Wednesday, July 12, 1995

Access

EVERYBODY wants some; can there possibly be enough to go around? Or will the earth's reserves be depleted, leaving none for the coming generations? "Access" is now the crucial resource in everything from computing to art galleries and parenting. What you think and what you possess may be of interest, but the smart money knows that you are what you access.

It is some time since an access was an outburst of feeling never mind an ague fit. The loss of these antique definitions of "access" has, however, been more than compensated for by the word's mid-century mutation into a verb. When "access" came to be used in computing from as early as 1950, "access time," the time taken to "withdraw a number from storage," was the main issue. By the beginning of the Sixties, the idea of accessing basically, getting anything you don't have - began to explode into non-computing disciplines.

In the early Seventies, the notion that there should be more general access to the broadcast media gained ground. In theory, media access might enable ignored groups to make programmes which express and explore their own lives and interests. On this side of the Atlantic, where there was no legal obligation to provide space for this type of programming, access broadcasting never became a force.

THAT is until Channel Four's Take-Over TV a unique tranche of programming in which narcissists and weirdoes get to shout at their Hi-8 cameras about whatever interests them. For some reason, access to cheap and easy video equipment and chunks of airtime is seen as altering the intrinsic fascination of dysfunctional types, so that what was yesterday's dodgy personal habit - a penchant, say, for singing hits from Hollywood musicals while lying in a coffin spreading cream over one's naked body is today's access TV star turn.

In the US, access is often used synonymously with influence, so that those peddling influence will also lay out a line of access on their stalls. Access in these cases is not simply instrumental in achieving some aim, such as a lucrative contract, or a convivial sub-clause in legislation, but may also be something of value in itself. The same game is played more transparently in the music business, where a shiny laminate proclaiming "access all areas" is far more important as a mark of social distinction than for the freedom it might offer to climb the lighting rigging.

It is hardly surprising that those who stand to benefit most directly from increased Internet use, the companies operating modem dial-up services, have the powerful-sounding title "access providers". But while some people may suggest that high speed access to the Internet is essential for the survival of freedom, other doubting back-sliders remain more concerned with access to uncontaminated drinking water.

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