|Resources for Writing—The Internet
As the introduction makes clear, this section recapitulates the whole text by providing an essay in each strategy, plus a story, on a common theme: the Internet. The purpose of representing these strategies is to demonstrate how they may be seen as thinking strategies, or ways of organizing and manipulating information on a particular subject. Indeed, the point of the section is to use readings to illustrate that thinking and writing are organically linked.
The section has been placed at the end of the anthology to give students the opportunity to master these techniques, one at a time, before they are asked to use them as planning strategies or to mix and match them in a more sophisticated writing strategy. But you could just as easily use this section at the beginning of the course to introduce and underscore the relationship between thinking and writing. Or if you prefer to organize your course thematically (see Thematic Contents), you can use this section as a way to blend your approach with rhetorical strategies.
Although any theme could illustrate how effective writers use different strategies to explore different aspects of the same subject, the Internet is a provocative topic—one we encounter on the nightly news, at the center of economic and national security debates, and even in our lives as we choose service providers and link our home personal computers on the Internet. The topic of the Internet immediately brings issues to mind: equal access and the technogap, pornography and censorship or restriction of the medium, spam e-mail, increased connectivity and security, copyright issues, and social isolationism are just a few.
Wendy Lesser’s narrative about her conversion to e-mail is an engaging and entertaining essay that attempts to convince others to join the e-mail revolution. Her fears about computer viruses, lack of security, and loss of the personal elements of correspondence soon vanish as she discovers the joy of instantaneous long-distance communication and the playfulness e-mail encourages in her friends.
William Zinsser’s obsolete guidebook instructions for using a keyboard demonstrate how quickly the Internet revolution has occurred. Published a decade and a half ago, it approaches the personal computer like a glorified typewriter. Students will be amazed at the intricacies necessary to describe the functions of the delete key to first-time PC users.
John Steele Gordon’s comparison between the railroads of the American 1840s and the present-day Internet business projects some startling changes in the ownership of the network and the future of dot-com companies. However, it predicts the long-term success of the venture, based upon its similarities to the railroad industry.
Dave Barry’s hilarious selection of web sites which demonstrate that “99.999997 percent” of web pages are a total waste of time is actually a convincing proof that free speech is alive and well in cyberspace. Although he pretends to rail against the mindless drivel that the Internet has to offer, he is covertly encouraging his readers to take a look at it for themselves.
Laura Miller’s definition of “frontier” explains how the concept of “the Internet” as outer space or the Wild West has duped many consumers into believing that regulations are necessary to protect women and children in this unknown land. Miller raises the issue of the bodilessness of participants in cyberspace to ask whether notions of the “weaker sex” still apply there.
M. Kadi demonstrates how early customers of e-mail services were duped into spending more money than they though they were to meet a less diverse section of the world than they expected to encounter. The information overload on line that she reports existed even before the World Wide Web came into existence.
Evan I. Schwartz argues that on-line communities are thriving because the Internet is a user-defined medium, and human contact is what people at the turn of the millennium crave. Ultimately, he agrees with the critics of on-line societies that they are not a substitute for face-to-face relationships, but he says that they are better than nothing.
William Gibson’s story about a pair of cyber cowboys hacking into a futuristic gangster’s bank accounts is also a story of love and intrigue. Modeled on the detective fiction of the 1940s, it presents an intriguing amalgamation of the past, present, and future in its science-fiction setting.
The pattern of writing assignments in this section is both similar to and different from the other writing assignments in this anthology. As in the other sections, the assignments in this section follow a three-part sequence: (1) writing that asks students to respond to the subject and strategies of an essay by drafting a similar composition, (2) writing that requires students to analyze the rhetorical strategies in an essay, and (3) writing that invites students to use an essay to argue similar or related assertions in another rhetorical context.
The pattern also is different because each selection is followed by three richly contextualized assignments rather than the six that conclude the other sections. In addition, it is different because each assignment encourages students to cycle back through the text looking for specific essays and stories that might serve as additional resources for comparison.
WENDY LESSER “The Conversion”
By chronicling her own gradual conversion from using the telephone to using e-mail for personal correspondence, Wendy Lesser hopes to encourage others like her who are resisting the change to take the plunge. Her story includes the fears she had about e-mail and the Internet before signing on with CompuServe and the many positive aspects of electronic communication that she discovered once she had done so. Chief among these is the discovery that “in our day, technology can substitute for and even generate the freeing effects of wealth” because it affords frequent, leisurely correspondence, even between continents. “E-mail,” she proclaims at her essay’s end, “can be a great gift.”
Lesser’s narrative also reveals the effect that using e-mail has had on her writing style, friendships, and psyche. She says that “like all tools, it is more than just a simple replacement of the previous technology—it acts on you as well as you on it, and it acts in ways you can’t always predict.” As an example of such transformations, Lesser tells about her relationship with a writer friend in New York. For twenty years she had spoken with him daily by telephone, and she feared that he would not make the conversion to e-mail along with her. After encouragement bordering on control, she managed to get her friend on line and found that their on-line personal conversations replicated their telephone chats. Her friend’s personal style was “even enhanced” by the standard templates employed in the new electronic media. Consequently, she says that, “for daily correspondence, electronic mail has become [her] essential instrument. After one has mastered it, e-mail proves to be “the form of writing that best enables us to know and acknowledge friendship.” Lesser the convert also credits e-mail for “restor[ing] the personal letter to [her] life.”
