The supercomputer is as big as a room, eats punch cards, spits out tickertape and is bent on world domination. It knows all there is to know. Thankfully, paradox makes it explode. Ka-blooey.
Or this: The astronaut’s broken body, stitched with circuitry, patched with polymer and steel. Man-machine. Better. Stronger. Faster. And when his fiancee’s parachute fails to open? No problem. Her too. We have the technology. The downside? Keeps crushing glasses of oj. The upside? Power hearing. (To go with his telescopic eye. Cool!)
Suddenly: Oscar Goldman replaced by fembots! His face falls away to reveal a pornography of wires and flashing lights. Sunday night, eight o’clock, 1977, my young mind races headlong off this cliffhanger of gender and identity. Flesh gives way to dream.
When I grew up we dreamed in 12 channels. Telephones rang and rang and rang. And prank callers pranked with impunity. Friends moved away and perhaps a letter or two was exchanged and maybe a visit the following summer, then they were gone forever. I helped my grandmother turn the crank on the Gastetner machine at church and watched the purple ink spin out copy after copy. Information lived in libraries and you found the book you were looking for by consulting the card catalogue in the long wooden drawers that looked like those drawers in the basement where nails and screws and fishing tackle and shoe polish and chalk was stored but instead of things, cards lived there and kept all the books in order. In the library at school, nobody used the catalogue because it was just one room and everything was right there, easily found. But the library downtown had different books, ones not offered by Scholastic, and it had twists and turns and corners and levels and stairs, and you could easily get lost if your mother turned her back for a moment. In the stacks, the first aisle of books was a miracle, the second set a pattern and third looked like infinity. If a book was put back in the wrong place it would be lost forever.
I remember: The stacks are perfect for running and sliding. Perfect for hiding too. But if I’m not found in time, I’m found in tears. It’s lonesome there.
And the library at the university is larger still, has an elevator and hardly any picture books at all. Adults buzz around the bank of card catalogues, queuing for the desired letter, bodies awkwardly accommodating themselves to the shape of open drawers, people kneeling under one another, connected in space but somewhere else in their heads, only the sound of dozens of pairs of fingers thwick-thwick-thwicking through file cards.
First visit, standing there, I feel a vertigo of words, and can’t help staring over the edge. Dreaming on this catalogue, nearly larger than my school’s whole library, I see an ascending series of ever-larger libraries, where the largest library I can imagine is the size of just the catalogue required to index the books of the next….
I think, It could go on forever. I think, Information escaping the box.
On the corner of my desk is a small silver box, with an antenna. Its green pinpoint lights flash, stochastic, day and night. Or, at least, if they do flash to a pattern, it’s a pattern I can’t read, except that it’s a faster pattern they flash to when I’m connected to the world.
It’s a D-Link AirPlus G (802.11g/2.4GHz) wireless router, model DI-524. Its antenna broadcasts its signal on low frequency radio waves, 30 metres in every direction, give or take, supporting high-speed connectivity to the internet.
Here in my apartment, in downtown Halifax, those low frequency radio waves can get a little crowded some nights. There are at least half a dozen other networks that the AirPort card in my iBook picks up when I’m in my study or the livingroom. If I roam down the hall several of these drop out, and one new network appears, with another cropping up in the bathroom. And four more in my bedroom.
During the boom years for internet stocks, back at the turn of the century—when it seemed that every dot-com launched its share of under-30 millionaires—the buzz word was “convergence.” One day soon, it was said, people would surf the web on their television sets (Very George Jetson!). But, of course, tomorrow always outpaces our fantasies. Now, “connectivity” is what it’s all about.
Connectivity trumps physical space. Like that ultra-loud, ultra-personal cell phone call overheard on the bus. Our private lives are a bubble we carry with us wherever we go. If you’re connected there’s no such thing as being in transit, you’re always there. If you’re not connected, you are, by definition, out of touch.
Connectivity is a concept without a ceiling. If you ask how connected is connected enough, you realize there’s no such thing. Sure, I can send email, listen to music, take photos, watch video, work on my novel, check my appointments for next week and instant message from my cell phone, but there’s always more memory, more functions, more speed. Hologram videophone? Credit card functionality? Subdermal implants? We have the technology.
Slow down. This is all happening a little fast for me.
Technology was smooth, you have to admit. Somewhere in all the sweet talk it got to second base and we were so charmed (“It’s so worldly, so mysterious!”) we never saw it coming. Besides, all those cautionary tales we were fed growing up didn’t prepare us for how this would really feel. We were on the lookout for sentient space stations that refused to open the podbay doors and (bidi bidi bidi) wisecracking robot valets. And it’s not like that at all.
