Overhearing the Internet

By Robert Wright

This article is part of the PPSA Online Magazine
Volume 7 Number 2 - Winter 1994
(This article was found online and has been reprinted without consent of the author. Even though I'm sure he'd be happy to see it here. It was written in 1993.)

Surely you've heard of the Internet. Almost surely you hadn't heard of it a year ago. In that span it has gone from unheralded region of cyberspace (another word that suddenly needs no introduction) to topical and stylish locale, the kind of place that shows up in a New Yorker cartoon. (A canine hacker says, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.") In June, July and the first half of August, major American newspapers carried 173 stories mentioning the Internet, compared with twenty-two a year earlier--this according to the Nexis on-line database, another part of cyberspace.

You've probably also heard that the Internet is a vast and diffuse electronic web, a "network of networks" that spans the planet, encompassing a rapidly growing number of computers. And you may have heard that the Internet will deeply change politics, culture and the fabric of society--if not, indeed, the very metaphysics of human existence. Then again, you may have heard that the Internet is just another passing craze.

In any event, you've probably never actually been on the Internet. Though it's suddenly becoming affordable (about $20 a month through no-frills access providers), it remains a realm mainly of hackers, scientists and assorted others with some institutional link to it.

Only a few weeks ago I had never been on the Internet either. But then this magazine sent me on a mission to cyberspace, where I logged a couple of dozen hours on the Net (as we say there). Now I'm back. There is much to report, bearing on all the Big Questions about the Net's ultimate significance--political, cultural, metaphysical, etc.

But first things first. My overwhelming initial impression of the Net was that it's the promised land for amateur anthropologists. Never has there been a way to observe people and groups so accurately and unobtrusively. As a place to eavesdrop, cyberspace is without peer in all of human history.

For example, most of us know that Mensa is an organization of people who place great and prominent emphasis on their intelligence. Most of us have suspected that this emphasis might make warming up to some Mensa members a bigger-than-average challenge. But how much actual evidence for that suspicion do we have? Would you like to find some? Step into cyberspace.

Here you can overhear a Mensa member arguing with several people over whether he should put his i.q. on his resume. "Clarification on my original query/posting: The Mensa i.q. test I took (and did so well on, top 1 percent on both tests they gave), was only four years ago, in 1989. I mention this now because somebody complained that I shouldn't put old things like sat scores and Mensa i.q. tests on my resume, they want something more recent, but in this case 90 percent of my computer programming is older than my Mensa i.q. test so the remark about i.q. test being `old' and hence not belonging on resume for that reason, is incorrect."

A point well taken. Nonetheless, some of those arguing for an i.q.-less resume persisted. "Not to bust any bubbles," one replied, "but `Mensa' i.q. is not at all rare in the industry. If I saw your resume with Mensa membership or i.q. score, it would probably get placed immediately in the `self-styled genius' or `legend in own mind' round file."

Ouch. The Net is a mostly peaceful place, but here, as on other frontiers, things can suddenly turn nasty; cyberspace is not for the weak or the timid. Unless, of course, you just sneak around and listen without revealing your presence, thus becoming what some internauts pejoratively call a "lurker." This was my approach.

The above exchange may not look too riveting here on the printed page, fixed in cold type. But when you watch it in cyberspace--well, actually, even there it's fixed in cold type. What's more, it isn't even a live exchange; the two strands of a dialogue may be separated by hours or days. Still, there is something about seeing these words on your terminal, knowing that there's flesh and blood behind them, real joy being given or offense being taken, that gives you the thrilling, guilty feeling of catching a glimpse through a window at night.

Strictly speaking, this isn't eavesdropping. People who "post" on the Net's many different bulletin boards--its "newsgroups"--know that their words can be seen from just about any chunk of inhabited turf on this planet. But the narrow focus of each group, the physical remoteness of observers and the anonymity of those posters who choose it--all these combine to infuse groups with a sense of intimacy, fostering candor of a sort seldom seen in public spaces. If you're standing in line at the post office, there is little chance that the man in front of you will turn around and say, "My own experience is that the feet I don't find desirable I often find revolting. It seems, in fact, that my revulsion from `bad' feet is as peculiarly and abnormally intense as my attraction to `good' feet." But if you visit the newsgroup called alt.sex.fetish.feet, you can hear precisely that.

