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Confessions of an Inphomaniac

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As online communication reaches its awkward adolescence, are we left with a place for imaginations to soar without messy, bodily residue--or just a place to hole up without human contact?

By Christina Waters

IT STARTED INNOCENTLY enough. Like many who've been foraging in cyberspace for more than five years, I was introduced to the power of the Net by my university job. Hardwired into the campus mainframe, I found that I could reach colleagues almost instantaneously via e-mail. Pretty soon, everyone in my neck of the woods was using it--first because it was the hot new thing to do, but more and more because it got results.

I began to have more e-mail than voice-mail messages waiting for me each morning when I came to work. And I invariably checked my e-mail first. Hell, I'd even turn on my computer before I took off my coat or turned on the lights.

As a writer and academic, it didn't take me long to get an inkling of the sex appeal of this new medium. I found that I could bypass secretaries and e-mail many executives directly. Surprised by the directness of my inquiry, my subject would invariably respond by e-mail, usually the same day. The hierarchical playing fields guarded by the bureaucratic rank and file were instantly leveled.

It was heady stuff, and I stayed high.

Messages and their senders appeared on my screen in a single cluster, allowing me to read them in any sequence. No more listening to each message to get to the one I was really waiting for.

Pretty soon, I was asking for e-mail addresses instead of phone numbers or business cards. Thus armed, I had direct access to key players. People I never could have gotten an appointment with inevitably responded electronically, flattered and disarmed. Some, like Donna Haraway, whose 1985 article "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" helped set the current academic cyber agenda, even explained via e-mail why they didn't have time to e-mail me.

    "Dear Christina,
    "You got me at a bad time--reading hundreds of email messages, opening piles of snail mail, facing books for courses that aren't in the book store, etc., etc., and the thought of answering even a few questions is awful. Sorry. I use email more and more for work and already miss the more spontaneous way I began using it. It's become another obligation. But still, there are the friendships, jokes, bits of news and bits of good professional stuff, plus all sorts of other goodies. I would miss my email, but why does everything have to become too much so fast?--Donna"

Electronic Ebola

"I want a new drug," Huey Lewis crooned, and faster than you could type "Eureka," we got one. At this moment, it's estimated that more than 30 million of us are joined in electronic communion--although it's impossible to know for sure. The size of this network is said to be doubling every six months. What began as a high-speed information link now resembles an out-of-control electronic Ebola virus--part all-night poker game, part lonely-hearts-club hustle.

The communication mode of choice for science, military researchers, and the university community for more than a decade, electronic mail is proliferating as fast as ordinary citizens can hook up modems and join what sci-fi guru William Gibson called "the consensual hallucination" known as cyberspace.

But now that millions have joined this rush, a perhaps inevitable shakedown has begun. Purists are bemoaning the boom, rushing to exit their formerly exclusive domain as they warn of paradise lost. Expressions like "information superhighway" and "cybersex" have infiltrated everyday language even though most people don't have a clue what they mean.

The Garden of Eden has been invaded (remember the recent pedophile scare on America Online?); everybody wants to get stoned.

The pioneers feel crowded--they don't like the lean and hungry look of those staking claims in the chatty clubs called newsgroups, which are organized around pursuits from genealogy to science fiction. They worry that the stampede threatens to drown out the pioneer communities of thinkers, talkers, and midnight hackers. Their restlessness may be justified. Just a few weeks ago, the National Science Foundation began divesting itself of several decades of Internet caretaking. The Net is moving toward privatization--and perhaps a future as a giant interactive commercial.

Veterans & Virgins

Caught in this chaos of hype, veterans and virgins alike are asking big questions. What is electronic reality anyway? Is cyberspace the great new town hall--a corner bar or quilting bee for the '90s? A democratic public space in which all may participate, regardless of appearance, creed, or sexual preference? Or simply a privileged frontier on which most range riders are white, university trained, baby-boomer professionals?

Is it a place for imaginations to soar without messy, bodily residue--or a place to hole up without human contact?

One thing is for sure: The computer screen preserves anonymity and hides a multitude of sins. This buffer is part of e-mail's allure. Your physical self is hidden; you can truly be all that you can be. Safe in the privacy of your own surroundings, you can add a little spin to your electronic self, made bold by the security of facelessness. This accounts for the often innuendo-laden sexiness of online chat.

While misunderstanding is a constant doppelgänger of text-only encounters, the upside, Mark Dery writes in a South Atlantic Review article entitled "Flame Wars," is a "technologically enabled, postmulticultural vision of identity disengaged from gender, ethnicity and other problematic constructions. Online, users can float free of biological and sociocultural determinants."

