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The Dark Side of the Net

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Reports from the Electronic Frontier: The Dark Side of the Net

Tom Maddox

In a number of columns written over a period of more than a year, I have celebrated, both implicitly and explicitly, the technology of the information age. And though I've done so with a certain amount of irony, I've nonetheless endorsed intimate involvement with this technology.

I thought I could do so without consequences until just the other evening, when I found my dark alter ego, or shadow self, took over my keyboard and proceeded to deliver an anti-technology screed. After reading it through, I've decided to send it in as this month's column, if only as a curiosity or testimony to the sorts of mental aberrations that can occur if one stays up too late working at a computer. So here it is, in the form of a series of assertions, a cynical rebuttal delivered to myself by myself--

Information technology encourages a fixation on virtual rather than real experience, on technologically mediated perception, not direct experience:

Marvin Minsky, the dark knight of the information age, said in a speech I heard a few years ago that he preferred virtual sunsets to real ones, because the virtual sunset could be constructed so as to be perfectly enjoyable. What lunacy, I thought at the time, not realizing how many people agree with him. The virtual replaces the real in many people's minds because the virtual offers the promise of being completely shaped to our wishes.

However, what Minsky and other enthusiasts of virtual experience overlook is that the universe constantly instructs us. Our simulations of the world or any part of it simply do not have the complexity that the world itself has, and thus the simulations will ultimately be revealed as superficial and misleading by comparison to the real thing.

To take a recent example, astronauts circling our planet have spent thousands of hours at a simple, seemingly even simple-minded, task: staring out the often small and inconveniently-located viewports of their capsules, ships, or stations at the Earth below. As their eyes and brains integrate the view beneath, events and things that were literally invisible emerge for instance, waves can be seen spreading across the ocean and their presence verified by Earthbound observers. A simulated view of Earth could never reveal itself in this way. It does not have the depth of the real. If we come to believe that our simulations have the same ontological status as the phenomena they simulate, we will have impoverished ourselves both our understanding and experience of the world.

It is a waste of time. All the technology demands enormous investments of time in order to perform the simplest functions.

For many, this above all characterizes our involvement with information technology. Computers themselves, their software, peripherals such as modems and printers, and of course the networks and online services--all demand that the user spend extraordinary amounts of time simply trying to understand it all and make it work.

The word processor won't format a document the way you want it, so you work your way through its help features, documentation, phone support; you call friends and reputed gurus or post pleas for information to the net. Perhaps you are successful, perhaps not: either way, you have spent extraordinary amounts of time trying to accomplish what seems a straightforward task.

And of course there are the amounts of time consumed by breakdowns: the printer emitting smoke to signal chaos; the modem flashing its lights witlessly; the hard-drive screeching in terror; the computer itself sounding the gongs of doom when you turn it on.

Then there is the net, a time-sink, an addiction, a lure for the unwary. It promises a world of information; it delivers more noise than you knew existed. From all over the globe at any hour, you can read (perhaps even listen to) misinformation, gibberish, pointless argument, demented screed. With great difficulty you can view or download pictures or animations of poor quality that will most likely sit gathering virtual dust as they use up huge chunks of your hard drive. When you do run across real information, accurate and pertinent to your needs, it will be covered in muck, like a diamond in a cesspool, and so you probably won't recognize it as what you need and will simply overlook its importance. And of course there is the Internet Relay Channel to be explored, also MUDs and MOOs and other games, and the wonders of WAIS and Gopher and Mosaic, and well, one damned thing after another, so face it, you can't keep up with what's currently offered, never mind what's on the way.

Time spent on the net could and often should be spent experiencing the real, which includes interacting with family, friends, the real world. Netheads talk of virtual communities and the friendships gained online. Like Minsky with his virtual sunsets, they overlook the real nature of community, which is to be bound by the material world. In that world we touch and kiss, share food, care for children, feed pets; in that world we grow, age, and die. In that world our fate is manifest in all its comic and tragic dimensions. Our loves and hates have consequences; our physical being shapes us--physiology is destiny, to paraphrase a well-known shrink.

The almost infinitely malleable virtual worlds bend to our wishes, also to our delusions, or, more generally, to our psychopathologies. Ultimately, though, they fail us in the most profound ways: if we cannot live in the material world and our material selves, no virtual world can save us.

It is self-referential and thus largely useless with regard to things outside itself, which includes most of human life.

One soon discovers that information technology is most effective, even most interesting, when acting on itself. On the net, one can find out more about computers and network technology than about anything else. Operating systems, hardware, software, networking technologies--you can find them discussed in extraordinary depth on the net, often by people who have expert and intimate knowledge. To put it another way, the net is one of the ways computers make us learn how to care for them.

But if we wish to find out about the history of Persian art, or social conditions in Los Angeles, we suddenly find ourselves in barren ground. The net may or may not have information about these things, and it may or may not be findable or reliable (as I've noted above); whatever the case, we will recognize quickly that we have ventured beyond the proper domain of the net, which is the net itself and its constituent parts.

Yet we persist in believing that the net, indeed all this technology, serves us; that all of it is tools for our use. However--

It is a classic instance of means become end, of tools becoming the job.

