Brave new world

Technophobia is the biggest barrier to the internet revolution

If you've ever watched helplessly as your computer, which was functioning quite happily five minutes ago, deletes all your e-mails, photos and documents seemingly for no other reason than its deathly, machine-like whim, you'll know a feeling akin to being brought face-to-face, quietly, with the reality of your own mortality. There is a reason for this, and it's the dirty little secret of the professional class.

We are all technophobes. In most offices, you'll find the technology department hunkered down in a dingy basement, right next to the stationery store, where nobody has to think about it until they need it. And, like the paper and filing cabinets that corporate intranets were supposed to replace, we expect the technology we work with day to day to behave like a blank sheet on to which we can inscribe our will. We don't stop to consider the significant differences between a typing carbon and cut-and-paste.

Little wonder that when the machines whose intelligence we so insult bite back, we squeal and call the helpdesk. Many a mild-mannered information worker has winced and looked away as her technology support, in a rare outing from the basement, calls up a strange world of black screens and square, green type, probing the machine for the whereabouts of lost files, revealing command histories that detail abuse and neglect.

Unknown to anyone, these basement-dwellers have another, secret life. They may spend their days rebooting servers and installing endless Microsoft Service Pack updates, but by night they maintain rock-climbing websites, build other worlds inside multi-player online games, watch future episodes of the sitcom you're still waiting to appear on Channel 4, or even code the free, open-source software that they dream will one day replace the tired and expensive programs they spend their working lives maintaining. This is the activity that built the internet. It is amateur, and on the surface often ugly, but it is revolutionary.

The best pages of the web aren't the corporate sites. They're not even the incredible news portals provided by the BBC. In an age that hurtles towards the bleak homogeneity of the brand in every sphere from pop music to politics, the really subversive stuff is the "just for fun" content produced by individuals whose only constraint is the speed of their broadband. The internet, the so-called network of ends, allows each node (you, me, McDonald's, the state of Qatar) an equal voice in the globalised world, and permits new communities to organise, to imagine and to innovate.

This is the network revolution, and wilful tech-illiteracy is its biggest barrier. To grasp its full possibilities, we must first stop treating our laptops like badly behaved electric typewriters. So come on: breathe deeply, count to ten . . . and reboot.

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