Because Lesser hopes to reach an audience that is not yet smitten by the convenience of e-mail, she begins her essay with the admission that she “resisted e-mail for at least two or three years.” She assumes that readers who are not e-mail users might be confused, as she was, by the differences between e-mail and the Internet, that they might be stymied by the fear that their personal correspondence would be “place[d] squarely in front of all the oncoming lanes of traffic in the Information Superhighway.” She also feared that the medium would dictate the message, harboring a McLuhanesque wariness toward the machine. These, she assures her audience, were groundless imaginings. To gain credibility with readers, Lesser counters her near-phobic avoidance of e-mail by proclaiming that she is not “a hermit.” She offers a list of technological devises she regularly uses as proof that her resistance to e-mail is not evidence of a complete Luddite’s existence; those devices include television, desktop publishing equipment, database software, and her fax machine. She tells her readers, “If you are like me, you went through a phase when personal letters occupied a central place in your existence” and promises them that e-mail will foster a return to the delights of that period of their lives.
In addition to encouraging her readers to become e-mail users, Lesser offers them some practical advice about getting on line. Her own experience with an arbitrarily assigned CompuServe address prompts her to advise her readers to choose more distinctive monikers than the numbers that she was issued. Because an “e-mail address becomes a part of [one’s] permanent identity,” she suggests choosing the name carefully. She also warns that anonymous correspondence is virtually impossible on line, so it is not a useful medium for obscene phone calls or poison-pen letters. Users, she says, should think carefully about whom they contact via e-mail because sending out an e-mail makes one’s own address available to the recipient. She advises that one has “to consider before engaging in any communication whether [one wants] to hear from someone as well . . . .” Obviously, this information would be old news to those who already actively employ e-mail in their daily correspondence.
Lesser’s persuasive narrative is chiefly composed of two parts: her refutation of the fears that have kept many people, including herself, from converting to on-line correspondence, and an annotated list of the benefits of e-mail. Although her technologically minded friends initially had told her that e-mail was inexpensive (when compared with long-distance phone bills) and instantaneous (even globally), Lesser had feared that her computer would contract viruses from an Internet connection. Worse, she believed that her privacy would be invaded and that “someone [would] sneak through the e-mail door and thereby penetrate [her] hard disk, stealing or at any rate messing up [her] closely held documents.” She thought that she would be inundated with poorly-written e-mail spam and that all electronic communication was generic and lacked “personal style.” Finally, she resisted e-mail because “you couldn’t do it in the bathtub.” Her trepidation subsided, however, once she started using e-mail.
As an e-mail convert, Lesser discovered that e-mail enabled her to receive letters “nice and often” because of its almost instantaneous speed. She found that her friends had also been correct about its cost; it was indeed less expensive than long-distance calling, particularly when she was out of the country. E-mails travel an amazing distance very quickly, yet they are asynchronous, so a writer in a European time zone can address someone living in an Eastern Standard time zone without disturbing his sleep and receive a message as soon as he awakens. In spite of her misgivings, Lesser found that e-mail is just as personal as telephone or handwritten correspondence and discovered that its templates, which call for subject lines, encourage playfulness and creativity among her friends. She came to love the address book features of e-mail, including its customizable mailing lists, multiple sending options, and the opportunity for finding long-lost friends again on the Internet. The most amazing thing she discovered about e-mail, though, is its constancy. Her address is the same whether she is in Los Angeles or London, making e-mail an ideal medium for writing to people without letting them know when she is out of her office. When her computer was stolen, her e-mail account remained untouched, simply accumulating messages until the computer was replaced. Contrary to her fears that she would “lose her soul” if she succumbed to the allure of e-mail, Lesser discovered that it caused her to find her connection to the universe again in the delights of personal correspondence.
WILLIAM ZINSSER “The Keyboard”
Wow. Perhaps nothing short of equipping campus computer labs with Commodore 64s could impress students with the rapidity at which technology changes like this fifteen-year-old essay by William Zinsser does. Students may have a hard time imagining an audience that must be coaxed to touch a computer’s keyboard. Time has altered the purpose of Zinsser’s process-analysis essay. Originally, it was meant to encourage its readers to embrace the then-new skill of word processing by demystifying the space-age typewriter’s “extra” keys. Zinsser patiently instructed his readers in such computer-age concepts as the cursor and the delete key to give them directions and confidence in using the new machines. Now, the essay demonstrates how far we have come in the short period since the beginning of the information age. Younger readers will learn what computers were like before hard drives, and older readers’ minds will be flooded with memories of eight-inch floppy disks; tractor-fed, green-banded printer paper; and hard-bound software manuals.
Zinsser’s aim in spending five pages explaining how to delete text from a word processor’s screen is to demonstrate for his mid-80s audience how versatile and magical the word processor is. He instructs his audience to “assume you want to delete the first three words. You can do it in various ways.” In all, he shows five different ways to highlight and delete text. This constituted an unheard-of number of flawless choices for typists, who were used to the “xxxing . . . erasing . . . and white-out” with which Zinsser compares the newer methods. In an attempt to prompt readers to convert to word processing from their familiar typewriters, Zinsser tries to convince them that computers can do more and do it better than the older technology could.
