Falling in love, on-line, with Mac

9th May 1997 at 01:00
HARD, SOFT AND WET: THE DIGITAL GENERATION COMES OF AGE. By Melanie McGrath. HarperCollins Pounds 16.99

We live in the so-called age of communication, a time when everybody is constantly in touch with everybody else, but nobody has anything very interesting to say. Mobile phones, e-mail, faxes, instant credit, worldwide overnight delivery, satellite reception and digital TV - all seem little more than access-venues to an infinite array of mind-numbing commercials for bad action-adventure movies and mega-violent video-arcades.The more information that becomes available, the less meaningful it all seems. Until, eventually, the world itself fades away and leaves us staring at the two-dimensional screens of our computers and TVs.

In this cyber-oriented follow-up to her entertaining first book, Motel Nirvana, Melanie McGrath warns us that the future is already here - it just happens to be really boring. After learning how to operate her first computer, McGrath plugs into the first convenient Internet provider she comes across and begins exploring spaces that aren't always physical. She cruises abstract "chat rooms" and web sites, surfs the sea of acronyms from WELL to COMEX and iD, and even falls in love, on-line, with a bright California man named Mac. The only problem is that when she finally meets her e-mail date in the flesh, it turns out that Mac hails from Hampstead, his name's not Mac, and he's not exactly a man.

Cyber surfers might as well live anywhere, McGrath eventually decides, and then sets out to prove that she's right. She meets a child in Silicon Valley who started operating a VR (virtual reality) helmet before he could speak. She attends an "interactive movie", where the matinee crowd of "truant teens" have been coming back so often they've memorised every alternate track the plot can take - all of which are pretty stupid. She battles virtual robots on Mars (they pulverise her), hooks up to a "brain machine" designed to "reprogram your moods" (it puts her to sleep), and even encounters some outlaw East European virus-programmers (most of whom work for anti-virus-program manufacturers in the West - think about it). It's a world where nothing is worth anything, and all of it is up for sale.

Unlike in her previous book, McGrath seems to be on increasingly shaky ground here, and, like the Net itself, she covers too much ground. She visits California, Prague, Moscow, London, even Iceland. She takes a look at anti-road protesters, warehouse parties, fruit machines and teenage magazines. Yet throughout her travels, none of the people she meets or the places she stays in comes to life - not even Mac, with whom she has an affair, or London, where she lives. Whenever McGrath begins to come to terms with a subject, she moves on.

The point of McGrath's book is that life is starting to look the same all over, and people who once communicated now use technology as an excuse not to. But while Hard, Soft and Wet provides many provocative glimpses of how people are faring in our modern techno-wilderness, it doesn't do as good a job of reporting back about who these people really are as Douglas Rushkoff did in his recent Cyberiad. It does, however, point out a lot of interesting places not worth visiting. Many of them, unfortunately, are our own.

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