Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Why we must walk carefully through our digital landscape

The computer revolution is all very well but when it all goes wrong it can leave us highly vulnerabl

The computer revolution is all very well but when it all goes wrong it can leave us highly vulnerable - Credit: Archant

Nearly everything in our brave new world may have to revert to being hand-cranked for a while

Two weeks ago, after reading that nearly half of our region’s over 65s were now online, I was reminded that I too have been a computer-user for over a decade. Mostly self-taught, I endured nearly two years of confusion and frustration with the not-quite-finished experiment which is personal computing. I now realise I should have taken a course, instead.

For years, to the majority of us, computers were the strange distant province of a few pioneers in institutions such as Essex University – just up the road from me. Like so many people, I did not see the digital future looming up, like a great iceberg in the dark sea of our blissful ignorance. The titanic crash of the last century colliding with the present one is still reverberating, while the wreckage of an analogue past continues to wash up on all our shores.

That roughly half of the over-65 age group are now “digitally-empowered” should not divert our attention from the fact that the other half, many of whom are completely unconcerned about the matter, are not. My mother, for instance, will never go online. She doesn’t give a hoot.

Having a computer, though, isn’t yet compulsory. Many people still insist that we all got on perfectly well without them. The rhizomes of computer intelligence, however, continue to reach greedily, ever deeper into more and more areas of our lives.

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I, for example, have gradually allowed computers access to rather more of my life than I’m comfortable with. I use my laptop as a word processor, a filing cabinet, a research tool, a mailbox and a post office. It also helps me to store, collate and digitally process some of the music which I create. I do, it’s true, mainly use it for my work. I don’t download films and rarely download music and watch catch-up TV only once in a blue moon. I don’t do internet banking. If I occasionally buy books, films or CDs online, it is only because they are difficult or impossible to buy in a shop.

Despite doing an amount of media work and having a public life of sorts, I still refuse to engage with social media or any business link-up services. For information and professional purposes, there’s a website bearing my name. It has a contact button. I work on the theory that if someone wants to contact me then they probably will. Even as I tally up all of the things listed above, however, it still seems like a lot of computer activity.

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It isn’t much, however, when compared to many other people. Some people are never off their mobile telephones – most of which are also mini-computers.

It’s a common thing nowadays to see men travelling on trains carrying one computer in a backpack and another in their hand. What I frequently find myself observing, in fact, are electronically-tagged company slaves.

Thanks to the liberation of the new technology, a man can now do his work wherever he happens to be. And thanks to his mobile phone, his employer has him firmly on a digitally retractable dog-lead.

With no barrier between them, his personal life and his work-life have become indistinguishable. Like a digi-vagrant, he now carries his world in the equivalent of a little spotted handkerchief. Ask him for the latest news. Ask him who wrote the b-side of an obscure 1974 Sweet single. Out will come the mobile phone. Dibble dibble dibble. In a mere 10 minutes

– or whenever he finally gets a signal – he’ll have the answers. Isn’t it great? No. It’s unremittingly tedious. Our achievement is that many of us now live virtual lives, oblivious even to the passing seasons which generations of our forefathers knew.

At this moment, there’s a pale 19-year-old genius, sequestered in a suburban bedroom near Billericay. The curtains are drawn, he’s hunched over his twin screens, hoodie pulled up and surrounded by Pot Noodle containers. He’s programming, just for the hell of it, a virus powerful enough to scramble a nation’s computers. If he succeeds, even temporarily, we’re knackered. This newspaper, your pension, the DVLA, the Met Office, Air Traffic Control and nearly everything in our brave new world may have to revert to being hand-cranked for a while.

The danger is that we might by now be sufficiently far away from the old technology, that we won’t remember how to use it if the (digital) chips are ever down. Despite, therefore, the news that many of us are online, millions of us still aren’t. This may not necessarily be a bad thing, because while the digital world remains this fallible it’s best that it doesn’t yet have things quite all its own way. A day’s techno-failure can be a chastening thing. After once downloading some ‘essential’ security updates as recommended by Microsoft, I experienced an entire working day off-line. It was highly inconvenient, losing me time and money in the process. “Welcome to a Microsoft First Tuesday.” quipped a passing computer expert. This is a situation where they send you updates, with some of the bugs in them still un-ironed. They only discover that the updates are faulty, when the customers scream.

In cyberspace, however, no one can hear you scream. Don’t fret, they eventually fix them. Who pays? Guess. The verdict? The future may be faulty. Perhaps we should make those geeks sort it out before we completely surrender our lives to it.

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