Those with grandparents who never got around to using a computer may be able to understand the trepidation with which the general public approached the personal computer and its predecessor, the word processing machine. Many of us were fearful that we could not compose at a keyboard after a lifetime of writing out drafts in longhand and producing a final copy in Courier font with a typewriter. Early word processors were prone to failure, and the first floppy disks did not facilitate partitioning longer texts into individual files. Entire dissertations were lost or had to be reentered from a dimly printed copy after a disk or machine failed. People had to be persuaded of the convenience of electronic text production. As readers of this essay can tell, early word processors lacked mice or on-screen navigation bars, and the first keyboards were not as ergonomic or intuitive as our present-day models. People did not simply switch automatically from the typewriter to the keyboard—the new machines often worked and felt “strange” or “wrong” to their first users. However, Zinsser encourages his readers by explaining that he “felt comfortable at the keyboard of [his] word processor almost immediately because [he had] been typing all [his] life.”
Because of the radical nature of the keyboard, Zinsser begins by comparing it not with the typewriter, but with a piano; touching its keys orchestrates a mysterious set of unseen commands “like the strings and hammers of a piano.” Ironically, he claims that he can’t sew on a button, but he can type. Many keyboard users today would consider sewing on a button much more difficult than entering information into a computer. He reinforces his thesis that using a word processor is easy and fun by introducing new concepts with phrases such as “what makes the system so enjoyable,” “much swifter solutions are available,” or “the great advantage of the space-bar method
is . . .” He promises that the maneuvers he describes will become natural for his readers, telling them, “You’ll soon get these various patterns in your eye and learn to make the combination of moves . . . with the greatest speed and economy.” Although modern readers may find Zinsser’s laborious descriptions of using a delete key tedious, his original audience must have found it thorough and reassuring.
Zinsser introduces his audience to the keyboard by concentrating on the keys that would be unfamiliar to them because they aren’t the same as typewriter keys. Although the “QWERTY” letter arrangement of the computer’s keyboard was borrowed directly from the typewriter, its “RET,” “Code,” arrow, “Delete,” “Enter,” “Cancel,” and “Find” keys were new. (Notice that early word processing machine keyboards did not contain “Ctrl,” “Alt,” “Mute,” “Internet,” or “Sleep” keys.) He also draws his readers’ attention to on-screen elements that typewriters, naturally, didn’t have such as the cursor and highlighting functions. The last key that he mentions would have been common to electric typewriters, but Zinsser finds it sufficiently novel enough to joke about the power switch in his essay’s closing.
Another way to examine the structure of Zinsser’s article today is to mentally rewrite it while reading it. Identify how to perform the tasks he describes on a modern personal computer. For instance, the “Backspace” and “Enter” keys have replaced the “RET” key. The cursor can be moved with the error keys, but it is much faster to employ a macro or a mouse to accomplish the same thing. Scrolling with the arrow keys has been replaced by on-screen scroll bars and buttons. Zinsser describes a word processor that was always in the “Typeover” mode, but present models can switch between that and the “Insert” mode. “Virtual paper” and print-like True-Type fonts on modern machines have replaced the green lights that serve as letters and highlighting on Zinsser’s machine. Highlighting with a mouse is much simpler than using the arrow and delete key commands described in this essay. After deleting a paragraph, Zinsser says, “This is always a heady moment—the moment when you can make so much writing just disappear.” Readers can only imagine how powerful the author felt when the “Edit,” “Select all,” “Delete” sequence was invented. The “Move” key has been improved by the editing features of modern software, and the speed of Pentium chips and gigabyte hard drives has replaced machines that “clunk self-importantly for a few seconds” to make “the page that you’re looking for . . . appear on the screen.” As readers, we can marvel at the accomplishment of the computer industry since the time Zinsser wrote this essay, or we can laugh at his simple language and the naiveté of his minute descriptions of now-familiar tasks. However, fifteen years from now, the keyboard itself is likely to be obsolete.
JOHN STEELE GORDON “The Golden Spike”
As the “dot-com” companies that sprang up wildly in the American economy of the late 1990s have begun laying off workers and going out of business, many people worry about the future of the Internet. What once promised to be an economic revolution is looking more like a ruse to many investors. John Steele Gordon wrote this article for Forbes magazine, in part, to reassure the public that the Internet will be considered the “seminal invention” of the twenty-first century. By comparing the Internet to the railroads in the 1840s, he sketches a scenario that shows that the Internet is a second Industrial Revolution and suggests that it will recover from its current economic woes. The similarities Gordon uncovers between the fledgling railroads and the evolving Internet are striking and portend loss for many small dot-coms but success for the Internet itself.
One thing that has troubled market analysts since the emergence of the Internet economy has been the astronomical stock prices paid for initial offerings of dot-com upstarts such as Amazon.com, which hadn’t even earned a profit before going public. Gordon reports that “many railroad stocks soared and plunged in the early days of the industry as the potential profits and the practical realities intersected with the greed and fear of the investors.” Consequently, many early investors in the railroads lost their fortunes, but Commodore Vanderbilt “bought badly run ones, restructured them, merged them into efficient operations, and managed them superbly.” As a result, he built “the largest fortune of the railroad era and died the richest self-made man in the world.” Gordon does not question the future security of the Internet. He is simply watching to see who will step forward to claim the present wreckages and become the railroad magnates of the future. His bet that the people who save the Internet will “make the old Commodore look like a welfare case” surely may send many investors back into the dot-com market.
