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An unseasonably fine late autumn afternoon in Brighton. I'm waiting in a beachside café for my daughter, who graduated a few months ago and now wants to discuss what one might actually do with an English degree. We are going out for lunch, but I have arrived from London early and have half an hour to kill.

To pass the time, I play with my new iPhone. I notice there is wireless internet here, right by the sea. Brighton is quite the technology hub these days. I remember that geeks call it Silicon Beach. Hence the WiFi by the waves.

Spooling idly through the (mostly free) software applications (apps) on my phone, I open one that accesses webcam streams from around the world, and am soon watching live, colour video of people going to work in New York, where it's breakfast time, and strolling on the beach in Mumbai, where it's early evening.

 Illustration by Miles Cole

Pointless — and not a little voyeuristic — as this in some ways trivial example of what a combination of computing, the internet and radio telephony can now achieve is, you can't sniff at the technology which makes it possible — and not on some military specification piece of gadgetry, but a pocket device available on any high street. This gimmick alone exceeds anything that science fiction predicted for the 21st century. 

But there is a further factor arguably even more significant than the wow-wee technology. It's that I am able to enjoy the novelty of all this not only free of charge, but without anyone overtly — or even covertly — selling or publicising anything. It's just an entertaining celebration by technology enthusiasts of what's possible in the hyper-connected, hyper-interactive new world — old-style Tomorrow's World stuff on a grand, global scale. 

Is it really free? Yes, for all practical purposes. Beyond the fraction of a fraction of a penny for the electricity to power the myriad technologies that make it possible, my beach-surfing exercise costs nothing beyond what I pay anyway for my phone service. The WiFi on Brighton beach is free. Using the distant webcams is free. I don't know or care much who's paying for any of what's happening, or why, other than it's not me. 

My daughter arrives. We select a restaurant on Qype, a (free) food lovers' website. We are guided there by the (free) GPS and (free) Google mapping on my phone. When we sit down at our table, we both check our (free) email. We don't need to catch up much on news because we know much of what the other has been doing thanks to our (free) Facebook and Twitter streams. 

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