Alt.sex.fetish.feet may sound like a parody of a narrow interest group, and it's true that I didn't choose it randomly. Still, interests do regularly get pretty narrow on the Net. There are, depending on how you count, between 2,500 and 6,000 newsgroups worldwide. (Many access providers offer closer to 2,000, after filtering out some non-English-language groups, hyperfrivolous groups and so on.) In the recreation region of the Net, there are thirteen aviation groups (rec.aviation.simulators) and thirty-five music groups (rec.music.indian.classical, rec.music.indian.misc). There are another fourteen music groups in the "alternative" region (alt.music.enya); "alt" connotes both the frequent- ly offbeat nature of the groups (what's enya?) and the fact that here groups can be started without the formal approval needed in most other regions. In the science region, there are more than fifty groups (sci.med.aids, sci.astro.hubble), not counting the biol- ogy groups in the "bionet" region (including the ever- popular bionet.drosophila, de- voted to fruit flies). In the social issues region, there are sixty- four "culture" groups (soc.culture.malaysia, soc.cul- ture.greek). The computer region features hundreds of ineffably narrow groups; nine begin with comp.os.ms-windows. There are dozens of fan clubs, of various brows (alt.fan.wodehouse, alt.fan.letterman, alt.fan.amy-fisher).

All of this shows how much the government can accomplish when it doesn't put its mind to it. The In- ternet began as a link among Pentagon-funded re- searchers; newsgroups weren't on the agenda. But as more and more people at colleges and other research centers were hooking up to the network, it was becoming enmeshed with an obscure web of newsgroups called usenet. The two were, and are, technically distinct; the Internet is an infrastructure, and usenet newsgroups are one of many services available on it. In fact, a few Internet purists will give you a stern lecture if you call usenet part of the Internet, since the newsgroups are available via other conduits as well. But even purists may call usenet part of the Net, a more amorphous term. And, anyway, non-purists (i.e., almost everyone) consider the newsgroups a de facto dimension of the Internet. One reason is the intricate symbiosis between the two. usenet reached its mammoth scope largely by piggybacking on the Internet, drawing vibrance from Internet users and exploiting the network's robust infrastructure. Meanwhile, usenet has become, for many lay users, the Internet's main attraction--the thing that draws them into the Internet, after which they may explore other dimensions.

These dimensions are many and diverse. Internet Relay Chat offers real-time written conversation--it makes your monitor look like an unfolding screenplay, with you speaking one of the several parts. File Transfer Protocol lets you enter computerized archives all over the world and download zillions of files. I could go on. But the usenet newsgroups are (arguably) the most socially momentous of the Net's dimension, and they're where I spent my time. Discourse is even narrower than the number of newsgroups suggests. Within each group is a changing mix of distinct conversational lineages ("threads"), each labeled with the subject heading of the posting that started it. As of late August in the soc.culture.celtic group, you could choose to associate with one or more of half a dozen crowds, including the {How many Celtic civilizations were there?} crowd, the {Scottish Stereotypes} crowd, the {Celtic Gods} crowd and the {Looking for name of Dentist in Belfast N.I.} crowd. Actually, that last heading never drew much of a crowd.

When you read a posting, its lineage appears as a family tree in the corner of the screen. If three people respond to the {Scottish Stereotypes} posting, those responses are its "offspring"--siblings of one another--and each may then have offspring of its own. You can navigate these lineages, go from one posting to its parent, its offspring, its younger or older sibling or straight to the root or the outmost leaf.

It would of course be easy to trivialize all this, to pick a few of the more eccentric newsgroups and then car- icature them by selectively quoting from their various subject headings. So let's do a little of that. talk.religion.newage {Ancient Space People In India}. alt.war {Custer--what happened?}. alt.alien.visitors {Do some abductees never come back?}. rec.folk.dancing {Unusual Balkan rhythms}. alt.politics.libertarian {A Darwinian Reason for Opposing Seat Belt Laws}. rec.equestrian {Dry, Dusty, Barn???}. alt.history.what-if {WWI: Lusitania not sunk?}. alt.paranormal {Noise in New Mexico}, {Cornbread, come to life}. The cornbread item, I finally decided, was a parody posted by a gate crasher.