Onscreen, I see only words--words shaping ideas, giving attitudes, offering insight. Onscreen, I don't see gender, class, age, or race. For the able-bodied and socially privileged, it may be impossible to appreciate the transcendence of disability or economic standing that computer-mediated communication allows. It's a two-way street. I can be having a bad hair day or still be in my bathrobe and be communicating with some high-powered, Saab-driving, GQ cover guy. Or my boss, or his CEO.

No matter how klutzy, or physically limited, we can all be Astaire and Rogers on a keyboard.

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Getting offline.

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My Mind Is on Vacation

On the other hand, "vacationing in the datascape" just might be a misguided attempt to avoid the hard questions of the material world, film theorist Vivian Sobchack observes in Artforum. It's possible to make a case for not really encountering anyone else at all in cyberspace, merely the reflection of our own words on a screen. The average hacker is high on this safe substitute for life's messy realities, Sobchack contends, and this ambivalent desire to be powerful.

For me, it was the ability to conjure old relationships, new flirtations, and a world of information that kept me high and online. "You can't simply pick up a phone and ask to be connected with someone who wants to talk about Islamic art or California wine, or someone with a 3-year-old daughter or a 40-year-old Hudson," explains Howard Rheingold of Mill Valley, author of an excellent guide to electronic networking, Virtual Community. "You can, however, join a computer conference on any of those topics, then open a public or private correspondence with the previously unknown people you find there."

Armchair travelers can ask questions about restaurants in Tuscany or critique the latest episode of Star Trek, compare carburetors, or rave on about the joys of sadomasochism.

"Every day, there's a handful of postings that sparkle like gemstones," enthuses Reva Basch, who hosts a conference called Women on the WELL, one of hundreds of subject-specific conversations on the Sausalito-based electronic salon founded by Stewart Brand, who first brought us the Whole Earth Catalog. "WOW has given me a precious gift," Basch writes in the Austin-based zine Fringeware, "the opportunity to meet and connect with other women--strong, stubborn, talented and accomplished, questing, perhaps needy, but always remarkable--in a way that I could not have imagined, 10 short/long years ago.

"There's an evolutionary aspect to living in cyberspace. Your monitor is no longer a flat, impermeable surface. It acquires depth, like Alice's mirror in Through the Looking Glass. It becomes an infinite space in which all that information, and all those other beings, reside. You come to regard modemless computers as poor, mute, stunted things, robbed of their full cybernetic birthright."

Safest Sex

Yes, I do have a saturation point. Yesterday, I put a chair out by the pool with a good book, an adult beverage, and a nice jazz CD, but somehow I felt compelled to hole up in my office for a few minutes to download the newest version of Netscape's Web browser.

I am an online addict, and as soon as I find a 12-step program online, I intend to do something about it.

Electronic communication is seductive in many ways, but two particularly potent aspects keep turning up--as a metaphysical transformation of self and as a multidimensional social experiment.

"Disembodiment has its own allure," writes Tiffany Lee Brown, an editor of Fringeware. "Transcending the meat has become a common goal in many religions, philosophies, paths of knowledge and discipline. The loftiness of living in the mind, surpassing the base needs of the flesh, attracts more than just ascetics, Christians and logicians. ... In this age of alienation and visceral paranoia, regular ol' white trash Americanoids like myself can drop happily into the sucking vacuum of mediated communication, Alices in a never-ending rabbit hole."

Kate Bornstein, author of Gender Outlaw, is a former man who knows about "transcending the meat" from another angle. In the fleshpots of cyberspace, Bornstein finds a strong and exciting analogy to her own transsexuality. "Cyberspace frees us up from the restrictions placed on identity by our bodies," she says in an April 1995 interview in the magazine Mondo 2000. "It allows us to explore more kinds of relationships. I can go online as anything. I go online as various kinds of women. I've gone online as a guy a couple of times; I'm playing a stable boy in a vampire scenario now."

Some cybernauts, on the other hand, would rather play with the stable boy--albeit virtually. Thanks to the real-time erotozone known as Internet Relay Chats, participants can jump into the electronic hot tub with total strangers, asking questions, and getting answers as fast as they can type. "Sometimes I just want a sexy conversation with someone," writes publisher Scotty Brookie in a recent editorial in Lavender Reader, a Santa Cruz-based gay and lesbian periodical. "I think talking about sex is exciting, even if the words are coming from thousands of miles away and appearing on my monitor. Some people say this is weird. I say, I have a nice conversation with someone, it's completely safe, and I still get my whole bed to myself when we're done talking."

Alternative Empowerment

Not only is cyberspace a haven of the safest sex, it's also a safe house for queer confessions and coming out--a network of alternative empowerment. Among Brookie's online companions is a 17-year-old Slovenian who can't talk about his gayness to anyone in his hometown--but can to his electronic pen pal in California. Another lives in Los Angeles and is out of the closet only on the Net. Still another communicates from Singapore, overjoyed to discuss gay issues without fear.

