Only the jokes happen faster

THE computer age is not what it’s cracked up to be.

So we have the internet? So we have e-mail? So messages come screaming around the curve of the world at very nearly the speed of light? Does this mean the work gets done any faster?

No. It means I learn that my sister in England has the flu before she has even taken the aspirin. It means I can write back with the message: “Take an aspirin,” before she’s had time to pop the tablet out of the packet.

But the work goes on at exactly the same pace it always did. Possibly slower, because internet access in the office means I can find a buyer for a complete set of Credence Clearwater records while I’m sitting at my desk.

There is only one office-related activity that happens faster since the arrival of computers – the office joke.

There was a time when you could hear a joke in Townsville, board a bus to Sydney, take a ship to the UK, and still deliver the gag in London as fresh and funny as the day you heard it.

But now the punch line overtakes you before you have time to say, “There was an Australian, a Kiwi and an Irishman…”

There’s no life in a joke any more. They die faster than butterflies. You used to be able to save them for the pub in the evening and get belly laughs out of them. Now you can run all the way direct from the office, blurt out the story before you order a beer, and everyone will still say: “Heard it three months ago. Someone sent it from China.”

But they don’t even understand Australian humour in China! They probably thought it was a Confucius proverb and forwarded it in the interests of world peace.

Or maybe they treat e-mail with a lot more respect in China, in which case they will have formed a very bizarre notion of how life is lived in the western world.

If you were a Chinese living in the northern city of Urumqi what would you make of an entirely unsolicited message from Rasmussen about a bishop and actress and a cucumber, if you didn’t realise it was a joke?

It could play havoc with the immigration program.

Not many of these internet gags actually make me laugh any more. I guess by the time they’ve trudged through every country that has a power supply and a keyboard, and been bounced off various satellites they’re just too tired to really have their hearts in their work.

And there are so many of them! Are people employed to invent them, shovelling them daily onto the internet, like coals into a furnace? Or do they just grow, like fruit on a tree, and find their way round the world through a kind of electronic osmosis?

And they’re always in English. You’d expect most of them to be in English, but how come the occasional Swahili side-slapper doesn’t get through?

Invaders from outer space will examine the internet and discount the English‑speaking nations as being unable to take life seriously.

Instead they’ll negotiate with leaders who speak Urdu, or Icelandic, while we’re forwarding messages around the world that have all the seriousness of a plastic flower that squirts water in your face.

There are some bonuses with the internet, however. It’s now possible to send an e‑mail spreading the malicious rumour that your boss cross‑dresses and owns a dog the size of a rat that he carries in his handbag, in the certain knowledge that within 24 hours everyone in the world will have read it, including him, his wife and his children, and it will be virtually impossible to trace you as the originator.

You could even give his name and address.