Now for some perspective. We all have interests this narrow, even if in some cases they're more consonant with mainstream twentieth- century metaphysics. The beauty of the Net is that it is a place where just about any interest, from fringe to mainstream, can be indulged. It is also a place where any question--Where to vacation? Where to get brain surgery? What was the name of Jack Ruby's nightclub?--can be answered with amazing speed if deftly placed. (Go to alt.conspiracy.jfk for that last one.) And the more the Net grows, the truer all this is, which makes it grow more, and makes this truer, and so on. The number of groups is rising by hundreds per year. For a long time to come, more and more topics will have a large enough constituency to warrant a group; and once there's a constituency, all it takes is an enterprising person (or organization) with a personal computer to start the group. So far these seem to be in abundant supply. Meanwhile, as a further attraction, software companies are starting to make user-friendly Net interfaces--something there's a great need for; it took me about a day to get comfortable navigating the newsgroups.

All these trends point the same way: the present expansion of the Net's constituency--from hackers and scientists to regular people-- will persist and may accelerate. You, too, will probably get sucked into the Net before long. That's why the texture of cyberspace is worth examining, and all the Big Questions about its import worth exploring. The Net is a microcosm of tomorrow's macrocosm.

The family trees for conversational "threads" differ not just within groups but among them. Some groups feature lots of complex trees, the sign of true communication. Others are featureless landscapes--posting after posting with no reply. Thus misc.activism.progressive gives the impression of a lot of one-handed clapping: {Cuba Supports Democracies & Liber'n}, etc. But this doesn't signify failure. Misc.activism.progressive is a one-way medium, like a magazine; the postings are press releases {alternative radio presents: Noam Chomsky (Part III)}. How much action they generate is hard to say, but some political organizations (especially environmentalists) do report great gains from using the Net as an inexpensive mobilizing tool.

Hence Big Question #1: Will the Net be democracy's salvation? Don't bet on it. There's been some leftish rejoicing about how newsgroups empower grassroots organizations, making politics more egalitarian. And the Net may indeed bring a counterweight to well- moneyed interests. But pro-lifers and various other conservative groups are grass roots too; and for that matter even corporate interests can make good use of cyberspace, once they discover it. The great looming peril is that as special interests of all stripes are empowered by information technology, gridlock will grow.

Hence Big Question #2: Will there be enough cross-ventilation to foster mutual understanding and compromise? There are faint signs of hope. In political groups with the most complex conversational trees, much of the dialogue is generated by interlopers who question local dogma. When I checked into alt.politics.perot and alt.politics.radical-left, the latter was markedly more complex, and the complexity came largely from enemies of the left. Sometimes you can even witness people being made painfully aware of facts at odds with their worldview. Still, worldviews are pretty stubborn things. Some of Rush Limbaugh's legions (on alt.fan.rush-limbaugh) seemed unphased by helpful reminders that Limbaugh, a champion of family values, is twice divorced. One Rushite resolved the seeming hypocrisy by analogy: "I am totally in favor of drivers using their turn signals, but I confess that there are times I forget to use them myself." (Whoops! Forgot to stay married. Dammit, that's twice I've done that!)

The landscapes of some groups are pretty predictable. Misc.entrepreneurs, full of busy people focused laserlike, has short threads--crisp answers to specific questions ({Business software recommendation?}), and not a lot of existential reflection. Unemployed people seem to have more time on their hands. A query in misc.jobs.misc ({Should a two-page resume be stapled?}) yields an eleven-leaf tree in short order.

Of course, after a few leafs, the original thread of a conversation is often lost. A posting on misc.consumers titled "help! Lunatic Apartment Neighbor" gets the reply, "I'd tell you to get a gun and learn how to use it, but the last time I heard the waiting period in California is two or three months." The thread then becomes a seminar on gun control.

