Fifteen years ago this weekend, I got onto the internet for the first time. Life has never been the same since.
Back in November 1996, life online was a revelation, despite the tardy 56k modem connection. My browser was Netscape, my search engine Altavista (I liked the name - it sounded like an appealing brand of coffee). I went online on my first PC, an Intel 486 based machine I bought in November 1994 from a long-forgotten company called Escom from its shop in Cheltenham.
I was used to company email: I was emailing within Nationwide Building Society in 1987, sending daily summaries of news coverage. But being online to the world was different. I loved, and love, the serendipity of the web: finding out about everything and anything almost instantly. Within months I'd found out from the BBC website who had become my MP in the 1997 general election. I followed progress of Ireland's historic Good Friday agreement online. And I dated the cricket bat my grandfather gave my dad in the 1930s from information we found on an Indian cricket website. Two years later, I got onto the web and external email at work at Eagle Star insurance.
A decade and a half later, I have the internet in my pocket. I can shop, pay and enquire anytime and (almost) anywhere. I can find my way around London with an app on my phone. I follow with great interest the lives of my old school friends - even those I've not seen since 1982. I share my thoughts with the world on this blog - and Twitter. I share videos on YouTube.
Life online is a joy - up to a point. My only concern is that our attention span is shortening. The constant stream of emails, Facebook and Twitter makes us twitchy. When we attend a lecture, many of us are more likely to be tweeting quotes than paying proper attention. (Something that I noted ironically at yesterday's excellent Institute for Government and Fishburn Hedges Media & Government debate about the respective influence of the media and social media.) We're rushing to judgement and comment, rather than reflecting on things.
But I strongly believe the online benefits outweigh the disadvantages. The internet has been a good thing. It has shared influence and power. It slightly redresses the balance of power in society - newspaper owners, politicians and big business have a little less influence over the rest of us. And we've barely begun - just wait another few years, and we'll see the huge benefits of the mobile revolution.
My first steps online were in a very different world. Back in 1996. John Major's dysfunctional government was tottering from one crisis to another. Tony Blair was a fresh faced leader who captured the imagination of the country. Major had started the disastrous denationalisation of Britain's railways. The Spice Girls dominated the charts, along with Oasis and the Fugees. The IRA ended a ceasefire, with bombings that devastated London docklands and Manchester. The country mourned the victims of the massacre at Dunblane school in Scotland. And the inventor of the jet engine Frank Whittle died aged 89. I imagine Frank Whiittle would be excited by the online revolution, which has had an even greater impact on the world than the jet age.
PS: Apologies for using the terms internet and web interchangeably in this post. I do know the difference...