From the archive: May 17, 1996
It is like the distant throb of a pneumatic drill or the faint odour which wafts up to my window from the Ouse at low tide. It gradually impinges on the consciousness, until you slowly realise it is there. So the word Internet found its way into my vocabulary, then, like the smell of mud from the river, found its way into my room.
And in a remarkably short time since the idea was first mooted in the office, my computer now has the world at its keyboard, and I am more knowledgeable about ferrets than I have ever been before. I have visited Legoland without leaving my desk, and I have dropped in on the homes of people I certainly do not want to meet in real life.
I am a little dismayed at how unreceptive to modern technology we are as a profession. At a meeting last summer, a gaggle of local solicitors (help now needed please on aggregating solicitors. Any improvements on a sojourn or a solecism on a post card please. Thanks for your suggestions about collections of barristers) revealed that almost none of them had really got into computers in a big way.
I do realise that I have to pick my words carefully these days. A report in The Times at the end of last year revealed that in one month more than 4,000 connections were made at Oxford University to an Internet erotic media group. When I talked about getting into computers I did not mean that.
The world is changing (again). Sometimes I subscribe to the view (expressed by some pensioners when we went over to decimal coinage) that 'they' should let the old ones die off before inflicting more innovation on the world.
But then we have all been blessed with the Chinese curse that we should live in interesting times, and I have to admit that I find the developments in technology exciting.
The Internet has been described as a huge leap for democracy, opening up unimagined possibilities of communication between human beings around the globe.
I am not convinced that the Internet will save the world. I am sure that prying governments could easily find a way of tuning into what we were all saying, especially as it is all in writing and could be sucked out of the system and used in evidence against us. My hope would be that boredom would set in long before MI5 reached my seditious remarks. Alternatively, at the rate that the Internet is growing, it would take half the population to keep up with what the other half was doing. Big Brother may be watching, but at least the unemployment problem would be solved.
The Internet already is proving to be a wonderful communication tool.
Perhaps I had better give a short lesson for the bewildered (from a recently ex-bewildered). The Internet is a huge sprawling computer information exchange. It appears to be owned by nobody and everybody. If you have a modem (a black box which connects the computer to a telephone line) and pay a modest monthly subscription to a service provider, you can bring the world to your back door and take your back door to the world. Using the search facilities (quaintly called search engines) you can home in on almost any subject which takes your fancy, all for the price of a local telephone call. In seconds you can be browsing documents held on computers in America, all Europe or even Russia. I am currently in touch with a Russian scientist via the Internet, but I won't name him in case it provokes further international tension.
I needed a copy of the Woolf Report. Nowhere could I find it in this country. Eventually I tracked it down on the Canadian judges' Web page. (Computer people like odd expressions. Don't ask me why an essential part of the whole set up is called the World Wide Web. It just is. So there!) Less than five minutes later it was safely loaded on to my computer ready for me to rewrite it if I wished.
We wished to contact an American scientist who had apparently made some interesting discoveries over Gulf War Syndrome. We knew his name, a little about his work and the state he was in (one of the larger US states - about twice the size of England). Cranking up a search engine we were presented with half a dozen hits which led us straight to the scientist. It took about two minutes. Five minutes later I had sent him a message, but he did not reply for several hours. You cannot blame the Web for that: he was sound asleep. It was 3 am in the USA when he received my e-mail.
I slipped in another expression there. e-mail is short for electronic mail. It is like a computerised version of the DX. Like DX, you have to go and get your messages. Unlike DX, you do not have to put your coat on and walk in the rain to a rival solicitor's office. You can stay dry as you tell your computer to check its messages, which you can read off the screen, print out or even save on disk for a rainy day.
Replying is remarkably easy. Tell the computer you want to send a reply and it automatically enters the details of your correspondent's number on the page ready for you to add your enlightenment.
One of the oddities about e-mail and the Internet is the method of creating addresses, which often looks as though it is a random collection of letters, numbers and symbols. They may look odd to us, but I am told that computers find them every bit as riveting as Bide a Wee, Acacia Avenue, Castle Acre, Norfolk.
I am going to use the word erotic once more. A friend bought a guinea pig and wanted to know more about its needs and desires. We interrogated the Internet, and soon found ourselves in Hawaii where we were able to download pictures of guinea pigs doing what guinea pigs have been good at for millions of years.
But my search on the Internet for the word 'solicitor' was disappointing. One 'engine' produced 27 references, but only two were exclusively British. Come on you guys, let's surf the Internet, produce home pages, find out about ferrets and visit a world of virtual reality.