I Garbugli della Rete - 1
June 1996

English translation

Necromancing and Navigating

disponibile anche in Italiano


One day, over eighty years ago, in a little Italian village called Borgospesso, Martina the Bigot went to see the local priest. «Don Eusebio – she whispered – we need an exorcism: the Doctor is either possessed by the Devil or is practicing necromancy».

Don Eusebio was a wise man. He didn’t worry. He asked Martina for an explanation. It turned out that she had seen the Doctor speaking to the wall, and there was a voice coming out of a mysterious device hanging on the wall.

That night, during the usual game of cards, Don Eusebio asked the Doctor. It turned out that he had installed a telephone.

Times have changed. Nowadays, even before any relevant number of people has had a chance to use a modem, everyone is talking about the internet. Big headlines in newspapers, front-page articles in magazines... generally based on vague, unverified hearsay.

The subject is in fashion; it’s discussed almost as often as football. Most people think they know what they are talking about, but generally they don’t. Even the experts are quite confused. Every day someone comes up with some gee-whiz technical innovation, but nobody seems to know the answer to a simple question: who is really using the net, and what do people do with it?

The most widespread ideas are those that would have terrified old Martina. Two names are in fashion: Neuromancer and Negroponte. I don’t particularly enjoy William Gibson’s writing style, but in the Neuromancer trilogy, and in some of his short stories, his imagination is extraordinary and fascinating. The problem is that too many people confuse science fiction with reality – and believe that there really is something called “cyberspace”.

Nicholas Negroponte seems to be everywhere, including every other convention in Italy, and too often quoted (or misquoted) by people who haven’t even read his books or articles. If he (or his followers) said “it would be better to move information than clutter traffic and stand in line” everyone would understand. But when they say “it’s better to move bits that atoms” many people are scared. They imagine that if they switch on a computer they will be swallowed into some unknown land by something like the teleportation device in Star Trek – or one of those old movies where an unwary scientist becomes half man, half fly.

We read some weird news. Afew days ago newspapers headlined “The first wedding via internet”. What’s happened? People can get married online? How? It turns out that they were married in the ordinary way, but sent photographs of the wedding to their friends by e-mail.

The general assumption is that the web is everything and people online are all the same.

How many online in Italy? We hear and read all sorts of figures, but the facts are simple. So far, we are few. Above all, we are different.

Martina’s grand-granddaughter is called Jusy. She is sixteen and spends five hours a day in chat. She does so at quiet times, while her family is falling asleep in front of the tv set and nobody worries about a busy telephone line. But in our country there is a time charge on local calls: Jusy had some problems with her parents when they received the phone bill.

A friend of mine has a computer at home: Pentium 100 with a gigabyte hard disk, six-speed cd-rom, SoundBlaster, etcetera, and a 28.800 bps modem. He uses exclusively a spreadsheet, mostly in his office. He has a mailbox, but reads it once a month and never answers. His children played for a while but got bored. The Philippine housemaid occasionally removes the dust from that strange abandoned machine.

A lady I know bought a modem to do some research on the web. After a few battles with Yahoo and Altavista, outdated links and bothersome clutter, she is very depressed. She is bright and determined, eventually she will find a way... but it will take a while.

Another friend of mine, a very serious professor, hardly ever answers his e-mail. His mailbox is a mess because he doesn’t use a decent OLR. He spends hours on long-distance telephone calls and sends twelve-page faxes. In a private IRC room, where we were supposed to have a serious group discussion, he drove everybody mad by exiting and re-entering every few minutes, each time with a new nickname, ranging from Dumbo to Chrome.

And so on...


Giancarlo Livraghi
  January 1998

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