We’ve fast-tracked those cyborg fantasies of adolesence and skipped past the bionic limbs (way over-rated; the skin you roll up the arm to remove the plastic bicep chip always grows brittle and breaks) to make ourselves a mind we carry outside ourselves. The distance between thinking and browsing, between remembering and Googling is narrowing every day.
If this is a love affair we’re having with technology, the internet is where things stopped being casual. Is it just me, or is this really real? Sometimes you don’t know how deep you’re in until you spend some time apart.
Over the past 10 years, I doubt that more than 48 hours has ever gone by without me being online. (And those rare occasions of nearly-two-days-at-a-stretch are excused by illness, transatlantic flights and holidays in the country.)
I decided to go offline for a month.
In the past 10 years, the internet has become the truth about computers.
A brief history of the computer:
The summer I turn 12 is spent indoors, playing Polaris and Dungeons of Daggorath on the Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80, my first computer (which, secretly, I worry is not as cool as the Commodore 64). The games come on cartridges, and boast real arcade-style graphics. Other games come on cassette tape, but these have no graphics and seem daunting, complex, though all problems are addressed by OPEN DOOR or GET BOOK or HIT.
Grade 9, computer science class with Mr Waldman, learning BASIC.
10 PRINT “In the future we will all have to know computer languages.”
20 GOTO 10
Learning little bits of code to make a cursor move around the screen. The smartest kids, having mastered BASIC, race ahead to learn FORTRAN.
First year university, I get an IBM to type essays, retire the manual typewriter. It has two floppy disc drives and no hard drive. Strike any key when ready… It is my second computer.
Eight years later, 1996, next computer, the undistinguished gray box of an Apple laptop. Black and white screen. Also takes floppy disks. Still primarily a typewriter. However, with that percolator squawk of a dialup connection, the laptop takes me online, to the Information Superhighway. I turn off graphics when I surf.
1999: iMac (lime green), OS 8.6. Goodbye floppy discs.
2001: iBook G3 (clamshell, graphite blue), OS 9.2. Goodbye dialup connection.
2004: iBook G4 (square, white), OS 10.3.9. Goodbye T1 Cable. Hello AirPort.
The internet has become the truth about computers. All previous reasons for the computer’s existence—games, typing, to make us all into programmers—are now umbrellaed by the net.
I don’t IM or blog. I’ve never bought anything on eBay. I’ve never gambled online or done the internet dating scene.
Even so, some days (though not every day) my browser window never closes, constantly consulted as I work. Some nights (not every night) I find myself online, meaning to go to sleep, but not ready to go to sleep, aimlessly surfing, site to site, winding myself down, looking for the ending to the day. Sometimes I feel unable to log off, that same sort of trapped I get in bookstores when I’ve browsed too long forgetting that I’m hungry and my blood sugar crashes, leaving me at the mercy of too many possibilities, and yes, the same as those childhood tantrums in the stacks. I ask questions like, Is this healthy? And: When was the last time I talked to a person face-to-face? Am I addicted? I sometimes wonder. And if I was, how would I know?
And this is what the internet, its own leading authority, has to offer on the subject. Helpfully, the warning signs for web addiction are a five-point acronym:
More than intended time spent online.
Other responsibilities neglected.
Unsuccessful attempts to cut down.
Significant relationship discord.Excessive thoughts and/or anxiety when not online.
///8.Day One Offline//////
The quitting defines the addict’s habit; the breakup is sometimes the nearest we come to measuring the depth of love. How you’re constantly reminded, by the shape of the emptiness left behind, just what it was that the love or drug used to fill.
So I stay busy. I fill my days with appointments. Eat my favourite foods. Drink coffee, though I’ve quit drinking coffee. Return the phone calls I’ve been meaning to return, tackle that to-do list, crossing off those least-desired, most- procrastinated tasks, and where is all this extra time coming from? I stay busy enough to never have to think about what it is that I’m not doing. And at the end of the day, Day One, I sit down at my desk and open my computer to launch iTunes and—still not thinking about what it is I’m not doing—I am midway through entering my Yahoo! password to check mail before I realize what I’m doing. That I’m doing what I’m not doing. Quit.
That sequence of small hand movements, of keys, is as automatic as my name. In a very real way it is my name. (Open laptop, turn AirPort on, select network, launch browser, type username, tab, type password, enter.) Like answering the telephone when it rings.
Kicking heroin, the story goes, is like the worst three-day flu you never want to have, but junkies relapse, acquire a new habit, long after the drug has cleared their system precisely because it is habit. And habit has deeper teeth than any drug you want to name.