Because his audience is likely to be more familiar with contemporary market trends, including the Internet’s economic situation, Gordon supplies much more information about the mid- to late 1800s and the history of the railroads in America. He narrates the background of the Great North Road, stagecoach routes, and the limited distribution of goods possible before the completion of the railroads. Gordon explains that the predecessor of the NYSE, the New York Stock and Exchange Board, traded but thirty-one shares before the securities issued by the railroads “made their way to Wall Street” and three times that after railroad stocks and bonds were sold. The increase was due almost entirely to railroad-related exchanges. For readers who are unfamiliar with the history of the railroads, he identifies “Cornelius (nicknamed ‘Commodore’) Vanderbilt” as the owner of the Hudson River Railroad who “never built a railroad in his life.” Gordon describes the growth of national entities such as Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and Woolworth into catalog companies which “threatened local retailers and forced them to lower their prices in order to compete. . . .” He says that Amazon.com is “doing to the American economy exactly what Sears and Montgomery Ward did more than a century ago.”
The differences between the railroad and the Internet are easy for modern readers to discern, so Gordon spends little time on them, and he names only two. Before the railroads, naturally, interstate commerce was nonexistent, but the Internet simply capitalizes on the transportation and delivery systems already in place in this country, including the railroads. Similarly, the railroads were built from the ground up, with virtually no infrastructure in place prior to the laying of the rails. Conversely, the Internet’s supporting hardware, including telephone lines and personal computers, were already fixtures in many American homes. Readers can contrast the Internet’s growth with the telephone’s, which took five times as long to reach the same number of households as the Internet has connected in seven years.
Gordon’s comparison-contrast essay is styled after the alternating model. He places aspects of the railroad and the Internet side by side throughout his essay. He analyzes at least seven striking similarities between his subjects. These include the early explosions of the two industries, confusion among investors about how to make money from each, and the role of both as important conduits between producers and buyers in the open market. Less obvious are the similarities between the two industries: both opened communication over long distances, both caused sharp increases in market interest and profits, and both prompted mergers that fostered economies of scale in which supply increased ahead of demand so that prices of various goods fell as a result. That was caused partly by the expansion of national retailers, and it caused a surge in collateral industries, such as the telegraph in the case of the railroads and the laying of fiber optic cables in contemporary America.
The abundance of freight trains in modern-day America demonstrates that the railroads have enjoyed long-term success, so Gordon’s comparison suggests that the Internet will be similarly successful. Following his close examination of the history of the railroad and its similarities to the Internet, Gordon makes some projections about the future of cyber business. He says, “The Internet will not escape a shakeout” in which “thousands of entrepreneurs who rushed at the first sign of opportunity will fall by the wayside, their fortunes as evanescent as rainbows.” However, he predicts that their losses will make possible monumental gains for the next wave of savvy Internet investors. The essay ends with promises of phenomenal wealth—just what interested speculators need to hear to prompt them to buy Internet stocks, on line, of course.
DAVE BARRY “Selected Web Sites”
Dave Barry is a well-known humorist who writes a syndicated newspaper column. This chapter from his book Dave Barry in Cyberspace appeared in an earlier form as a newspaper feature. Barry’s work often seems intended solely to entertain, but he is a skillful satirist, chiding the objects of his derision with extreme examples and exaggerations that nonetheless contain enough truth to sting. Barry’s contention that “99.999997 percent” of “all Web pages are a total waste of time” is not exactly borne out in this essay. Chasing down the URLs he reprints is quite an entertaining way to spend an afternoon; although the essay’s disclaimer cautions that many of these sites are no longer active, several remain on line.
Originally printed in 1996, this spoof on classifying web sites may appear to malign the World Wide Web, but it is more likely a taunt directed at readers who dismissed the Web as a purveyor of pornography and materialism. Notice that none of the sites featured in this chapter was posted by commercial entities, and none offers anything for sale. None is obscene; even the site that Barry claims contains photographs of “two actual deceased humans . . . frozen in gelatin and sliced into very thin slices for the benefit of science” really features MRI images. This essay is actually a provocative invitation to explore the Web.
Barry’s discussion of the site called “Piercing Mildred” (which incidentally still exists) includes the challenge, “You may think this sounds like a fairly perverted game, but ask yourself: Is it really that different from Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head?” Barry’s point is that Marshall McLuhan was correct: the medium is the message. Oddball humor has always been a part of life; the Internet didn’t invent it and doesn’t make it salacious. In his description of “The Spam Cam,” Barry says that a similar site featuring Twinkies “had been closed down by lawyers,” and that someday “perhaps the entire Internet will have been closed down by lawyers.” He hints at a serious point with this spoof: the Internet enjoys all of the protections of the First Amendment that Barry’s newspaper columns do, in spite of attempts to regulate or censor it.
A cliché about technology says that by the time something about the Internet is in print or on paper, it is obsolete information. This essay demonstrates the truth of that. Although many of the sites Barry lists are still on line, about half are defunct. The computers his original readers would have used to access these sites have largely been replaced by multimedia Pentium or Athlon machines as well, so Barry’s constant worry that his readers may not have “sound capability” are probably unfounded today. Likewise, the chart showing that 4 percent of an Internet browser’s time is spent typing and retyping web addresses and 93 percent is lost waiting for web pages to load is outdated because of hot links and high-speed Internet access. The range of human creativity and lunacy exhibited by the sites that Barry lists, however, is still very much in force on the Web, among Barry’s dedicated readers, and in the world at large.
