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From hacker to taxman's consultant

THE STATE OF THE CYBERNATION by Neil Barrett Kogan Page, Pounds 15.99

Aha! The virtual poacher turned virtuous gamekeeper. Neil Barrett, the author of this book was once a hacker on the Internet. Sixteen years and a PhD in Mathematics later he's a respected pundit and consultant and has advised, among others, the Inland Revenue on trends and developments in information technology.

The State of the Cybernation traces the evolution of the Internet, from its origins in the Seventies as the United States military network, ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), to the sprawling multi-faceted structure which it has become in the late Nineties. In charting the growth of the Net, the author explores five main themes: communication, trading, economics, legislative and regulatory issues and, the big one, future potential.

What rapidly emerges is the staggering pace of expansion; how the Internet has grown from "an essentially academic facility to the status of cultural phenomenon". Present estimates put the number of user accounts at more than 30 million world-wide and this is projected to rise to 200 million as we enter the next century.

As Neil Barrett points out, such growth raises not so much a thicket as a forest of legislative and cultural issues. One of the difficulties which he highlights is the sheer quantity of unmediated information swilling around in cyberspace.

This puts a heavy responsibility on teachers and educationists, who not only have to ensure that their students are denied access to some of the more unsavoury Web sites but, perhaps even more importantly, also have to check the veracity and usefulness of the material which they do use.

Despite a number of well reasoned misgivings, the author remains optimistic that the Internet will continue to thrive and expand. He proposes a digital community whose commonality of interest might eventually begin to loosen the ties of nationhood. Some readers, however, may feel that, for one who has worked closely with various government agencies, his vision of a Cybernation - "Our various wars have changed the face of Europe; the Internet could help remove the very requirement for countries" - lacks a certain leavening of realpolitik.

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