That night, I dream: The same thing happens again. At my computer, I hit enter and find myself in my email account. And at the moment when I see the number of new messages flash up on the screen I remember, I’m not supposed to be here.
And the next day, awake again, without thinking, the same thing. The habit is hardwired into my fingers. Screw habit. I disable the AirPort card, then trash the Safari icon from my toolbar. Ka-blooey.
The last hundred years have been a heyday for addiction. Before then it didn’t exist.
Habitual drunkenness was seen as a vice, a moral failing. The opium fiend was a man possessed. For thousands of years we modelled an overabundant appetite for intoxication as a spiritual problem, a lack of self control or a sign of madness.
Since the twentieth century invented the addict, as a person suffering from a disease, this diagnosis has become a touchstone of our culture. We’ve distinguished ourselves by the dizzying range of things we addict to. The pharmacological ingenuity of the nineteenth century—which gave us morphine, cocaine, barbiturates, heroin—has only accelerated, spinning out new chemical cocktails to tempt us, enslave us. Then there are the socially sanctioned scourges of alcohol and cigarettes. And there is gambling, overeating, pornography, shopping, television, exercise, work. There are the drugs our culture needs to get through the day: oil and electricity, sugar and caffeine and red meat. And if Doctor Phil tells me I’m addicted to loving dumb, who I am to say no?
The power of the idea of addiction exceeds its medical truth. The line between clinical diagnosis (hooked on crack) and metaphor (hooked on Deadwood) has blurred. In Nova Scotia, the bulk of addiction treatment resources are dedicated to the big three: alcohol, drugs and gambling. Beyond that, there’s a lot of gray area.
And then there’s the internet.
The term internet addiction disorder was coined by a New York psychologist, Ivan Goldberg, in 1995. For Goldberg, however, the whole thing was a hoax. The so-called disorder was intended as a satire of the overwrought diagnostic criteria of the American Psychiatric Association’s manual for mental disorders. But Goldberg’s joke bulletin board posting unleashed a flood of serious responses from his colleagues.
Browse the shelf of self-help books and you’ll see that IAD has found its place in the lexicon of our over-diagnosed, over-prescribed culture. Works like Virtual Addiction by David Greenfield and Kimberly Young’s Caught In The Net are prominent contributions to the growing literature of internet dependency, which offers online-aholics guidance in curbing their obsessive behaviour and recovering from their addiction to cybersex or online gambling or online gaming. Whether psychologists like Greenfield and Young are pioneers in a new frontier of abuse or disciples to a fad illness is a question best left to posterity.
To be honest, I’m not sure that I believe it. But say it is an addiction, say it can be, the internet. Even so, I don’t believe I have it. We try to find a language we can assent to. Something that’s close enough. Try this language on, test it against my experience, see if it fits. But the value of language isn’t limited by true or false. We hear a story, see ourselves in it and the story isn’t true for us, but it shows us a new way of thinking about our lives. “Addiction.” It’s a model for understanding something which could only be understood poorly, or not at all, without it. Say it is an addiction. I’m not sure if I believe it. But say it is, I’ll say it, I’ll come out: I’m an addict. I’m addicted.
///12.Why the Internet? (part 1)
At some point, information got out of hand.
Of course, culture is a primal urge. We can’t help ourselves, we get carried away, in everything we say and do we’re making culture. So long as natural selection was at work, there wasn’t a problem. Clay tablets shattered, the Library at Alexandria burned, Constantinople fell, newspapers yellowed and nitrate decayed, leaving film canisters filled with reels of nothing.
Then we found a way to cheat death: Even as biodegradable and built-in obsolescence became the paradigms for how we make the world of things, the world of ideas went digital. Now, the air around us is saturated with signal, more and more each day. To keep us connected. To entertain us. And if we had our way we’d save it all. You never know what you might need later on.
We needed a place to put everything, when our attics and basements were full, when all our old filing systems broke down. The largest library which could be imagined was always larger than could be built with bricks and mortar.
When you’re fasting, the whole world is made of food. It’s always been that way, you see, but the clockwork of hunger and eating has dulled you to it over time. Fasting, you get to visit your own world as a foreigner and see how strange and arbitrary its customs are. You see the store signs, the advertising, all the behaviour surrounding food as symptomatic of the culture as a whole. Stepping outside of the drama of eating, you see what’s hidden there in plain sight.
Being offline, enticements to the internet are everywhere. Standing at a magazine rack, my eyes have trouble focusing on the articles and photographs and advertising on the pages in front of me, which bleed into one another, indistinct, perfunctory as garnish, practical as scaffolding on which to hang the profusion of URLs. Our world is a succession of broken hyperlinks.