Barry writes for veteran Internet surfers as well as for readers who are skeptical about the value of the World Wide Web. He addresses cautious Internet users in his first sentence when he says, “A common criticism of the Internet is that it is dominated by the crude, the uninformed, the immature, the smug, the untalented, the repetitious, the pathetic, the hostile, the deluded, the self-righteous, and the shrill.” In a swift feat of comic timing, he quickly draws in Internet supporters, too, by claiming that “for the savvy individual who knows where to look,” the Internet also purveys “the tasteless and the borderline insane.” The tone of the essay’s opening describes the readers that Barry is seeking: people with an off-beat sense of humor, regardless of their previous experience in cyberspace. Various touches throughout the essay, such as the postal worker quip, further define the type of reader he expects.
Barry’s division and classification system doesn’t even attempt to be scientific or comprehensive. He says, “This is not intended as an exhaustive list,” implying that there are more ridiculous sites to reward diligent surfers. His is really just a list of odd sites he has found through his own exploration, through sites that link to other crackpot pages (such as altfan group and www.amused.com), and through suggestions sent by readers of his newspaper columns. The useful thing about Barry’s classification is that what he says is apparently true: “All of the pages described here are real; I did not make any of them up. . . .” The inclusion of footnotes in his text gives it an even greater tone of honesty and veracity. Some of the sites on Barry’s list that were still active as of autumn 2001 include: “Giant Collection of Viola Jokes,” “Piercing Mildred,” “Trojan Room Coffee Machine,” “Cursing in Swedish,” “Federal Corpse Slice Photos,” “World Record Barbeque Ignition,” and “Flaming Pop-Tart Experiment.” In spite of Barry’s tongue-in-cheek claim that these sites are useless, he has contributed to their longevity. Of these seven, three proudly proclaim that they were featured in Dave Barry’s book—the admiration was apparently mutual.
LAURA MILLER “Women and Children First:
Gender and the Settling of the Electronic Frontier”
Laura Miller challenges the widely held belief that there is a significant gender gap on the Internet that makes women feel unwelcome in on-line communications. She shows how a disputed Newsweek article spawned a “journalistic ‘fact’ about the Net known by complete strangers and novices.” This widespread bad publicity may be keeping women away from technological careers, and Miller wants to reassure female readers that the Net is already populated with capable, unthreatened female users. However, the image of “imperiled women and children . . . and reports of pedophiles trolling for victims in computerized chat rooms” depicted in the media have reached hysterical proportions. She identifies three of the general public’s fears about women on line: that they “are subjected to excessive, unwanted sexual attention, that the prevailing style of on-line discussions turn women off, and that women are singled out by male participants for exceptionally dismissive or hostile treatment.” The antisocial reputation of cyberspace, along with its “prophecies of fabulous wealth” has prompted big business and the government to consider regulating it, something Miller opposes.
Asking her readers to consider seriously the notion that women need to be protected in cyberspace, Miller reminds them that the Internet is a hypothetical “frontier” whose inhabitants populate the “bodiless realm of cyberspace.” If women are the “weaker sex” on line, that distinction is not just about their smaller, less muscular physical bodies. It also assumes “that women’s minds are weak, fragile, and unsuited to the rough and tumble of public discourse.” The mainstream media’s coverage of women on line “just happen[s] to uphold the most conventional and pernicious gender stereotypes.” Miller wants to set the record straight by refuting the rape metaphors and allegations of discrimination that are prompting the government to consider regulating the Internet.
Writing primarily for women readers, Miller tells her audience, “Women, who have every right to expect that crimes against their person will be rigorously prosecuted, should nevertheless regard the notion of special protections (chivalry, by another name) with suspicion.” Women’s vulnerabilities in the physical world are being played upon by alleged threats of danger in cyberspace. The writer suspects that the widely disseminated stereotypes about women on line are being promoted because of devious motives. She says that women “are used as rhetorical pawns in a battle to regulate a rare (if elite) space of gender ambiguity.” Newsweek nearly negated that freedom by perpetuating the notion that cyberspace is “marred by just as many sexist ruts and gender conflicts as the Real World.” Miller writes to reassure women that cyberspace is not as dangerous or discriminatory as they have been told.
Miller suggests that women have unwittingly supported erroneous notions by contributing to on-line bitch sessions. Also, she reports that “many women actively participate in the call for greater regulation of on-line interactions” without realizing that they are perpetuating stereotypes about themselves. Furthermore, she believes that “retreating to women-only conferences and newsgroups” strengthens the Newsweek article’s notion that “women participants can’t tolerate the harsh, contentious quality of on-line discussions.” She notes that “a significant and vocal minority of women contribute regularly [to on-line discussions] and more than manage to hold their own.” Therefore, Miller argues that women should “refuse to acquiesce” in vulnerable or subservient roles or to “pass them on to other women.” Female newcomers to the Net who confirm that the environment is hostile or threatening are doing a disservice to their predecessors like Miller (cofounder of Salon.com) whose experiences on line “have already marked them as gender-role resisters.” It is too late for women to acquiesce to being treated like the weaker sex in cyberspace.
