by John Morrison


81: Naked at the Keyboard

It could happen to anyone. Well, anyone on the Internet anyway. You're emailing each other. You find you have a lot in common. You're getting pretty close. Then suddenly, after months of soul-searching and breathlessly erotic correspondence, you realise that you've actually been pouring out your heart to a West Highland Terrier called Scotty. Or an 85-year-old criminally insane old bugger serving three life-sentences in Broadmoor. Or... who knows? Once you've waved goodbye to the real word (or '3D', as the netizens call it), you're cast adrift in the uncharted regions of cyberspace, where you can pretend to be whoever you want to be. It's a lawless place, bandit country, where the normal rules of life no longer apply. Where pornographers and conspiracy theorists find a home for their unsavoury wares. Where even the Luddites, God bless 'em, have their own website.

There's a lot of filth out there, clogging up the pores of cyberspace. At least there is if you know where to look. And, yes, tapping the word 'sex' into a search engine will do nicely for starters. You'll find gigabytes of copyright violations. Millions of pictures. Men, women and household pets getting on famously. An endless production line of women - their nipples pert and pixilated - who look like they've been shot through the back by twin torpedoes. Even the language itself is changing. "I'm just going upstairs to check my email" can be translated as "I hope all those pictures of Pamela Anderson have finished downloading".

Surfing the Internet is a simple, one handed-operation. The upside is that web pages never get stuck together; the downside is the ever-present threat of repetitive strain injury. It's important, of course, to preserve our God-given right to disseminate filth to minors. Nevertheless it's a defining moment to realise that 'virtual sex' is never going to rival the real thing. When, after weeks of assiduous searching for cybersmut, all you have to show for your efforts is a gargantuan phone bill and a pile of virtual pin-ups hidden under your virtual mattress. Yes, despite all the hype about the Internet, you still can't beat the old-fashioned idea of having two eager and consenting adults giving each other a serious seeing-to. Especially if it's two good-looking lasses and they'll let you watch.

Here in Milltown we have a distinctly ambivalent attitude to all this fancy new technology. Some take to it with gusto and, once they've made that vital leap of understanding from "Huh?" to "Aha!", are able to cruise the web with the casual insouciance of a Malibu surfer. They extol the undoubted virtues of new technology to anyone who cares to know, and plenty more who don't.

They claim that the Internet is like having the biggest library in the world at your fingertips. So it's just a shame that the library is run by illiterate arsonists. And on a microchip smaller than a fingernail we can now store, apparently, the contents of every volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (or almost a year's unsolicited correspondence from Readers Digest.) The computer buffs of Milltown spend so much time on the Internet - gossiping over the garden fence of the global village - that they've been forced to swap their armchair for a commode.

There are others, though, who view computers with a more jaundiced eye. Green Man is one who takes the whole baffling business in a clammily reluctant embrace. Eager to print out his handbills and posters at an ever increasing rate, he still harbours the faint suspicion that computers are the devil's work. The salesman at the computer shop saw him coming and, thinking on his feet, managed to flog him an obsolete model with the specious promise that it was, indeed, 'environmentally friendly'.

Green Man bites his lip in frustration, on a grey autumnal morning, as he tries to kick-start the accursed machine into reluctant life. What was he thinking of when he plumped for a laptop computer fitted with the now discredited Etch-a-Sketch chip? All it takes is a little shake and - whoosh - he's wiped everything off his hard disk. And, despite the salesman's bland reassurances about compatibility, the only household appliance to which the computer seems compatible is Green Man's sandwich toaster. Slowly, painfully, he's learning the most important lesson about buying computers: that the best time to buy one is always in two month's time. And the new model will do twice as much, twice as quickly, for about half the price of the piece of junk that's taken over his desk.

He tries, without success, to squeeze his email messages through the uncooperative sphincters of cyberspace. They remain stubbornly earth-bound, like pinioned birds. He wonders what happens to all the words he deletes; the manual, despite being the size of a house-brick, offers not a single clue. Do they fall down the back of the screen? Do they need sweeping out regularly? Perhaps there's a tray, like in a budgie cage. It's all very confusing. His computer crashes regularly, without warning, leaving Green Man paralysed with terror, hands frozen over the keyboard, staring impotently at the message on the screen. It tells him, unhelpfully, that there's a problem: the one and only thing about his computer that he knew already. "No problem," say the computer buffs, blithely. "All you need to do is turn all your extensions off, download some conflict resolving software and, once you've located the problem, rebuild your hard disk and boot up again. What could be easier?"

Well, lots of things are easier: VAT returns, quantum physics, making your own mayonnaise... In any case, Green Man doesn't want to know what goes on inside his computer; he just wants the damn thing to work. Computers may solve problems, but as often as not they're problems created by computers in the first place. The people who designed the software are, after all, the very same people who failed to notice that the year 1999 would be closely followed - surprise, surprise - by the year 2000. A child of five could have told them, but, hey, where do you find a child of five when you really need one?

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