"I've talked to gay guys in their 60s and gay guys who were 14. I've talked to lots and lots of men whose race, age, and appearance I know nothing about. I've had discussions in five different (if halting) languages. And almost always, I leave the conversations marveling at our common humanity, excited about being able to travel the world and learn about other cultures every day, without being on vacation, and be out the whole time."

Of course, the very factors that encourage romance and fantasy can also breed emotional blindness. Face-to-face meetings between cyberpals can serve as an abrupt reality check. Eric Thiese, a San Francisco-based electronic educator and host of an Internet conference on the WELL, recalls an encounter "where the person misrepresented--no, out-and-out lied--about most things."

On the far side of electronic obsession are those whose entire cyber reality is a fiction--the Multiple-User Dungeon or MUD players. Ultra-elite, most by invitation only, MUDs are real-time fantasy worlds evolved from the Dungeons and Dragons genre of role-playing games. Gamesters construct their cyberworld's every detail, designing communities of the imagination--worlds elegantly free from poverty, ignorance, diversity, and anybody not like us.

"It's very welcoming, very empowering, but the trick is making it a tool, not a home," says Scott Noam Cook, an associate professor of philosophy at San Jose State University who's currently engaged in a two-year study of experimental, interactive cyber-environments.

Cook is wary of the panacealike claims being made for electronic culture, and he worries that we're deifying the tools and the people who use them. "Technology can't create communities," he says. "We can use technology to create communities." But Cook insists on a caveat. Unlike real communities, electronic ones are self-selected, and, hence, users construct a public electronic space of others like themselves--a human tendency Cook calls digital eugenics.

"If it's town squares we're creating on the Web," Cook cautions, "they look a lot like Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1938."

Flip Side of Cyberspace

The flip side of these ethnically cleansed CyBerlins are the growing ghettos of cyber groupies clogging the Net. In a 1993 position paper for Xerox PARC, Palo Alto-based MUD guru Pavel Curtis notes that bulletin boards and newsgroups "have the problem (and virtue, perhaps) that access is unlimited. From the perspective of a serious practitioner in some field, this communication channel is very 'noisy.' ... The general level of discourse is thus driven toward the middle ground, the knowledgeable hobbyists."

For many people's money, the Sausalito-based WELL had the best stuff. Started 10 years ago by Whole Earth Catalog stalwarts who wanted to keep in touch though their families and careers had separated them physically, the WELL has been an elite subscription address for pure conversation and the fostering of a vibrant cyber community of some 10,000 culturati. Then, last year, the WELL was purchased by an entrepreneur with visions of expanding it into a for-profit metropolis for a million prospective clients. In the wake of this development, a handful of the old guard like Howard Rheingold started planning a new, small, user-owned online salon called the River. Even if no one will come right out and say that the WELL had become polluted, it was clear that its high-minded waters had been diluted by newcomers.

"When a conference gets very large, communicating takes a long time," River pioneer and SRJC communications instructor Roger Karraker admits. The River hopes to recapture some of the intellect-intensive flavor of the WELL's heyday, he says. Still, he believes that the River's existence won't necessarily mean an exodus from the WELL. "In the real world, you can't live in two worlds," he says. "But you can electronically--you don't have to choose." Karraker believes that having a monthly fee for membership will separate out those "serious about conversation" from mere browsers. "Any service that charges a fee can in a sense self-select its population."

That's similar to the position that cyber-patriarch Rheingold maintains on the new community: "One of several things many of us have learned over the years is that governance flows from control, and control flows from ownership. The River is owned by the people who create the value that customers pay for, and the owners are also the customers. It's an experiment in democracy that we couldn't not do."

Cyber cowgirl Erika Whiteway, co-editor of Fringeware's "Chicks in Cyberspace" issue, believes that serious conversation on the Net is being watered down by what she calls "the America Online mentality"--people who want to surf through topics because they can, not because they have anything to contribute.

I used to think the Net was going to be the hope of politics/race/gender and provide a better reality even if it is virtual. Like all the other simple problems and solutions, the money guys and politicians have gotten their fat fingers in it and Doomsday is at hand again ... whoever owns access to or provides information is master of us all. My computer used to be my pal, then I was its hostage; now it is like a vacuum cleaner, something I hate but need to use.

This is what has killed the WELL--I'm sorry, but the WELL really did have "it" for a number of years: wit, sarcasm, burning brains. But as with all things American, the bottom line rose up and ate the top-feeders. ... Makes me want to head out to the country and get back to what's real and important--the smell of clean air, the feel of a horse, the grass in spring.

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From the Dec. 18-24, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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