Miller is careful to give credence to individuals’ experiences on both sides of this issue. She reports the consensus of the 480 postings to the on-line service in which she participates, all of which were critical of the Newsweek report. After summarizing her own experiment with entering an America Online chat room, Miller is quick to add that other women may find instant messages or casual requests for phone sex insulting, but she says that her point “isn’t that [her] reactions are the more correct, but rather that both are the reactions of women, and no journalist has any reason to believe that [one is] the exception rather than the rule.” In reporting upon the alleged virtual “rape” of participants in a multiuser dimension, or MUD, Miller announces that rape is impossible when no one has a body. However, she adds that Julian Dibble, a writer for The Village Voice, believes that the perpetrator “committed something on the same ‘conceptual continuum’ as rape.” The experience of John Seabury, who felt wounded by a critical message he received on line, demonstrates that persons of any gender can be made to feel vulnerable on line.
Miller’s analysis of the treatment of women on line includes a lengthy comparison of the Internet with the frontiers of space and the American West because cyberspace is often considered a new frontier. She finds the analogy wanting for a variety of reasons: the Internet is not limitless, as space is generally conceived; the Net is created by the pioneers who inhabit it, not discovered by them; a frontier is generally sparsely populated, but the Internet is crowded. The most significant difference between a frontier and the Internet, from Miller’s point of view, is that a frontier must surrender and be conquered by men, and the sexual implications of that activity have imperiled the image of women on line. The conquest motif of the frontier has given rise to the notion that women and children must be protected by lawmen when they venture into cyberspace. What some people seem to be forgetting is that, on the Internet, women can be the “lawmen,” too.
M. KADI “Welcome to Cyberbia”
The hype surrounding the marketing of the Internet to the general population moved M. Kadi to write this rant against the “fabulous, wonderful, limitless world of communication” promised to new Internet customers. Although some of the aspects of Internet connectivity that Kadi rails against have been resolved over time, the Internet Revolution has exacerbated others. For instance, her first complaint, that Internet access charges are a come-on that hides exorbitant per hour connection rates, is no longer an issue. Most service providers now offer unlimited access time for a monthly fee that is less than half of Kadi’s figures. However, she is probably correct in predicting that the Internet, which started as a government-funded Department of Defense project, will probably end up under the control of a communications conglomerate which will likely drive up the costs of Internet access, especially as the range of services available on line expands. Readers who dismiss Kadi’s outmoded cost-accounting might choose to see her description of time spent on line as a caution against the tendency the Internet has to usurp people’s time. Many people spend more time on line than they realize, and the obsolete estimate of over thirty hours per month is just the tip of the iceberg for most contemporary Internet clients.
Kadi also challenges the promise that Internet customers will interact with a diverse array of people in fascinating chats and newsgroups. In the first place, she says, the number of postings available on line is overwhelming. When this essay was published, the AOL Exchange area held 100,000 posts. (Compare that to the more than 1.5 million items listed on Ebay on any given day now.) According to Kadi’s math, 500 one-paragraph posts equals a 200-page book; the AOL Exchange that she surveyed would equal about 40,000 pages. Kadi claims that in efforts to winnow Internet reading down to a manageable mailbag, most users do not “engage in topics that do not interest” them. Consequently, people on line are busily meeting people very much like themselves, creating their own little virtual suburbs. There is no diversity in that.
When Kadi wrote this piece, the World Wide Web had not yet been invented. She quotes Internet providers who promise their subscribers “the thought provocation of newsgroups, the sharing of ideas implicit in public posting, and the interaction of real-time chats.” In other words, the Internet was just words then. No wonder some people thought they could subsist on thirty hours of connectivity per month. She reports that it took a month for the fastest-moving electronic bulletin boards to amass four hundred postings; that activity could easily be accomplished in two days now. After all, when this essay was published, Seinfeld was still a prime-time show, and America Online was the “smallest of the major user-friendly commercial services” (meaning that CompuServe and Prodigy outranked AOL; Yahoo and Hotmail hadn’t been started). Therefore, Kadi was appealing to the first wave of Internet explorers when she told them, “You may want to join the on-line revolution.” At that time the Internet was not a household word, and Kadi forgets an important element in her cost equations: many of her readers had yet to invest in an Internet-capable computer with a phone-line modem.
Kadi’s profile for her imaginary Internet subscriber, J. Individual, is curiously revealing. Does she or he represent the audience that Kadi imagines for her text: American, well-to-do, well adjusted, healthy, white, heterosexual, and secure about her or his religious and philosophical convictions? Or is she or he a lampoon of the typical Internet consumer of the time? J. Individual is likely the second of these because when Kadi reveals her own Internet reading preferences, she says she is “not going to waste any of [her time] reading posts by disgruntled Robert-Bly drum-beating men’s-movement boys who think that they should have some say over, for instance, whether or not I choose to carry a child to term. . . .” If Kadi’s hypothesis that people only interact with like-minded individuals on the Internet is true, she and J. Individual are unlikely to meet in cyberspace.
Kadi uses a simple strategy to convince her readers that the Internet isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: she asks her readers to examine realistically how their lives would be affected by the service. Her scenario starts with the command “Take out a piece of paper, pretend you’re writing a check, and print out ‘One hundred and twenty dollars—’”
Once her readers have internalized the cost of Internet connectivity, she tells them what they have purchased: a limited amount of time in information overload. Although the essay’s headnote promises that world peace will come from computer networking, Kadi maintains that most of her readers would not actually choose to meet a diverse community on line, sharing cross-cultural observations and developing life-changing contacts and friendships. In fact, she says that “personally” she doesn’t believe there is a diverse community on line. Sarcastically, she quips, “Oh yeah; I am so connected, so enlightened, so open to the opposing viewpoint.”