Hans Vaihinger, a German philosopher (1852-1933) concerned with theories of knowledge, had a notion he called (with typical academic and Germanic light- footedness) "The Law of the Preponderance of the Means over the End," which can be loosely translated as "the tools become the job." And while he didn't know about information technology, I doubt that he'd have been surprised by this manifestation of it.

We wish to write more quickly and efficiently, so we set out to acquire a word processor, but in order to do that, we have to make a decision about not only what kind of word processor but also what kind of computer (or computer-like typewriter, etcetera) we want to use; and so we are propelled into a world of competing operating systems, hardware, software, and so forth--a world of DOS and System 7 and Windows and 486s and 68040s and Super VGA and Word and Word Perfect and and . . . well, eek.

Some of us more-or-less close our eyes and stab at the target or even say the hell with it (though for the would-be upwardly mobile, this is less and less a reasonable choice), but many of us become intimately involved with it all, dedicated users. ("User," a favored term in the computer industry for those who buy the hardware and software, also refers in the real world to those dependent on substances such as nicotine, alcohol, heroin, and cocaine, an irony that industry flacks seem unaware of.)

In short, we focus on the tool, not the task, and often have difficulty working our way back to the task itself.

It is dominated by adolescents, goofballs, obsessives, and ill-tempered wackos of every description.

Bill Gates was married recently. He annexed one of the lesser Hawaiian islands for the occasion. Willie Nelson and Alice Cooper (an odd couple indeed, I should note in passing) played music for his guests, who according to reports were protected from inquisitive journalists by a variety of tactics, apparently including renting all helicopters available on the island to prevent low-flying photographic intrusions. This was a nerdian Hochzeit or geek apotheosis, proof that even if a techno-billionaire can't find a good haircut or glasses, he can find a mate.

The point being that this needs proof. To belabor the point would be unkind; however, I'll remark that many of the inventors, developers, and most dedicated users of this technology are socially undeveloped, to say the least. When they are actual adolescents, this fact occasions no particular stigma, but as they advance in age and supposed maturity, it does--one expects more from people bad puns and a fascination with technical minutiae.

It is the apotheosis of the World Capitalist New Order, of what marxist analysts call Rpost- FordianS culture.

I am talking about the culture of the Big Suits: the world of venture capitalists, CEOs, board members, vice-presidents in charge of this, that, and the other; of the people in charge of the real secrets, the genuine obscenities, as Thomas Pynchon has noted. People who worry about market share and recapitalization, people whose continued prosperity is dependent on our willingness to retool perpetually, to buy and buy and buy until the grave swallows us and we find technological peace.

The Big Suits love information technology because it promises to sustain the most inexhaustible market, one that does not depend upon scarce natural resources, one in which genuine obsolescence is the norm, not the silly fiction of planned obsolescence that auto manufacturers had to dream up to keep us buying. We consume in a constant positive feedback loop where hardware and software chase each other around in a cycle of endless need, and we hurry along like the White Rabbit, always late for that very important date with the faster modem, the bigger hard drive, the new, more powerful machine.

And even when I love the toys, I hate feeding them.

It always promises fulfillment tomorrow.

The next generation of hardware, software, network technology will fill our needs, and this is perpetually so. The fulfillment of our real needs by information technology lies in a future filled with golden mist, a Gernsbach Continuum where happy consumers live in harmony with machines that have effectively disappeared--into their bodies, clothes, furnishings--machines that don't have to be told or asked much of anything because they anticipate our needs to cleverly. Presumably they will update themselves, arrange for their own repair or replacement, even arrange our finances so that we will always be able to afford them if we can afford anything at all. And presumably the Big Suits will continue to feed on us, maybe even feed more deeply, because the ecstatic symbiosis of us and our machines will have occurred on Their terms and to Their benefit.

It causes delusions of peace & plenty in a world of misery & despair.

Here we have the virtual/real confusion again. What EFF calls the "Jeffersonian dream" of the "Open Highway" seems to offer power to the powerless, freedom of thought and expression to the individual, all of it cheap and readily available. Maybe it does (though Lewis Lapham, for one, argues otherwise in the January, 1994 Harper's), but even granting this, we have not touched on the roots of our despair as a culture or a nation.

Let me recite for a moment a litany of the obvious. Children die or grow malformed through lack of medical attention, food, proper parental care. Able men and women sleep on the streets. Whole sections of our cities produce violence and generalized amorality as naturally as a plant makes flowers. Abroad, totalitarianism remains endemic around the world, as does sectarian and religious strife. And so it goes, remarks Kurt Vonnegut.

Through the media, we master the ugliness, at least in terms of our own happiness. The Holocaust becomes a museum and a Spielberg movie, a spectacle as the Situationists say, and we watch and weep and are strangely exultant at the end of it all, as why shouldn't we be, for we are alive and have our technology to instruct and amuse us?

We have not only the movies and museums but also the Internet and America Online and Compuserve and so forth, and we are promised virtual reality with huge fucking ding-dong bells on it so that we can transform the worlds of our perceptions and minds in order to live in the world we want to live in, not the ugly one that is real, that is our fate.