Meanwhile, over on dc.talk.guns--for the Washington resident who doesn't hear enough about guns on the local news--gun talk mutates into a discourse on penology. One person suggests building more prisons to accommodate longer sentences. This draws the reply, "No bloody thanks. More hotels for useless parasites? Kill them. Painlessly. Mercilessly. Fast. Cheaply." The first guy, his manhood now in doubt, tries to recover. "Well, I'm not crazy about having to pay for keeping them around. I have, in fact, advanced the idea that prisoners should be classified within the system according to the severity of their crime. Let's say their prison is rated at 1500 beds. When prisoner number 1501 checks in, he/she is rated and placed on the list. Then the prisoner on the top of the list (most severe crime) is taken out back and shot. This keeps the prison population `humane' without subjecting society at large to the predations of `early release.'" One great thing about the Net is that when you hear something like this you don't have to say, "Um, that's a very, um, provocative idea. I'll have to give it some thought."

Hence Big Question #3: Will lots of creepy, nefarious groups use the Internet to organize? In general, there is less on the Net about exterminating parasites than you might fear. Much of alt.skinheads is devoted to distinguishing mainstream skinheads from swastika-sporting racists (referred to on alt.skinheads as "boneheads" and "tiny brained doo-doo heads"). Anyone who wants to foment hate in a serious way is likely to opt for a low-profile bulletin board, not visible to millions of decent citizens. No doubt electronic hate groups are out there, but they're typically not on the Net. And when they are (as with alt.flame.faggots), many access providers, including mine, choose not to carry them.

The "flame" part of alt.flame.faggots doesn't mean what you might think. "Flame" is the cyberspace word for, roughly, "speak in very heated or hostile terms." Flaming is a much-discussed problem on the Net. In fact, as far as I could tell, it is more often discussed than actually witnessed. But you do sometimes see people debate with needless animosity, or reply with excessive force to perceived breaches of etiquette ("netiquette"). And they may rudely redirect those who don't seem to belong in a group. "Look, if it has nothing at all to do with alt.horror.cthulhu,leave us out of it. Go whine on alt.bitterness." Or, one might add, on alt.whine, which features, for example, {it's not fair} and {it's not fair: not fair! when I was a lad ...}.

There are places on the Net that seem immune to rudeness and hostility. Misc.kids is a densely populated place where parents swap serious advice and lighthearted tales about childrearing. When to wean? Where to get a truly spill-proof cup? What to call flatulence? "One of the alternatives that I liked, especially for a young kid, was `air poof.'... But when [David] was just 3 (he's 6 now) I think his daycare's teenager taught him `body explosion.'" Where to find a new day care provider?

The most assuredly earnest climates are in the therapeutic groups, such as alt.recovery, where a.a. members share support. Alt.suicide.holiday, billed as a discussion of why suicide rates grow during holidays, turns out to consist partly of people trying to help each other get undepressed. There is something truly affecting, not to mention dramatic, about watching a person who may be contemplating suicide get help from someone who knows the territory. "This is my survival list & I walk the edge often.... Walking randomly until either my mind shuts up or my feet hurt.... I make myself call a friend.... I look at my dog and try to figure out who will take care of him and treat him well and spoil him if I off myself (I save this for the worst times.... I can't bear to take him with me & I can't bear to leave him behind). A pet helps. I pick an object. Anything, a plant, a jar, a piece of string on the carpet, a cat hair on the couch & I study it. I try to imagine different uses for it. I try to become whatever it is. I try to connect and imagine that object's connection with everything else. If I can somehow feel that link/connection then I know I am not completely alone & that I am connected (however tenuously) to this world & that I sorta belong here even if it seems I don't fit in with whatever is happening."

This sort of communication is the essence of the Net. As fun as it is to sit and watch fringe groups sound frivolous, most newsgroup traffic is from serious people finding communication they need or, at least, really want. And the level of discourse, though uneven, is often very high. You can learn an incredible amount of stuff just from the sidelines, without even asking questions. But once you've spent much time on the Net as a lurker, you probably will speak up. You will have an obscure question you've always wondered about, or see a question you can easily answer, or just want to throw your two cents in. Toward the end of my stay in cyberspace, I posed this long- standing puzzle to the rec.sport.golf group: Why does the standard set of clubs no longer include a 2 iron?