Watching television, listening to the radio, every news story or call-in show question or sitcom gag that references the web is pitched differently to my ears, seems profound and profoundly poignant. It’s becoming invisible—as the most successful technologies are—hiding in plain sight, how our world and cyberspace are more closely laced together every day.
I no longer know the weather, or phone numbers, or movie times, or whether I have enough money in the bank for a cheque to clear. I don’t know the postal code for this letter I want to mail, or exactly where I’m going when I’m going just a few blocks away. I don’t know what DVDs and comic books are coming out a few months from now. And when I hear someone say a certain song or band I’ve never heard is really great, I don’t know for myself how it sounds later the same day. I feel the panic of losing touch.
Over a billion people use the internet, a sixth of the world’s population, and in the western world it’s clear that those who are offline are the minority. This minority may include (but not be limited to) subsets of the following social groups: the homeless, the very poor, angry loners, the geographically remote, religious extremists and cultists, technophobes, illiterates, the terminally ill, the very old, the very young. Visiting my friends’ house on their daughter’s second birthday, her dad tries over and over to coax her away from the iBook where she’s playing peek-a-boo with sesamestreetworkshop.org. Here I am! Boing!
The most successful technology makes itself indispensable by rewiring the way people behave till we forget how we ever lived without it. Till the whole culture is addicted. Boing! It’s me, Zoe! On a downtown sidewalk, a dozen bright pink placards emblazoned with www.bcsc.ca swim towards me, surround me, then pass. Boing! Our world is just a teaser for the more complete experience which is available online. Prepare for download.
///14.Why the Internet? (part 2)
For instance, language. It rewired us, became invisible. And after all this time, it remains our most successful technology. We think of it as simply part of being human—as perhaps the hallmark of our humanness—but, in fact, like all technologies, it had to be invented. Prevailing wisdom sets the event at 35,000 years ago.
One day there were only cries and yelps and howls, the next day there was language.
Open up the watchface of the technology and you see the mechanics at work: Abstraction is the spring that makes the gears of our words and grammar turn, and make a pattern that we recognize as meaning. This was powerful magic.
The innovation, that a sound could stand for something, always the same sound standing for the same thing, set information free from the body. Things that used to dwell in an individual memory now could travel, mind to mind. Before language there was no history, and there was no future. Language brought symbols and stories and ideas; subsequent refinements of the clockwork gave us every shade of information: myths, ideals, poetry, morality, religion, politics, science.
It took thousands and thousands of years to even begin to chart the possibilities of what we could do with speaking. Near as we could tell, language had no limits. We had fallen in love with the sound of our own voice.
Then: Just 6,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia, so the story goes, someone (perhaps, linguists say, an ingenious bureaucrat) discovered that what was true of abstract sounds was also true for abstract symbols (ideal tools for the tax collector), et voila, cuneiform was born. And writing—whether by pictogram, the alphabet, kanji or any of the scripts that followed—emancipated information from the wetware of human memory. It was a coding breakthrough: Data could be stored and retrieved, copied or transported without the loss of fidelity inevitable in an oral culture. Flesh gave way to dream.
Today, we live in a world colonized by symbol. Our environment is conditioned just as much by the landscape of our beliefs as it is by geography, nature, weather. Connectivity trumps physical space. Our lives are overrun with ideas, ideologies. Invisible to those who believe, impenetrable to those who don’t. Language, the operating system that runs our reality.
The real truth is that it’s not the internet we’re in love with, or addicted to, same difference, the internet is just the shiny new suit that information is wearing. This is why we built a mind outside ourselves: so we’d always have someone to talk to.
This is all happening a little fast for me.
Every generation must feel that they live on the ragged edge of tomorrow, but sometimes I wonder, Is it true, how it feels, that life is getting faster all the time? More connected, more information, more change. I wonder: Where is this leading? And: Is anyone else alarmed? Or: Can we keep going faster and faster, forever? And: What is the shape of progress?
Because I’d read theonion it was Wednesday. Friday was asofterworld and slowwave. Weekdays were different than weekends because of the volume of new content. Sites like mcsweeneys or pitchforkmedia or nerve or barbelith or americanelf I might visit every day. These rhythms were part of how I knew that time was happening. After two weeks offline, time feels very slow.
In 1965, Gordon Moore saw the future. A little-known chemist and physicist writing for an obscure IT industry journal, Moore drew the map of the shape of progress, the 40 years from there to here. He spoke in terms of unit cost and storage capacity, but in imagining the future what Moore was really talking about was the past.
