The Internet has taken time to become established as an integral aspect of British culture. The universities have been using ‘the Net’ as a source of information since it started. Academics are fascinated by the potential of the system and, for example, trivial things such as the website with the video camera trained on a coffee pot at Cambridge University is visited daily by thousands of ‘surfers’ from all over the world. Business users, on the other hand, have been slower to take up the opportunities supplied by the system. Thus, many large companies’ websites are often crude ‘front doors’, with very little behind them. Private subscribers tend to be the educated and financially secure middle class. Traditional service providers are Demon, Pipex, CompuServe and America Online, but now, in order to build up a valuable database of customers, companies such as Virgin and Tesco and organizations such as the Consumer Association (publishers of Which?) and Amnesty International are competing for subscribers. A conservatively estimated 350,000 people, excluding those who use cable, were connected in this way in 1998.
   The Internet has had much social impact. After high-profile court cases, people have been jailed for downloading hardcore pornography. It is now common policy for companies to place time constraints on employees’ surfing or accessing email at work. Issues around the privacy of e-mails received there are hotly debated.
   Commentators are divided about the long-term significance of the Internet. Some suggest that it is a truly ‘democratic’ phenomenon, where everyone has equal access to knowledge. Others suggest that it is a fad, rather like the glass and chromium Horn and Hardhart automated food dispensers popular in New York in the 1960s. One put coins in a slot and opened a flap to take a sandwich. They are now nowhere to be found.
   For the Internet to be more fully integrated into grassroots culture and to involve more of the older generation, its technology will have to be made simpler. For example, it will have to be available through a television screen, using a remote control rather than a keyboard. Also the speed of transmission will have to increase beyond the capacity of existing ISDN cables. With the advent of digital television, Cable & Wireless Communications, Britain’s biggest cable television and telecommunications group, intends to supply its 750,000 customers with the Internet, as well as up to 200 television channels.
   Further reading
    Shields, R. (1996) Cultures of Internet, London: Sage.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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