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Dot Doom

A crazed software engineer creates the final killer app

By Annalee Newitz

I KNEW COVERAGE of the so-called "Internet killer" Michael McDermott had reached an unbelievably bizarre peak when I discovered an online sex story in which McDermott's mass murder at Edgewater Technology in Massachusetts had been converted into an erotic scenario. Not only does the web provide us with instant news, it would seem, but also helpful bits of just-in-time fantasy.

The story, which appeared on the generally superlative Mind Control Story Archive, was helpfully titled "Breaking News" and concerned a disgruntled employee who "took control of five female secretaries" with a mind-control device and made them have sex.

At the end of a rather uninspiring tale, the author comments, "This piece obviously takes inspiration from certain recent tragic events ... If only such things could be as nonviolent and reversible as they are in this story." A nice little bit of wish fulfillment.

Other online reactions to the first mass murder to take place at an Internet company have been equally weird. A prominent link on fuckedcompany.com led readers to a page where they could use PayPal to donate money to the surviving families of the seven employees who were shot by McDermott. Philip Kaplan, the bad boy webmaster of fuckedcompany.com, pleaded for sympathy and donations with the words: "On December 7, 2000, 7 of our fellow Internet workers went to work and were murdered."

Certainly the $16,000 Kaplan has raised is admirable, but connecting this page with his infamous website can only mean one thing: Edgewater Technology is the ultimate fucked company, where employees aren't simply doomed to work long hours for dud stock options, but are just plain doomed.

The fuckedcompany.com tie-in makes clear the latent convictions in several articles and sensationalistic headlines that the murders spawned. Although it would seem that McDermott was driven over the brink by personal problems first and IRS problems second, the media called him the "Internet killer," making much of the idea that his software engineering work was connected to his violent behavior. And the usually incisive Industry Standard even published an article on its website the day of the slayings that gave as much coverage to the rocky market performance of Edgewater Technology as it did to McDermott's killing spree. Was McDermott an allegorical figure in Edgewater's morality play?

The rise and fall of the violently insane worker is, in fact, a very popular allegory. When day trader Mark Barton shot up his family and workplace last year, there were dozens of articles about the horrific experiences of day trading: the pressure, the long hours, the intense mood swings of the market. The Wall Street Journal even took apart Barton's final months stock by stock, suggesting implicitly that his poor investments were connected to his final death spiral.

Now McDermott may become the poster killer of mad software engineers. Crazed with coding, he finally did something hideous and criminal--the kind of thing most people think software engineers are capable of anyway. It's those long hours in front of the screen, huddled in rooms full of servers, drinking caffeinated drinks and eating Fritos. Surely such behavior is bound to lead to catastrophe, especially since it's all in the pursuit of the next killer app. Perhaps building killer apps is like a gateway drug. Once you start churning out killer apps, then it's on to killer websites and killer chips, and then a mere hop, skip and a jump to becoming a genuine killer.

As ridiculous as they sound, these are the sorts of fantasies that give rise to the idea of an Internet killer, as opposed to someone who just happened to focus his overwhelming rage on the people around him at work. In the absence of rational explanations, imaginary ones are as good as any, I suppose. Who, after all, can truly understand murder? Even murderers themselves offer poor descriptions of their motivations.

Did Internet work cause McDermott's violence? Probably not. The Internet brought us news and fantasies about his violence, which tells us more about our cultural fixations than it does about what happened last month at Edgewater Technology.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who has read way too much John Marr. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper. She's at [email protected].

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From the January 18-24, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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