In 1956, brushcut Eisenhower era, Moore, fresh from his double PhD at Caltech, went to work for a new company called Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in a little two-business industrial park in the Santa Clara Valley, at the southern extent of the San Francisco Bay Area. The company’s CEO William Shockley was a genius, widely acknowledged—recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, as co-inventor of the transistor at Bell Laboratories back in ’47 (the transistor which boosted signals, shrunk radios to perfect beach-party size, midwifed the American teenager!)—and Shockley attracted all the best young minds in the industry. And once he’d attracted them, he drove them away. Like some wise fireside father on ’50s television succumbing to dementia and hurling his pipe and slippers at his children, Shockley was sinking under the weight of his own eccentricities and paranoia. One day, when Shockley’s secretary got a papercut, the boss’s reprisals for this possible assassination attempt prompted a mass defection. Gordon Moore was among the so-called Traitorous Eight who jumped ship to found Fairchild Semiconductor. Fairchild immediately went to work designing a new model of transistor made of silicon; two years later, it premiered the integrated chip, grandfather to the microchip. Others driven away by Shockley’s manias would found other companies, and the little industrial park on land leased from Stanford University to finance their postwar expansion would double and redouble in size, would sprawl and become known as the world capitol of technological innovation, Silicon Valley.
When Moore looked back, from the vantage point of 1965, what he saw was a curve. Crystals to vacuum tubes to transistors, each time it seemed that we had come up against the limitations of technology, those limitations were leapfrogged with smaller, more powerful conductors. He saw the signal keep getting stronger. His groundbreaking article was called “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits,” and his modest proposition was that the circuit density of semiconductors would double each year.
Today we call it Moore’s Law, and possibly you’ve heard of it, without knowing where it came from. Our retrofitted, jargon-free version of Moore’s Law asserts that the processing speed of computers doubles every 18 months.
And not content to simply report the news, Gordon Moore went on to found Intel, which has been a leading player in making his predictions come true (while making Moore a fortune in the bargain). In ’71, the company debuted the microprocessor, with the four-bit Intel 4004, which boasted 2,300 transistors on a single chip. Doubling every 18 months, smaller, cheaper, more powerful: on paper it’s an exponential curve; in four dimensions it connects the dots between those banks of NASA reel-to-reel supercomputers used to take chimpanzees to the stars in 1959 and today’s more powerful BlackBerry.
Zoom in and see: A smaller cross-section of the curve charts the distance between my TRS-80 and my iBook G4. Up, up, up! Still rising.
It’s a blueprint for the machine’s plan for world domination. And this time, it will not be tricked into self-destructing.
When I got home and before I left the house, every morning when I woke up and at night before bed I’d check my email. While meals were cooking and if I was waiting for a phone call and every time I’d sit down at my desk I’d check my email. If I was bored or had nothing to do or had a million things to do and wished I didn’t I would check my email.
I count all these triggers of habit as habit starts to loosen its grip on me. A day goes by, the first one, without once thinking of being online. All the worry of what if someone is trying to reach me? and all the curiosity of how many emails are waiting for me now? set aside, fully surrendering to autoreply. Suppressing the reflex becomes its own reflex.
And I think, That was nothing. This is easy.
I think, If I wanted to, which I don’t, I could just go back online now, since I’ve broken the habit. I think, As a reward, I could do it just once.
And then I’ll stop again. Just once.
After all, who would know?
You find yourself standing in a dark room, a closet, pressed in a crush of coats, with the sound around you of breathing…
It’s the virtual reality which predates computers and the internet. Stories do not require deep sea diving masks or kinky motion capture gloves to operate. Words, read or spoken, conjure a whole world.
You find yourself standing in a dark room, a closet…
This particular story is called LambdaMOO, and the story is read/write enabled. Founded in 1990, LambdaMOO is the oldest and largest of the online communities known as MUDs (multi-user dungeons), which are equal parts chat room and role-playing game. Log on to LambdaMOO via Telnet and you arrive in the coat closet of a rambling house, perhaps in the guise of an ornery pirate, or a dead movie star, or a unicorn, or a smurf, or any other avatar you can dream of. And as you leave the closet for the living room, you begin to act yourself out with everyone you encounter, authoring your self through social interaction with other characters played by other users, collaborating in making reality. Like the TRS-80 text adventures I played when I was 12, you do it all with words.
Of course, anyone who has ever started a second email account understands the partitioning of the self that cyberspace allows. And if, as the story goes, the second person who ever spoke used language to lie, then how long was it before dirty old men everywhere cottoned on to the potential to become totally hot, buxom, 18-year-old lesbians online? Want 2 cyber?
It’s not about predators, perverts, liars, it’s about the imagination having the opportunity to shed the body. The immersive virtual realities of MUDs and MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role-playing games) are a primer for what happens when we give the slip to those inescapable physical facts of the flesh that we mistake, day to day, for who we are.
