The Virtual Revolution episode one review

Ryan checks out a new BBC documentary charting the rise of the Internet. There's not much meat on the bones yet, though...

1. The Great Levelling?

For the medium of television, the Internet is the elephant in the room. Over the past two decades, the web has grown into the most important and widely used form of communication, with over two billion earthlings chatting, tweeting, blogging, buying and selling at any given moment.

The Virtual Revolution is the BBC’s belated attempt to document the rise of the Internet in a lavish, four part series presented by Guardian tech journalist Dr Aleks Krotoski. In the first episode, Dr Aleks looks at the libertarian ideals of the Net’s founders, and how it has constantly clashed with the money-making tenets of big business.

And because this is an expensive BBC documentary, the story is told through expensive, birds-eye-view shots from helicopters and globe-trotting visits to the US and Africa. There are welcome contributions from the father of HTML, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the founders of Napster, Wikipedia and YouTube, numerous authors, and avuncular ├╝ber-nerd Stephen Fry.

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With sources as solidly informed as these, you’d expect this to be a veritable gold mine of information, but unfortunately, The Virtual Revolution suffers from a languid pace and storytelling malaise that affects too many 21st century documentaries. The phrases ’empowering tool’ and ‘ultimate leveller’ are repeated far too many times, and the programme’s makers apparently assume that the average viewer has never seen or used the Internet in their life.

Dr Aleks is an engaging and enthusiastic host, but her constant presence in every other shot is strangely distracting. Here she is on her laptop in a New York cafe. Here she is sitting on a fence, still typing on her laptop. Now she’s wandering through a field, looking like Joanna Dark. Now she’s sitting by a harbour, typing away again.

Nevertheless, there are some interesting tidbits of information to be gleaned. We’re told that Swansea spends the most while virtual shopping, closely followed by Orkney. Forty per cent of UK men look at Internet porn, with the greatest concentration of randy souls located in Harrogate.

This is fascinating stuff, and useful pub trivia, but the overarching focus of the documentary – the Internet as a ‘leveller’, or democratiser of information – is less compellingly explored. The invention of a common Internet programming language by Berners-Lee and the arrival of the Web in Africa are used as evidence that even the poorest nations can gain access to information. Yet, the fact that the majority of the Internet is in English is never mentioned, or that if English isn’t your first language, over fifty per cent of the Net’s pages will remain unintelligible.

Instead, the documentary labours fruitlessly away at the Internet’s hippy ideals of freedom versus capitalism, before drawing the obvious conclusion that the Net encompasses both sides of human nature, that the web is a source of free information and opportunities for big businesses like Microsoft and Google, that some form of arbitrary hierarchy will arise in any system, even a virtual one like the Internet; and that, while the Net has the potential to spark revolutions, most of the time we just use it to watch footage of a sneezing panda cub.

Information that can be gleaned from five minutes of surfing the Net is presented here as earth-shattering news: a computer-generated diagram of spheres (“seen here for the first time!” the Doctor enthuses) shows us that the Web’s biggest sites are eBay, Amazon, Google and Facebook.

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It’s probable, of course, that this first programme paves the way for more in-depth installments yet to come. Now that the functions of the Net have been described in the most basic possible terms – and at the slowest possible pace – perhaps the subsequent episodes can add a little meat to the bones.