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Columnists

Surfers' paradise

Dixe Wills

'All life is here.'

Those were the opening words of the first ever 'Surfers' Paradise', way back in the summer of 1998. How young we all looked then (though you've barely aged since, of course). And how thrilling to discover that my very first words were a cliché.

I went on to report on a woman called Elizabeth who had chosen to give birth live on a webcam (there's a 17-year-old boy wandering around now who probably wishes she hadn't); on Woody Allen's Bacon Number (it was two then, it is two still); and on certain Christians who were fretting that www resembled the Hebrew for 666 (that one's still faithfully doing the rounds).

'Believe the anoraks,' I thundered, 'and [the internet] is the most revolutionary invention since the printing press.' Well, the anoraks were right. For good or ill, the internet - or t'interwebs, as it's now known - has changed the way billions of people on the planet go about their lives. It has wormed its way into even the most obscure corners of our existence and it now requires an effort to escape its reach for any length of time.

The words of the hour back in 1998 were apparently 'cyberpunk, webhead, spamming, chat room and netizens'. It's a sad (if not unsurprising) reflection on humanity that 'spamming' is the only one on that list still heard with any frequency. The dominance of the language to which the other four words belong is also on the wane. Back in 1998, roughly 85 per cent of websites were written in English, whereas now it's estimated to be nearer 50 per cent, which makes things refreshingly more post-Tower of Babel.

Many of the questions I asked about the internet - 'Does it bring people together… or isolate them?' 'Does it tune us into the world…or simply overload us with information?' - are still being aired today, which suggests that all of those states are true to a certain extent. The web is full of such contradictions. On the one hand it is democratising - it played a major role in the Arab Spring and has been employed to put right many an injustice. Yet on the other it has helped concentrate money and power in a very few hands (a month after the first Surfer's was published, two 25-year-olds called Larry and Sergey registered a company called Google - coincidence? I think not; Jeff Bezos founded Amazon four years earlier).

Today, not all is rosy in the cybergarden. Net neutrality - the notion that all data are treated equally - is under threat; we have learnt from Edward Snowden that our every key-stroke can potentially be tracked by GCHQ or the CIA; and while UKIP supporters are allowed access to the internet there are still four billion people around the world who have never gone online and so have been cruelly denied the opportunity to join the rest of us in watching a kitten's first encounter with snow.

But there I must depart and so I bid you all a fond farewell. Thank you for reading. And remember, however pervasive the internet may become, not all life is there.