Anonymous, bodiless, age and sex fall away. And the notion that we each have some essential self—wherein the sort of things that we would do or say and those that we would not are inalterably written—begins to seem, at best, a little shaky.
Like MUDs, MMORPGs are a cross-pollination of Dungeons and Dragons-style role-play with the internet, and these real-time, 3D-graphic fantasy worlds have eclipsed the popularity of their text-based cousins. EverQuest, a sword-and-sorcery epic, was the game that brought the phenomenon to the public eye back in 1999; at its height, EverQuest boasted millions of subscribers (the business model is proprietary software plus monthly subscription), with upwards of 100,000 people sometimes playing simultaneously.
The allure is not simply the dragon slaying. Players skip meals and go without sleep to stay in the game because the VR (virtual reality) offers an experience of identity far beyond the bandwidth of RL (real life).
In RL, there is a gravity that draws us to behave the way we have always behaved, to act like ourselves. Our appetites and passions and beliefs and words and deeds are all meant to be in harmony, and consistent day-to-day, if we are to have integrity (which is considered a good thing). But our relationship with the machine is expanding our horizons. And now it seems, perhaps, this way of thinking about the self is just a way of thinking about the self, is not the limit case for our humanity. Perhaps these adjectives we call our personality are just pieces of language we tried on for size, then forgot to take off. Perhaps our wardrobe is very deep, and filled with other clothes that would fit us just as well, or better.
Sherry Turkle calls it tapping into our “many selves.” Turkle, a clinical psychologist and MIT professor, is the author of Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. (The dynamics of online communities are a hot topic for research, from the economies of game-worlds to the subject of race and gender in cyberspace.) In her study of the cyberculture of MUDs, Turkle writes of how immersive these virtual worlds can be. Spend, say, 20 hours a week wearing a certain avatar (or more than one), meeting people, building friendships, even falling in love in your fiction suit, and soon enough the borders between self and game, or self and character, or living and playing begin to fray.
In a MUD, “real” is what you say is real. Self is a succession of open windows on the screen, each just as real as the next; RL is only one possibility.
///20.Why the Internet?(part 3)
Perhaps this is the ultimate purpose of the internet: to remind us that most of what we mistake for the real world is just a story that we’re telling ourselves.
It’s an emancipation that Gutenberg never dreamed of. From movable type, which empowered the printing press and inaugurated the mass production of culture, to Movable Type 3.2, which competes as the software of choice for the blogosphere, the authority of print is now available to everyone. We’ve retired those gatekeepers of culture once relied on to decide what belongs and what does not. The internet is a gallery as big as the world, and every time you visit you can leave whatever you like behind. It’s a time capsule and we’re putting everything in. Our dictionary has gone open source. No security guard to stop you from touching the art, no librarian to shush you.
The utopian promise of the internet is that everyone has a voice. And, freed of the ballast of bodies, voices will carry as far as their wordpower will propel them, on the slipstream of the zeitgeist. It’s the promise of being a participant rather than a bystander to the evolution of our culture. It’s the promise of community.
Naturally, those whose needs for community were least satisfied in RL leapt at this promise first. Which was why boatloads of hardy crackpots and perverts were quick to hitch up their modems on a wagon train into the untamed wilderness of cyberspace. For the promise of the internet was the same promise offered by every new frontier: It was a land of opportunity. Unconstrained by the old rules, the old truths, here there was the chance to start over. Real is what you say is real.
However, the frontier justice of this maxim cuts both ways. For both the power of the internet and its potential for abuse lie in our ability to call reality into being with belief.
In 1993, the utopian community of LambdaMOO was faced with a tiny holocaust. This MUD had prospered for years as a lawless place, in the best sense of the word. Free from the laws of physics, characters could fly or split in two or explode in a rain of fireworks, as they desired. Free from biology, you could be any creature you dreamed, customizing your gender to suit (or choosing from a range of preset options, including: neuter, royal, plural, either, egotistical, Spivak and splat). The 1,500 active members at the time talked, argued, flirted, formed cliques, played practical jokes, made friends and enemies, and explored all the complexities of social relationships without policing, as the wizards (programmers/administrators) of the MUD had long since removed themselves from daily affairs.
Then, one Monday night that March, a filthy harlequin called Mr Bungle sexually assaulted the Haitian trickster Legba, the Russian revolutionary Bakunin, Juniper the squirrel, and others, in the livingroom at LambdaMOO. More accurately, Bungle used a game cheat, a voodoo-doll hack, whereby he was able to control the actions of other characters, forcing them to commit rape and self-inflict sexual violence. And, perhaps most horrifying of all, forcing them to behave as though they enjoyed it. As recorded in a Village Voice article by Julian Dibbell (who was a member of the MUD at the time, though not directly involved in the events), the words typed at a New York University computer terminal by the young man whose avatar was Bungle, which registered as a sub-routine in the LambdaMOO database maintained in a Xerox Corp. computer in Palo Alto, California, affected those who read them, lived them, in an entirely RL way.
It was real. It was a rape in language. And in the days that followed, the players whose avatars were raped that night experienced all of the trauma that accompanies sexual assault. Meanwhile, in LambdaMOO, lawless, utopian, the community struggled to decide how such a crime should be punished, or whether it should be punished at all, as it was not technically a crime.
Thirteen years later, LambdaMOO has long since moved on, evolving codes of governance, petitions and ballots to deal with controversial issues and intentionally disruptive or abusive members. Virtual communities have, by and large, accepted the necessity of having a sheriff in town.
In the years from then to now, the once lawless and uncivilized terrain of cyberspace has turned to suburb and stripmall. Search engines were the railway that opened up the territory, bringing isolated settlements closer and closer together, till, today, the internet is one vast metropolis, stretching as far as you can think. Large enough, in fact, for everyone to create their own idea of the internet. It can be a meeting place, or a shining boutique of e-commerce or a red-light district of the mind, as you wish.
Nevertheless, something of the frontier spirit of the world wide web persists. On the internet, ideas are still dangerous. And in this place where dangerous words shade perilously close to dangerous deeds, the right to voice unpopular ideas is still uncompromised. (In the western world at least. In Cuba, the Middle East and much of Asia, most web access is through government-controlled servers, which exercise a heavy editorial hand. Earlier this year, Google drew criticism in the press for launching a Chinese-language version of its search engine which censors sites related to Tibet, Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong, human rights and any other topics deemed off-limits by the Chinese authorities.)
Of course, if you believe there’s such a thing as too much freedom of speech, the internet will handily serve as your case in point. Holocaust deniers, registered sex offenders, homegrown terrorists: There are no shortage of nightmare scenarios where free speech online exceeds the conventional, RL threshold of yelling “fire!” in a crowded theatre. But international law is not easily mapped onto cyberspace.
In Canada, last November, the Liberal government tabled the Modernization of Investigative Techniques Act, which rewrote the rules of telecommunications surveillance for the wireless world, to give police unfettered access to all domestic internet and cell phone subscriber information, without warrant. And while this bill was scuttled when the federal election was called, it is commonly expected that the current Conservative government will introduce similar legislation this fall. On June 15, Bell Sympatico, one of this country’s largest internet service providers, anticipated just such a move by revising its terms of service to declare that it will monitor and disclose its customers’ personal information as need be, in accordance with the law.
Whether you believe in the best intentions of governments and corporations is one question. Whether you believe in the ends justifying the means is another. Or, perhaps, you hew to the slippery slope: Perhaps it looks like there is only a short distance between monitoring emails for dangerous words and outlawing certain dangerous words altogether. Perhaps this has been the golden age of the internet and it’s passing. Or do you believe this genie is much too large to be put back in the bottle?
Perhaps even ideas that are hateful and stupid and wrong, rightfully excluded by any librarian or curator, deserve a place in cyberspace. Perhaps this is the cost of the internet’s utopian promise.
Imagination modelled the hyperlink.
In my mind, the world is never more than one step away from itself. The filing system is idiosyncratic, but it goes something like this: Past, present, future all happen all at once; laundry and finances, phone numbers and regrets, the weather, fear, fear, Hollywood, friends, politics, prices, real and unreal, doubt, colour schemes and outrage and sexual fantasies, bad ideas, unanswered questions, environmental catastrophe, impossible dreams and hope, all of these and more go into one bottomless shoebox, and if I dip into it at random, some things are drawn out again and again, every day, while others will never, ever surface.
When we moved into cyberspace, it shouldn’t be surprising, we furnished it to look just like the inside of our heads.
After four weeks offline, I miss the inside of my head. I feel brittle and exhausted, as if, worn out from travelling, I just want to come home. Like losing a lover and slowly discovering, by the shape of the emptiness, exactly which part of myself I don’t use anymore. The room left just the same, but locked, never visited again.