This essay begins with a headnote that is so predictable that it is probably not noteworthy to the typical reader. It states that computer networking offers a “basis for world peace” because it “will knit together the peoples of the world,” and it is attributed to Scientific American, June 1994. The blandness of the prediction is shocking, then, when Kadi reveals in her essay’s conclusion that the statement was actually made about television in 1944. The counterfeit quotation reveals a striking truth about civilization: we are always waiting for technology to come along and revolutionize the human race that hasn’t changed that much since Homer sang of it. Even with the vast changes it has undergone since this essay was written, the Internet probably isn’t what the species hopes for, either.
EVAN I. SCHWARTZ “Looking for Community on the Internet”
In a time when many writers portray the Internet as a panacea or a curse, Evan I. Schwartz tries to mediate the differences between “Internet enthusiasts” and readers who know little about cyberspace. In what is essentially a research paper on the topic, Schwartz tries to discover what people gain from Internet communities and whether on-line interactions can replace or reinforce community in “real space and time.” Many writers have debated whether on-line society is a healthy alternative to face-to-face interactions, but Schwartz notes that such cultures must offer something that humans need because users have defined the Internet as a social setting. The government and industry developed the Internet as a medium for efficacy, a place where students and workers could operate “with breakneck efficiency and without leaving their desks.” In reality, the “Information Superhighway” is a winding road dotted with close-knit suburbs. As the Internet has fallen into the hands of ordinary citizens, it has become a place to meet and greet others in virtual communities like Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link (WELL) or Baud Town. The users have redefined the medium.
Schwartz disagrees with critics who say the Internet is a substitute for genuine interaction between people. He describes the Grateful Dead groupies who hold a forum on WELL and “translate their on-line interactions into face-to-face meetings” at “picnics or concerts.” Nonetheless, a great virtue of the Internet is that it is a “social leveler” where people can meet without pretense. Schwartz says that “no one can tell how unattractive you are—looks have never played a smaller role in human affairs than they do on the Internet.” But remote communication is not new—the telephone and television made such activities possible in the early twentieth century. Schwartz theorizes that the allure of the Internet is that it is “a many-to-many communication” medium. Being public, after all, is a key ingredient in real communities.
Schwartz writes for “the numberless millions of actual Internet users” who are caught up in various virtual communities. He quotes Howard Rheingold, who speaks for much of that audience, saying, “What the people really want . . . is a chance to form meaningful relationships with their far-flung neighbors in the global village.” Dale Dougherty agrees, adding, “We want a feeling of connectedness, of having things in common.” Most likely, the audience for this essay does not include the aberrant members of society listed as the “untamed, freewheeling” elements of cyber communities: “skinhead[s], Trekkie[s], religious zealot[s], and Limbaugh-wannabe[s].” Schwartz and his audience are exploring how much unity is possible on line. He asks, but cannot entirely answer, whether “a truly vibrant community [can] exist in cyberspace.” His audience must determine that, in some measure, for themselves.
Schwartz argues that while “Internet enthusiasts sometimes see a virtual community as a panacea for all sorts of social ills,” their view is unrealistic. Real communities aren’t only limited by geography or pretenses; they are also confined by the limits of human understanding. Schwartz says that “even Internet enthusiasts acknowledge that cyberspace may never be a replacement for true communities.” However, in the essay’s conclusion, the author concedes that for many people, the “simulation of community” offered on line is a better alternative than “no community at all.”
Much more than a book review, Schwartz’s essay, nonetheless, is a response to Howard Rheingold’s book The Virtual Community at its core. The author questions the validity of Rheingold’s thesis, examines the virtual community to which Rheingold belongs, quotes Rheingold’s sources about why Internet communities have gained such a strong hold in the United States, and criticizes Rheingold’s overenthusiastic embrace of “virtual communities as a force for good.” This essay can be read as a discussion between Schwartz and Rheingold—a “virtual community” dialogue carried out in print.
Schwartz wonders about the possibilities for communities in cyberspace. He structures his argument as an inquiry, starting with a series of questions in his headnote and introduction and ending with a fairly pedestrian thesis: that cyber communities are a good simulation of real communities and a reasonable substitute for them if they are one’s only alternative. He looks at some user-defined on-line communities and determines that they are parallel with real society: they contain rules, etiquette, and humane values. In Baud town, for instance, “users receive comforting messages from fellow users during difficult times, such as divorce, illness or death in their families.” Some on-line communities even enforce laws, as did Internet Direct in Phoenix, Arizona, which suspended a pair of lawyers’ access after they posted an illegal ad on the server. The final word on Internet communities cannot yet be written. Schwartz notes, “Because it is not centrally controlled, the Internet is a regular proving ground for the First Amendment.” On-line norms and limits are constantly being shaped and tested. The users of the Internet have not finished defining their medium.
