Time to update the mental computers. Recent news bytes oblige us to abandon some long-held ideas about the Internet. Reality 2000 looks like this.

Hackers 2000: Investigators claim to have unraveled the mystery of the Love Bug virus and the culprit(s) appear to be young Filipino computer enthusiasts. The long arm of the law has fingered Onel A. de Guzman and some of his pals, fellow students at the AMA Computer College in metro Manila.

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De Guzman sort of admitted that he is responsible for the virus, which is said to have caused billions of dollars in damage to computers around the world. “It is possible” that he accidentally sent out the virus, but he isn’t sure. He claims that he was sniffing around for passwords to use the Net for free. “The Internet is supposed to be educational, so it should be for free.”

So much for the image of nefarious criminals bent on destroying society as we know it. So much for the image of hackers as white, middle-class citizens/slackers of the developed world with evil agendas or axes to grind. Instead, we have a quiet student in a country in which a mere 200,000 computers were sold in 1999 and only 5 percent of public-school students have access to one.

De Guzman’s girlfriend is also thought to be involved, and the widely reported story that a woman — of all things! — was responsible for the virus was another blow to the conventional image of a hacker and the source of endless speculation about the virus’ heritage, the message and the like. Go girl, I guess.

News that the virus was homegrown has sparked a burst of national pride in the Philippines. The Manila Standard crowed about “the country’s first world-class hacker,” while another newspaper applauded “a Filipino genius who put the Philippines on the world map,” who has “the creativity and ingenuity to turn, for better or for worse, the world upside down.” Fellow students at AMA Computing College spoke of their alum with awe.

So update your mental maps, but the message of this most recent bug is: Beware when downloading that Encarta update.

Law Enforcement 2000: While lots of people were trying to figure out where the Philippines are, the Manila police got their own lesson in the new criminality. Efforts to search de Guzman’s apartment were frustrated when the authorities couldn’t find a judge who understood what was going on. Now they have a suspect, but they don’t have a law with which they can prosecute him. Evidently, a variant of credit-card theft will have to suffice. (The G-8 is confronting the same issue this week in meetings in Paris. Judging from the reports, the various countries’ mental maps aren’t matching up. )

Net Life 2000: A couple of recent studies have done Internet censuses and determined that the gender gap is no more, at least not in the U.S. A huge leap in the number of women going online brought the sexes up to parity. In 1996, women made up 18 percent of U.S. surfers; now, they constitute 46 percent. We shouldn’t have been so stunned by reports that the Love Bug author was a woman after all.

Toss out a couple of other stereotypes, too. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the source of the gender data, more women admitted to playing online games than men (37 percent vs. 32 percent) and more men shopped online than women (80 percent vs. 67 percent).

Pew research also showed that reports that Internet use isolates people and makes them social misfits are wrong. Net users are very social beings. The study notes that 72 percent of the more than 3,500 Internet users surveyed had visited a relative or friend the day before. Only 61 percent of offline respondents had done so. So much for the image of isolated geeks living in the warm glow of the screen.

Japan 2000: According to the Japan Electronic Industry Development Association, PC shipments in Japan last year soared 32 percent. A record 9.9 million units were shipped. That topped for the first time the number of television sets shipped — and the JEIDA numbers are low, since they only include orders from its 18 member companies. Had nonmembers, such as Dell, been counted, the number would have been higher still.

So what? It’s been asserted that national cultures differ, and for the digital world in Japan, that has meant that PCs won’t be the medium for Net access. The handheld will do that job. It also ties into other quirks, such as buying and selling through convenience stores, or the proliferation of e-commerce.

It’s too early to say that argument is wrong — and national cultures do matter — but the new numbers mean we can’t rush to judgment. PCs are finding their ways into homes.

Another study by Access Media International, a consultancy, reports that just 11 percent of Japanese homes are connected to the Internet. That may sound low in absolute terms — it is low — but the comparable figure in the U.S. is only 37 percent. And don’t forget that the Japanese government is laying fiber to every home. Connection charges are coming down. Breakout is just around the corner.

Of course, some realities are unchanging. The G-8 governments will disagree on fighting Net crime, computer security will continue to be a nuisance — not a problem — as far as users are concerned, and I will never get mail with “I love you” in the subject line.

Brad Glosserman (brad@japantimes.co.jp)