From geek to glamour in 30 years

Something very strange has happened over the past 30 years. A network of computers originally built for the US Department of Defence in the late Sixties has transformed into the mother of all networks and is now accessed by more than 300 million people worldwide. During those years, the internet has taken many forms. In the Seventies, it moved away from its military base and became the home of the educational and technologically savvy communities. Then, in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and transformed this rather dull, largely text-based system into a network that could handle images.

It didn't take long for big business to see the potential of this newly graphical web, and the process of transforming a military/educational network into a huge commercial entity began. By the late Nineties, the computer geeks that you'd normally avoid at parties had become technology gurus raking in salaries of £100,000 plus, not to mention hefty stock options.

The internet has slipped so seamlessly into 21st-century culture that you'd swear it had always been there. You can't go to a dinner party nowadays without having to listen to somebody expounding a "great idea" for a web business. Dot-com has become a household word, and even your Gran has heard of Amazon. BBC2 can't get enough of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries about net entrepreneurs, and Hollywood producers are falling over themselves to be the first out with a dot-com movie. But the hype has to stop sometime, and many net analysts reckon that the time is now. According to calculations done by the heavyweight business magazine Barron's, the net darling Amazon will run out of money in 35 months, while the online retailer CD Now has enough cash to last only a month. Barron's ladled on the gloom by predicting that, out of the 207 net companies it investigated, a quarter of them would run out of cash within 12 months.

The reality is slightly less dramatic. Money will no longer be made available for every web business idea put forward by a student with a smattering of html skills. Quite rightly, net businesses will now have to prove themselves like any other business - they'll need a decent business plan, a strong management team and a good idea.

In a sense, none of this matters; the internet has pulled us so far along the technological superhighway that there's no turning back now. But we do need to understand that the net presents us with some serious issues that need tackling. The internet is largely an unregulated environment and, no matter how many net experts tell us it's a safe place to hang out, we all know that it can be a haven for paedophiles and racists. There's a battle going on between the old-school net purists, who think that any form of government regulation is heavy-handed censorship, and the new breed of net users, who want to protect their families from the seamier side of the net. We have to recognise that, now the net has forced its way into our homes, the content has to be regulated, just like the programmes we see on television.

On both a national and global level, we also have to deal with the very real danger of creating an underclass of citizens who can't afford to access the internet, or who simply don't want to learn how to use new technology. The government wants to interact with its citizens online; communicating digitally is much cheaper than through any other medium - and it's fast, too. But people cannot be excluded from the democratic process just because they are poor, or because they don't know a mouse from a modem.

The situation becomes even more serious when you look at the take-up of the net in third-world countries. In the US, a typical monthly salary will buy you a new PC; in Bangladesh, you'd have to save up for eight years to have enough money to buy one. Many of the world's population don't fit into the demographic pattern of a typical net user, and something has to be done to make sure that the world's people are not split into those who have technology and those who don't.

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit