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Cybercreeps Run Amok

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By Michael Kinsley
Sunday, July 24, 2005

Cyberspace, to its early denizens, was supposed to be a prelapsarian world, free from the taint of commerce and other vices of "meatspace" (as the material world is known), full of sweetness and light and universal siblinghood. In fact, the story line was Genesis in reverse. Our troubles started when Eve ate the apple of knowledge. Now knowledge had accumulated to the point where it could undo the damage, reconstruct the apple (or Apple) and restore our innocence. Geeks who did math were going to succeed where hippies who smoked dope and lefties who read Marx had failed. They were going to get us out of crass modern life and get us back into Eden.

Well, have you visited cyberspace lately? Of course you have. And of course the Internet has vastly improved life for anyone likely to be reading this. But as a friendly place to hang out, give me meatspace any day.

There is commerce aplenty, but that's not the problem. The happiest and most peaceful parts of the World Wide Web are the places where people are buying things. The nasty parts of the Web are where people are doing what the Founding Surfers intended: expressing themselves and forming communities.

Why is the tone of conversation on the Internet, especially about politics, so much lower than in the material world? E-mail can be a fabulous medium for serious discussion. But most of the e-mail I get doesn't realize this potential. For the past few weeks my in-box has been clogged nearly to the point of unuseability with nearly identical mails from people who disagree with my interpretation of the notorious Downing Street Memo. As an attempt to change your mind, one e-mail may be a sincere appeal to reason and evidence, but 500 e-mails is a blunt instrument.

And nasty? Oh my goodness. Give me those scary old pre-e-mail letters that journalists used to get -- written in purple or red crayon on mysteriously stained stationery from the Bates Motel -- any day. Maybe the anonymity of e-mail empowers people to shed their usual carapace of politeness. Or maybe banging out an e-mail is just so easy, compared with all the necessary elements of writing a letter, that the id can send out a half-dozen e-mails before the superego can stop it.

Or maybe cyberspace just has more than its share of undersocialized geeks, sitting in front of their computers and sharing their bitterness with the world.

Cyberspace promised wonderful new opportunities for community. This promise has been realized in many ways. People with a shared interest in volleyball or human rights in Estonia or collecting early Waring blenders can find one another and enjoy the company.

Old-fashioned geographical communities have non-soulmates rubbing up against each other. The challenge is to make them "all just get along," as we say here in Los Angeles. In cyberspace you don't have to get along with people who are different. You're not going to bump into them in the aisles of Amazon.com. This makes cyberspace communities far touchier about defending their spheres and their interests.

Cyberspace communities -- and the cyberspace community at large -- often seem to be more energized by rejecting heathens than by embracing soulmates. They love staging inquisitions and anathemas. Having spent a decade working at the devil Microsoft and then at a big "old media" institution, the Los Angeles Times, I am amazed by the hostility that greets any effort to stroll into the clubroom and buy the boys a round of drinks.

Recently at the Times we tried using a Web innovation called "wiki" -- a shared-editing process very much in the cyberian spirit. For two days, thousands of people seemed to be enjoying it. But our e-mail boxes oozed unwelcoming contempt from cyberoids (except for the real innovators of wiki -- the founders of the amazing wikipedia.com -- who were helpful and sympathetic). Then a guerrilla attack in the middle of the night flooded the site with pornography and we had to take it down.

What gets called "community" on the Web usually consists of various ways that surfers can share their views. But "share" is misleading. It implies that you are interested in learning the views of others, as well as expressing your own. That does not tend to be the case in cyberspace, any more than it is in meatspace.

It's not surprising that cyberians make lousy communitarians, but the ugliest aspects of libertarianism -- the me-me-me, the stay-out-of-my-space -- have dominated.

The rallying cry of the early cybernauts was: "Information wants to be free." Information is what the Internet delivers, and advanced economies are more and more about information and less and less about physical matter. So free information meant a lot more than no charge for 411. It implied a world without money, where the path between you and your dream was frictionless.

Whatever information may want, producers of information prefer to be paid. In meatspace, this desire is considered reasonable. Most consumers in cyberspace consider it reasonable as well. But some don't. "Information wants to be free" may once have carried the poetic image of liberating information. All it is now is a silly rationale for ripping other people off.

Eden it ain't.

The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.


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