WILLIAM GIBSON “Burning Chrome”
Set in an unnamed future time and place, William Gibson’s short story paints a picture of cyberpunk gangsters. Bobby Quine, Automatic Jack, and Rikki Wildside are caught up in a scalene love triangle, with no one’s affections genuinely returned. Bobby is ruthless, choosing women like Tarot cards; Jack is burdened with a conscience; and Rikki just wants to be like Tally Isham, the “simstim” (simulated stimuli) hero with trademark synthetic blue eyes and “a black Fokker ground-effect plane” who “partie[s] with the superrich on private Greek Islands.” Chrome is messed up on synthetic pituitary hormones, but she is the head of an evil empire that makes a fortune on drugs and prostitution. In this technological future, people can look as they choose, making frequent visits to the “surgical boutique.” They have bionic eyes implanted, and the better ones have the capability to record what they see. Nevertheless, none of their medical machinations can make them happy or bring them true love.
Although the world is much different in Gibson’s imagination, Russia and America still spar with one another; Zurich, Switzerland, is still the place to harbor a secret bank account; New York and Hong Kong offer fenced goods and money laundering; and Hollywood is still the place to go to get famous, but Chiba City, Japan, is better. Cancer remains a fearful threat, but in this version of the future, evil gangsters like Chrome can “cook [their] own cancers for people who cross [them], rococo custom variations that [take] years to kill.” Prosthetics have evolved considerably; Jack’s arm, burned away by a laser over Kiev in a war, has been replaced by a carbon-fibre laminate appendage with a “black anodized elbow joint,” electronic feedback pads, and “perforated Duralumin” digits. He can interchange his prosthesis with a “waldo,” a record player-like device that cracks code and reads a variety of electronic storage media. Japan is still the manufacturer of cheap goods: Bobby’s computer is just an Ono-Sendai VII by all appearances, and Rikki’s friend Tiger gets an elective eye replacement, but the Sendais he can afford have a bad reputation for “depth perception defects and warranty hassles.” The better eyes seem to be Swiss or German: “Zeiss Ikons.”
This story comes out of the cyberpunk role-playing game world that appeals to adolescents. Although it is set in the future, several staples of present-day adolescent culture remain: Rikki wears “faded camouflage fatigues” that are kept in “nylon bags” with her “make-up [and] a bright red pair of cowboy boots”; and, despite the popularity of electronic eyeballs, the story’s characters still hide behind sunglasses. The mugged Russian carried “a Porsche, [a] nice watch. ” The Gentleman Loser bar emanates ambiance of “neon, . . . perfume and fast food,” and Rikki and Tiger hang out in a coffeehouse where they eat croissants. Rikki’s daytime world smacks of adolescent North American adventures with “the miles of malls and plazas to prowl, all the shops and clubs, . . . all the players and their names and their games.” Although electronic communication has become so sophisticated that “black ice” firewalls can kill intruders, and a good hacking team like Bobby and Jack can steal a fortune by redistributing it among on-line bank accounts, they still rely on the telephone for conducting top-secret business. And, in a jab at the baby-boomer parents of this generation, Jack uses Vasopressin inhalers (an actual natural hormone) that Gibson says was originally marketed “to counter senile amnesia.”
An interesting element of this story is the vaguely established notion that Chiba City, Japan, is the new Hollywood. It is the home of simstim stardom, a natural outgrowth, perhaps, of Anime cartoons such as Sailor Moon, SpeedRacer, Pokemon, Robotech, and Dragon Ball Z. Apparently, simstim decks have replaced Walkman radios and CD players in the hands and heads of adolescents, and simstim vicarious adventures have replaced the movies. Simstim stars have eyeball implants which record their adventures, and their fans can follow along “jacked into . . . units . . . [with] contact band[s] across [their] forehead[s].” It takes virtual reality gaming another, but more passive, step into the future.
Amusingly, this ultramodern tale of the future is modeled on a genre that was popular in the 1940s: detective fiction. Gibson’s prose mimics that of Mickey Spillane, author of the Mike Hammer novels and Mike Danger cartoons. Tough guys, hard-boiled observations, and euphemistic references to violence and sex characterize the genre. For example, Chrome is introduced with a description of “her pretty childface smooth as steel, with eyes that would have been at home on the bottom of some deep Atlantic trench. . . .” The story’s narrator sums Chrome up, saying, “They said a lot of things about Chrome, none of them at all reassuring.” The image of the Finn’s place, home of the fence in New York, is space-age Spillane: “a defective hologram in the window; METRO HOLOGRAFIX, over a display of dead flies wearing fur coats of grey dust.” Rikki appears as the classic gangster moll: “Tall, nineteen or maybe twenty, and she definitely had the goods.” When Jack consummates his infatuation with Rikki, he says simply, “It rained all afternoon, raindrops drumming on the steel and soot-stained glass above Bobby’s bed.”
Gibson tells his story in a complex series of flashbacks, cutting in cinematic fashion between the love story involving Bobby, Jack, and Rikki and the cyber invasion of Chrome’s empire. Gibson employs foreshadowing as well. Jack was thrown out of the House of Blue Lights for making “some crack to the barman about closet necrophiliacs.” True to the form, Rikki is a prostitute, and Miles the streetfighter, acting in the genre’s prescribed role as private eye, follows her to the “Employees only” door of the House of Blue Lights, where, zoned out on date-rape drugs, she worked three-hour shifts. The Robin Hood gangsters, who give “the bulk of Chrome’s Zurich account to a dozen world charities,” are left adrift following their success. Bobby heads down to the Gentleman Loser to find his luck again, and Jack is heartbroken after upgrading Rikki’s flight to Hollywood to one bound for Japan. He thinks in the syntax of Japanese translated into English: “So long, Rikki. Maybe now I see you never.”
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