Heath Bunting In theory, Heath Bunting sounds like a Tory MP's nightmare. An underground artist with anarcho-situationist leanings and a seriously severe crop, he's doodled around on the borders of legality for the last few years, trying his hand at everything from flyposting and pavement graffiti to running an an avant garde pirate radio station in Bristol. Six weeks ago, he started up his own computerised bulletin board, called Cyber Cafe, which is currently frequented by hackers and anarchists and contains files giving advice on writing viruses (an interesting electronic art form, according to Heath). But when he IBM pc you could pick up second hand for #100 or so. Log on and you can download a variety of e zines or you can post messages to other members about upcoming events. There are no programmes or graphics, just text. No big deal, he admits, but really the board is a gesture, an attempt to raise interest in his plans to set up a real life twenty four hour Cyber Cafe, based in Soho, which would offer punters round the clock free access to the Internet (via table top terminals) alongwith cappuccino, espresso and the rest. "The idea is to create a focal point for the electronic community in London and the UK in general, and generate a kind of critical mass, so things start to take off naturally". And if people spend hours surfing the Net for the price of a cup of tea? "It wouldn't be a problem. The idea is to bring the people and the equipment together and see what happens". What he hopes will happen is that Cyber Cafe develops into a full-blown mini-virtual community, offering conferences, real time chat lines, a network art gallery, and information resources. At the moment he's looking for suitable premises and negotiating funding. "We've only had the idea for a few weeks and already things are happening very quickly. All we have to do is talk enough, and it will happen." An appropriate attitude, when you think that the virtual communities that flourish on the Net are little worlds literally built out of talk. Not all of it is empty chatter. As the American psychologist and computer theorist Sherry Turkle pointed out recently, "the notion of virtual community compels conversation about the nature of community". The same goes for virtual reality and even virtual sex. But even if, by accident, on-line networks have sparked a nascent, informal public debate about big issues, it's not much use if the only people speaking are white male computer science students. Heath is one of a number of people engage d in the essential labour of broadening the conversation. So whilst computer types might see him as an arty outsider, he could be exactly what the rather insular British on-line scene needs. After all, even though it boasts more subscribers than American on-line hang-outs like The Well, Cix, the UK's best known virtual community has never achieved a similarly high profile or cultural influence. (Perhaps it's something to do with the fact that, while the former is physically based in San Francisco, honorary home of the New Edge cyber-future, Cix is based in Surbiton, home, Tom and Barbara Goode). A thriving Cyber Cafe might do more to shake things up. Combined with initiatives like the BBC Networking Club, set up in conjuntion with BBC2's computer programme The Net, which should be up and running (and offering Internet access to more ordinary non-computer types) by May, it may even do something to shake up the British media's rather blinkered attitudes to networks anbd the culture they're creating. For the most part, specialist computer journalists here remain an inward looking breed, who, whenever they hear the word `culture' reach for their delete keys. As for non-specialists, they still tend to believe that electronic culture only happens in America. Whether a successful Cyber Cafe would help raise the level of the political discussion around on-line culture is open to question. Whilst the Information Superhighway was part of the Clinton-Gore election platform in the States, here the networks aren't a new frontier. Instead, they're seen as an invasive threat to national purity, the province of hackers and crackers who want to crash the system and pornographers and paedophiles who want to corrupt our children. They need to be censored, regulated. One of the main topics of discussion on Cyber Cafe so far has been the rumours that the government is planning to bring in a licensing system for bulletin boards which would force many smaller operations off-line. A knee jerk reaction on the part of politicians scared (and increasingly sidelined) by the power of the networks, Heath suggests. "The Conservatives seem to have only one scale of value - money", he adds. "The best way to translate the `wealth' bulletin boards generate into monetary terms is to license them, make people pay to start them. It's a shame, because the other forms of wealth they create - cutural wealth, for example - will die. If all computer networks turn out like Compuserve, then we're in for a hellish existence." However, long before any licensing laws are established, Cyber Cafe will, he hopes, be buzzing, open for business, and open to all sorts, from hackers to housewives. Things look bright. But you do wonder whether Heath's entrepeneurial schemes have prompted accusations of a sell-out from some of his old associates, for example the people who frequent the anarchist bulletin board Fast Breeder. Not really, he says. People from Fast Breeder log on to Cyber Cafe. Actually, the distance between the anarchist and the entrepeneur is not that great, especially in the computer industry, which seems at times to be in a continual state of upheaval. Companies start out of garages, make billions and disappear in the space of a few years. People routinely unleash technologies with no thought, no idea even, of their possible social effects. And every eighteen months, the goalposts shift and the limits of the possible expand, thanks to the phenomenon neatly summed up by Moore's Law - the proposition advanced by Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel, that every year and a half, the information processing capacity of a single chip will double "Capitalism is continual revolution, anyway", Heath muses. " As for anarchy... I wouldn't want to define it. But if you want to do something you find a way to do it, with the least possible threat to yourself and other people. Some people do things to react to other things. I prefer to do positive things". In the end his openness and willingness to engage with the business world seems likely tohave a greater social effect than the secretive, vaguely paranoid machinations indulged in on closed anarchist bulletin boards. Even so, as I'm about to leave, he stops me. "It might help me raising money, if, when you write this, you play down the anarchist side and stress the young entrepeneur stuff." Perhaps. But sometimes in cyberspace, it's hard to tell the difference. Jim McClellan -