Stephen Fry: The Internet

Stephen Fry: The Internet

Stephen Fry (Author and Broadcaster) gives expert video advice on: Could you live without the internet?; What are your favourite sites?; What do you avoid on the internet? and more...

Could you live without the internet?

I couldn't live without the Internet for anything. I've held the view since it first appeared, or at least, since the Web first appeared back in 1994, that the Internet is like a city. And when you're a teenager, especially if you've grown up in the country as I did, when you first arrive at a city the first thing you do is get terribly excited and go to Leicester Square, where the entertainment is, and then you can't help but visit little grubby side streets, where the porn is. And then you're aware that there are museums, and art galleries, and music venues, and libraries, and even schools, and all the things that you have in a city, on the internet. But like any good city the internet's a mass, it's higgledy-piggledy, it's grown up organically. And the internet becomes part of you, and you become a citizen of it. Therefore to leave it makes no sense, it's like saying could you leave the Earth? It's the place we all are now, and it's connected to us no longer just by a computer but by all the little devices we carry around with us. And similarly, the Internet is everywhere, as I say, it's no longer just something you have to log into on the computer, the internet's all around us and it connects us all, and therefore is as good and as bad as humanity is.

What are your favourite sites?

On a Web browser, these days, when you launch it you can have 10 sites as your homepage. All the sites that you want. So my homepages, my favourite sites, are, dull but obvious, because I don't read newspapers, so for me this site on the Web is my source of news information, along with the radio., which is now called iGoogle, where you put together your Google site. So I have everything to do with Macs and geeky things on one tab on my Google site. You can customize it, as I'm sure you've seen. Wikipedia, obviously, because I like to find out that I died, and that I'm currently in a ballet in China, and all the other very accurate and important things that the Wikipedia site brings us all. And IMDB Pro, which is an Internet movie database, which now belongs to Amazon of course, and the Pro one really is good for professionals and is really very useful. What are the more popular sites for me to use, I should pose like everyone else? YouTube, Videojug, increasingly of course, and just hopping along from site to site at random.

What do you avoid on the internet?

Well, I certainly avoid games on the Internet. For some reason I never bothered to get myself off the Macromedia mailing list, so they're constantly sending me flash games with frogs hopping up or down or something. I'm not sure whether I avoid games because I'm bored or frightened by them, rather like a child being confronted by a heroin dealer. Is it fear and disgust, or is actually terror that you're going to get sucked in and forever be an addict? I think it may be the latter, but functionally it's the same, it means that I avoid games. I avoid things like Second Life. Like everybody, I've had a visit, and I think everyone should just because it is such a preposterous phenomenon, and such a deeply bewildering one as to what's happening to the human race to some extent, and some of the grimier things you hear about it really do make the eyes pop out on stalks, and you want to avoid them, but I guess it'll settle down.

Is the web a good place to learn?

There is an enormous desire for learning and understanding. I never cease to be amazed at the inquisitiveness of humanity, and if I were to say particularly British people, it may be unfair, but I've certainly noticed that more people now go and look at pictures, and see that art galleries have never been fuller in all their history, with native Britons as much as the tourists who come to look at paintings, and learn. It's true of libraries and language learning and all kinds of things. There's an immense inquisitive desire for people to learn, to know more, to understand more. I think the Web can provide the enormous well both of authoritative and individual expertise in all kinds of things.

How important is it that the knowledge on the web is free?

Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web one day at CERN, the big particle accelerator in Switzerland, where there were lots of different scientists who had lots of different “platforms”, or different styles of computer with operating systems that refused to talk to each other. So he developed this language, HTML, hypertext markup language, which was able to write pages and have hotlinks across to other pages using the HTTP protocol, hypertext transfer protocol. But the point is Tim Berners-Lee thought it should be free. He didn't take any money for it. He would have been the richest man the world had ever seen if he'd taken even the tiniest amount. But for him it was important that it was free, in the spirit of the Internet as then was, a place for commonality, rather like science generally. Science knowledge should be free, and most good scientists hate the idea of patenting the DNA of a tree, or patenting some process in medicine or any other form of science. Knowledge should be free, that's how man learns, it's how we all develop. And I think for the new generation of web users, as it were, Web 2.0 as it likes to call itself, or the user generated content side of it, people should be aware when they write things or produce things or offer things to the web of those principles that Tim Berners-Lee espoused, that of freedom of sharing. Sharing knowledge is a good thing. Don't demand anything for it, keep it free. Pass it on for free and the world will be an infinitely richer and better place. It's how science works and how all learning should work. It should all be free.

How will the web change us?

We have this extraordinary store of knowledge that has no reason to die. What it will do to us and whether it will change us, I couldn't begin to guess. There are some very good websites for those who like a laugh, which portray for example 20 years of Bill Gates prophecies, which are hilarious, along the lines of I see no future in the Internet kind of prophecies. We're talking about an industry (the computer industry) that was shocked to discover that the year 2000 was going to follow the year 1999, and had to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on recovering from this incredible surprise at the change of the century, which really caught them short. So the idea that they are the place to look for any kind of prediction of change is obvious nonsense. No one knew how the Web was going to change and develop. No one knew the hot site that people are talking about now five years ago. If they heard their names, they couldn't predict what they would look like or what services they would offer. And if they were described to them they would say they didn't sound very interesting. Instead they now find themselves visiting it 20 times a day and getting 400 links from their friends' emails all the time. So it is impossible to say. It is simply impossible. You know, one resorts to terrible clichés, about the imagination being the only boundary or something and nonsense like that. It's exciting, there's no question, it's very exciting.