Most of these are awful. As someone once said, if everyone has a book in them, in most cases that is precisely where it should stay. But blogging resonates with the shift to a confessional, let-it-all-hang-out culture in which everyone tells all their stories; broadband Britain meets biographical Britain.

The third area of potential impact is on the way we work. One of the great promises of technology has been that it will untether work from the workplace, that we will shortly all be working from flower-clad cottages in the country as the cities empty. It hasn't happened, not least because the futurologists forgot that people mostly like being with other people. Yet telecommuting is at last taking off - not among people without an office, but among those who find it's sometimes more convenient not to go to it. Data from the Labour Force Survey shows that, in 2001, 2.2 million people (7.4 per cent of the employed population) were "teleworkers", an increase of 65 per cent on the 1997 figure. Just when the breathless prophecies of a revolution in working lives were being consigned to the bin, some real change seems to be taking place.

There is no question that information and communications technologies are behind the increase. Of the 2.2 million, 1.8 million say they need both a telephone and a computer to work at home. Broadband, not least because it makes previously hilarious innovations such as teleconferencing and videophones a feasible option, is the development that might allow technology finally to deliver on its promise of killing the nine to five, along with the increasingly absurd notion of rush hour.

The most controversial influence of broadband - as with information and communications technologies in general - is on the depth and extent of social interaction. There is good evidence that people with broadband access spend more time online - grist to the mill of those who believe that people are being lured into spending hours in front of their PC screens rather than hanging out with friends and neighbours or organising church fetes. This reaction is wrong-headed. The people who have adopted broadband first are unlikely to be representative of the population as a whole - by definition, they are the geeks in our midst. And it also looks as if broadband users spend a higher proportion of their online time on communication, community-building and other forms of social interaction. A now-famous study in Toronto found that a wired community had much higher levels of social interaction and community spirit than a similar, non-wired neighbourhood. The lower barriers to use mean that people are more likely to use the internet and e-mail to form and sustain community groups.

The sociologist Frank Furedi argues that the technology naysayers, by overemphasising social pathologies that may be expressed via computers but almost always pre-date them, miss the potential social upsides of greater connectivity. "The real risk," he says, "is that this pessimistic reaction can discourage people using the broadband infrastructure to expand and strengthen the quality of their social relations."

Broadband, then, has the potential to devalue knowledge, atomise society, undermine the creative arts and fuel workaholism. At the same time, it offers the hope of promoting more original thought, catalysing media creativity, connecting communities and liberating work. As always, it won't be the technology that decides. That bit is up to us.

richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk

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