This series is exploring a bit more widely than I intended. It was conceived when I started wondering about how 'the media' (including those that operate mainly offline) and other commentators place such emphasis on the internet as a venue, a forum and a significant influence on society. I began to wonder if this was all just a little bit closed, a little self-important and short-sighted — especially as I am someone who has been fascinated by technology and by online goings-on for years.
Technology has allowed me to have contact and conversation with many people who I would otherwise never be in touch with. I have learned from them, laughed with them, shared in the little corners of life they choose to share, and I hope to continue to do so. However, by far the most meaningful contact I have had online has been with those with whom I have some form of relationship in the real world. Previously I posted about my infatuation with Twitter — it's most fun with the folks I know in real life.
Beyond that, though, what connection has all this with 'real life'?
Every now and then you'll meet someone who goes all misty-eyed and smiles in an unnerving way when they talk about the internet and the good it can do. Maybe it can't do much good in itself, but access to information is generally a good thing, and when it comes to making info accessible you generally can't do much better than the internet. Ish.
The question is availability. Broadband uptake in Northern Ireland is high (Alan in Belfast recently provided a deal of analysis of this), but there are still plenty of folks who, if they have internet access at home at all, rely on dial-up. Even for those with a high-speed connection, cable covers a small area and DSL is a fragile technology that needs you to be pretty close to your telephone exchange. And it does cost money.
Theoretically the network of public libraries provides internet access for all, but even if we accept that then there is still the issue of capacity. Just because I'm completely comfortable using the web to find out what I need to know, communicating by email and IM, doesn't mean my gran is.
Of course, this has changed (progressed?), is changing and will change, as long as no-one slips through the gaps.
Useful (powerful?) as technologically advanced communications are, perhaps it's best to remember that they are as well as rather than instead of everything else we already had and relied upon. I wonder, generally as well as from my own experience, if more and more people will find it takes a conscious effort to write a letter, pick up the phone, drop by and say "Hi" rather than send an email or a tweet, or leave a message on a Facebook wall?
That's at an individual level. For society, I doubt that there's any going back. Commerce, government, entertainment… the change has happened, and corporately nothing is the same. Just remember that 'society' and 'community' aren't necessarily the same thing, and what works on one level doesn't always work on others.