The nights when once I’d find myself online, to wind down, looking for an ending to the day, there is no winding down now. I think about the internet, think of new ways to think about the internet: it’s a library, a drug, a city, a lover. Everything connects. I think of Ivan Goldberg dreaming up make-believe symptoms for a sham illness; of Steve Austin hoisting styrofoam boulders over his head; of Barry Waldman wiping chalk dust on his trousers, while explaining branching subroutines to junior high school students; of Gordon Moore sitting at his typewriter, mapping the future; of the wizard named JoeFeedback turning Mr Bungle to a toad—deleting the character—when the freethinkers of LambdaMOO could reach no consensus as to how his word-crimes should be treated. All of these, hyperlinked together in my mind.
After four weeks of thinking about the internet, it’s become the answer to every question. After four weeks of thinking about what I’m not allowed to do, no surprise, what I’m not allowed to do seems as big as everything. Mind racing, I wonder if the future of the internet is like the punchline to that old Buddhist-monk-meets-hot-dog-vendor joke: One with everything. Mind racing, I can almost remember a world where nothing moves faster than we do, and you have to go places to go places, talk to people to talk to people, zero connectivity. After four weeks offline, I don’t want to go back. I want to go back right now.
I miss it like the friends I’ve lost touch with, without email. I miss the interface, and how the interface falls away. How habit navigates the precise geography of point and click to scroll me through folder after folder of favourites, while my mind is somewhere else, forgetting my fingers on the mousepad. The intimacy of body and machine. I miss how, browsing, I stop thinking. And, saturated by signal, there’s silence. So close to imagination, it’s almost like imagining it myself.
My shoes are speaking to the floor, and the floor is answering back. The door opens, ahead of me, lights come on, music too, the temperature changes, the patterns on the walls rearrange. It’s designer schizophrenia: Everything is alive with meaning. Everything is connected. The computers that I’m wearing are managing the flow of information from the thousand open windows of the world. I’m cycling through my selves, to see which me I’ll wear today. I’m redesigning the environment as I move through it. Here, in the future, we’ve all become the programmers my grade nine computer science teacher promised, and the gamers I secretly hoped for, as well.
Of course, this future may never happen. Tomorrow always outpaces our fantasies. Here, in the middle of the story, there is no way to know where our partnership with the machine will take us. It’s true, we could have set clearer boundaries back at the start, but we thought it was just a child’s toy, a spinning wheel, a calculator, we had no way to tell how it would change us. Now that connectivity has made our lives open concept, it’s a little late to mourn the walls. I can’t unlearn how I think in cut and paste, not at this point. I have no interest in getting back the parts of my brain that I’ve outsourced.
Look! The curve is still rising through time: Doubling every 18 months, smaller, cheaper, more powerful. The shape of progress is just as Gordon Moore predicted 40 years ago. Intel’s new dual-core Itanium family of processors pack 1.7 billion silicon transistors into a chip that can rest on your fingernail. With current advances in nanotechnology, there’s no reason why computers can’t continue getting better, stronger, faster at the same rate, until at least 2023, when transistors will reach a limit of miniaturization (becoming too subatomic to conduct electricity efficiently). At which point, no doubt, that boundary will be leapfrogged by some new technology.
Here, in the middle of the story, we can still talk about how it’s changed us, how it’s changing us, the internet. Not for long. The success of this technology is that, in little more than a generation, it’s become difficult to separate the parts of our lives that are touched by the world wide web from those that are not. Like the most successful technologies, it’s not only changing things in ways that we can’t measure, but changing how we measure those we can.
Thirty-seven years ago, when the US military debuted the premiere computer-to- computer communications network, called ARPANET, it was designed to help cement America’s technological and military dominance over the Soviet Union. Brave first days! The evening of October 29, 1969, student research assistant Charley Kline sat at a terminal at the University of California at Los Angeles and typed “L”, typed “O”—and, as if by magic, “LO” appeared on a computer screen 600 kilometres up the coast at the Stanford Research Institute—then keyed the “G” of LOGIN, at which point the system crashed. No looking back. In time, that network grew to the internet and exceeded the dreams of its first engineers.
When all the world is a wifi hotspot, when everyone’s on MySpace, when connectivity is as much a constant in our lives as weather, our present designs on cyberspace will appear positively Cold War. At which point, the idea of internet addiction will take its place alongside the punch cards and the tickertape, as a charming relic of a simpler age. How could I be addicted to something that’s as big as everything?
Here, at my desk, after midnight, I reconfigure my laptop’s AirPort card, hook up the wireless router, and watch its green pinpoint lights flash on and off to their own inscrutable rhythm.
His middle name is not Bruce, nor does it begin with “J”, he is neither a college racquetball champion nor a PhD, but he arrives in eighth place when you Google his name (though, disturbingly, first if you combine it with “baby-eating”). Former Coast senior editor Robert Plowman is a Halifax-based playwright and journalist.