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Tuesday, 1 October, 2002, 07:30 GMT 08:30 UK
What the net is doing to you
Man using the net, BBC
Has your life changed thanks to the net?

In 1949 Chinese communist leader Chou En-lai was asked about the importance of the 1789 French Revolution.

After thinking for a moment he replied: "It is too soon to say."

The effect of the internet on the lives of its users is just as hard to determine.

More difficult is working out how life might be different years from now as we adapt to these changes.

Net gains

But academics are starting to find out how important an agent of social change the internet is, the opportunities it presents for researchers and how to frame policy and practice to cope with its associated changes.

We need academics to be leaders not cheerleaders

Professor Eli Noam, Columbia University
Last week saw the inaugural conference of the Oxford Internet Institute, one of the world's first research centres dedicated to studying the net and its social consequences.

Learning more about the net, the way it accelerates change and harnessing it to help research was key to future political, social and economic policy, said Andrew Graham, economist, Master of Balliol College and a keen supporter of the new institute.

"How do we learn fast enough so that we are learning faster than the world changes?" asked Mr Graham, "if we are not learning faster than the world changes then we cannot possibly control it."

The Institute has been established as a multi-disciplinary centre that will have its own teaching staff, carry out its own research and act as a collection point and clearing house for net research projects.

It aims to establish its own regular surveys of net use and analyse trends.

The Institute will also become an outpost of the World Internet Project, which is co-ordinating work on net use studies around the globe.

Delegates to the conference urged it to get involved with net lobby groups and policy writers rather than just be a dry, detached research group.

Social splits

Professor Bill Dutton, newly appointed director of the Institute, said the net was already profoundly changing many social relationships.

Protesters and police clash, PA
The net could help improve political debate
"The fundamental implication of changes in information technology is that it reconfigures access," he said. "Not just in terms of the digital divide but also who you know, what you know and what you get access to and use."

Eli Noam, Professor of Economics and Finance at the University of Columbia, said the net was driving change because now, for many people, it was no longer a novelty and instead was part of everyday life.

"We no longer need to capitalise the internet like we do God or Truth," he said.

But he warned against simply accepting that the net was a force for good all by itself and needed no guidance by policy makers to shape its effects.

He warned that currently the net is not breaking down barriers and flattening social structures.

By contrast, he said, it was centralising and concentrating information into the hands of smaller groups.

"We need academics to be leaders not cheerleaders," he said.

"We must save the internet from its founding myth that it is good for democracy and is open and cannot be regulated."

Click here to go to Oxford
See also:

10 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
18 Mar 02 | dot life
27 Sep 00 | Science/Nature
29 Apr 02 | dot life
28 Mar 01 | Politics
24 Jun 02 | dot life
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