Originally, people lived in small tribal or village groups in which everyone knew everyone - sort of like a single extended family. As societies grew more complex and urbanised, this original kinship was lost. Cities developed, organised hierarchically. People became alienated from nature, and from each other.
The culmination of this process came with the industrial revolution. Factories needed labour, but the bulk of people, especially the impoverished workers, still lived in the country. When these workers moved to the city, it was impossible for them to take all their aunts, uncles, etc along. Thus the nuclear family was born.
Today we have reached a stage where, due to alienation and fear of crime, people are retreating more and more to the fortress-like safety of their homes. And although Marshall McLuhan claimed that the electronic media had made the world a global village, images of road accidents and murder victims, middle eastern terrorism and starving Third World children, are more likely to elicit a sort of perverse voyeurism.
Because they're in a sense not real. They're just pictures on a screen. There's no interaction, and hence no intimacy. And their sensationalist quality only adds to that sense of detachment. News becomes indistinguishable from cop shows and other television fiction.
The new form of electronic media and interconnectedness - the Internet - does however offer to deliver the promise of a global villiage or global community.
In part this is because of the sheer number of channels there are to choose from. Television is "push media", one can only choose from the relatively limited selection of topics the networks broadcast, and the tiny number of stations to choose from. The Web however is "pull media"; one actively goes out and selects a specific topic. So if you want to learn all about castles in Dorset (British Castles, Stately Homes and Houses), keep in touch with NASA space missions, or access the bibliography of the American Library of Congress, it is easy to do so. You have the whole world at your fingertips.
But there is more to it even than that. For the net enables you to get away from the sensationalist dimension of the media and access the ordinary human scale. Forget about microsoft.com or www.virginrecords, just look at the pages set up by "ordinary" people. Some are beautifully made, others bland and tasteless, some fascinating, others boring, many in any case are still "under construction". The point is though that you can visit any of these pages and send an email to their authors. In most cases you will get a prompt reply.
The crem de la crem of these personal pages are usually mentioned in web-site review magazines. But these donít represent the average cyber-address. Better examples are on-line "virtual communities" such as Geocities, FortuneCity, Freezone, Inca, or the Phrantic Project, to list just a few. These are ISPs (internet service providers) that offer free space for anyone to set up their own webpage. Other examples would be under "our clients" (or some such heading) on the homepage of any small local ISP (check listings or ads in computer magazines).
An even more immediate form of cyberspace interaction is so the called internet chat, or IRC (internet relay chat). If you have your own computer and internet connection, you can download a program like mIRC and spend hours typing to other people in real time from all over the world. Many close friendships are made between people who have never (and often probably never will) met in the flesh.