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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
emergeQfor 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.

E-mail address:  [email protected]

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