Sean Coughlan dodges the CIA, plastic surgeons and the Kennedys in vertically-challenged virtual America.
The phrase "virtual reality" has been used to describe life on the Internet, but it might as well have been invented to describe the United States of America. As well as being a country that physically exists on the other side of the Atlantic, America represents a kind of fictional parallel world, awash with images from movies, television and rock and roll.
So where would the intrepid Internet traveller begin to make sense of this sprawling mass? Where could we find some hard facts to help us on our armchair road movie across the States? Well, who better than the CIA? Call up the CIA World Factbook and you'll be offered the Cold War warriors' digest to every country in the world, presented in a disarmingly easy-to-use form.
Did you know, for example, that this richest country in the world has over 9,000 television channels, 6 million kilometres of roads, a defence budget of $284 billion and an illegal output of 3,500 tons of cannabis each year?
But the spirit of America isn't in facts and figures. When we think of the United States we're thinking of movies and television, a state of virtual unreality summed up by one word - Hollywood. If you want to find the latest in movieville, then go to Hollywood On-line, a site full of news, reviews and previews. There are video clips to download, glossy pictures of glossy stars and stories of huge sums of money changing hands.
After appearance-obsessed Hollywood, where better to visit next than your local Internet plastic surgeon. Just as you could never imagine MI5 putting out a guide book on the Internet, so too it would be hard to imagine a Harley Street scalpel-merchant being as up-front as Barry Cohen MD, who invites all-comers to see his nose jobs on the Doctor Cohen Home Page.
While Doctor Cohen can landscape your face, there are some things he can't change - like how big you are. "Size issues" and "sizism" have taken their place on the Internet with a peculiarly American go-get 'em enthusiasm. Here you can find invitations to join the New England chapter of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a group currently planning a rally in a "fat-friendly park".
If you're feeling a little on the tall side, then the Internet offers information about the Boston Beanstalk Club - a place where very tall people hang out, in an environment where they can "share tall-related experiences". Not only are lanky Bostonians getting together, a few clicks through TallWeb (an Internet area for "tall issues") reveals a network of tall socialising and conferences, with the addresses of "tall clubs" across the States.
Apart from showing a certain neurosis about appearance, these organisations also show a typically American openness. This willingness to go public has its limits of course, but a spin around some of the government pages reveals a degree of open government that is really refreshing.
Try the US Senate site and then wonder why there isn't anything like it in Britain. Here you have an explanation of how the senate system operates, who is responsible for what, with a directory of senators and their biographies, the committees they serve on, the organisations they represent and an e-mail link to send them a message. As I was passing through, I sent off a quick greeting from London to Edward Kennedy, a senator with a particularly elaborate personal Internet site, and got back an e-mail note reply from his office the next morning.
So, as we look back on this giddy summer tour of the States, we can record in our diaries - stayed in, took some information from the CIA, got dragged off to Hollywood and then had a chat with Teddy Kennedy. Not bad for a grey day in summer.
CIA World Factbook: http:www.odci.govciapublications95factindex.htmlHollywood On-line: http:www.hollywood.comPlastic Surgery: Doctor Cohen's Home Page: http:www.openseason.combjcohendefault.htmlNational Association to Advance Fat Acceptance: http:naafa.orgTall Web: http:www.bluplanet. comtallwebUS Senate: http:www.senate.gov