The experience was amazingly lifelike. I felt apprehension about speaking in front of a strange group; relief and pride at not being ignored (a four-leaf tree within forty-eight hours, plus two private replies by electronic-mail, another Net service); and gratitude toward, even fondness for, those who answered. And I actually felt a sense of belonging--I had communed with a few nodes, and it felt good. None of these people has become a good friend or vital professional contact, but that sort of thing does happen all the time on the Net, as dialogue shifts from a newsgroup to an e-mail correspondence. (Also, I got--in addition to several obliquely relevant replies--a plausible answer, with which I won't bore you.)

This emotional permeability of cyberspace is the deepest source of its magnetic power. The gargantuan knowledge-base is a big draw, but what really keeps people coming back--believe it or not--is the warmth. The Net, like so many other artifacts, is an expression of human nature by the most efficient available technology; one of the deepest parts of human nature is the affiliative impulse.

Thus the answer to Big Question #4--Will the Net alter the very metaphysics of human existence?--is: not really. The attraction of cyberspace isn't so much that it radically transforms human interaction as that it leaves the feeling of interaction intact. The things it changes are the arbitrary constraints on interaction. Distance is not an impediment. Race doesn't matter. Being a big strapping male or a nubile female won't affect the amount of deference you get.

This does lead to a freer, truly disembodied mingling of minds, and if someone out there can get a Ph.D. in semiotics by calling that a metaphysical watershed (as someone probably already has), more power to him. But the bigger story seems to be the surprising extent to which basic social dynamics remain unchanged. There's been much talk about the effect in cyberspace of genuine, impenetrable anonymity (which is available on the Net), of how it strips away our civil facade, frees the animal within. But almost no Net regulars use true anonymity to be purposefully abusive, and the ones who do would probably be spending their time mak- ing nuisance phone calls if the computer hadn't been invented. The frequent talk on the Net about "flam- ing" is partly a testament to the tender sensibilities of some internauts; given its darkness, cyberspace is a stunningly civil place. And the reason is that the human desire to be liked by our neighbors runs more than skin deep.

As for the sexually liberating effect of anonymity: it's true that there are places on the Net (and elsewhere in cyberspace) where inhibitions dissolve, genders get switched, fantasy roles played. But this is an infinitesimal drop in the bucket, irrelevant to what 99.9 percent of all internauts are doing. Even the people in alt.sex.fetish.feet aren't there to talk dirty. They're there for validation, to find company in which they're not strange. You can almost feel the reassurance they get from hearing each other talk about pretending to inspect the lowest shelf of a newsstand while in fact gazing at a woman's exquisite, sandaled feet. I seriously doubt that these people would mind revealing their identities to each other. They just want to shield them from people like me. (Good thinking.)

Iposted a second query, this time on five newsgroups, ranging from rec.arts.startrek.tech to talk.religion.misc and covering some less cosmic groups in between. I asked what was important about the Net and how it had affected people's lives. The twenty or so (admittedly not representative) e-mail replies were almost relentlessly upbeat. "It has both allowed me to strengthen and articulate some of my views, and to change others." "Being an American born to a British mother and Iranian father, the British and Iranian culture newsgroups help me feel in touch with my heritage." "I left the Navy with some bad mobility problems.... My world shrank [but then] expanded beyond belief when I got on internet."

A number of people mentioned the Net's global reach. "On the Internet, you can interact with the whole world, [which is] repartitioned, not geographically, but by area of interest." Hence Big Question #5, then: Will the Net sap the will of the nation-state? Certainly one can hope. Maybe international interest groups will become weighty lobbying forces, fostering the regional or global coordination of national policies and in other ways subjecting national behavior to supranational will. Also, of course, it's harder to support a war when you've swapped childrearing tips with some of the people you'd be bombing. The eventual force of such effects depends on lots of things, notably the stubborn problem of automated translation. But among scientists and some other elites, English is already close to a global language.

The feature of the Net most lauded in my informal poll was, naturally, the ease of finding shared interests. "It's like there's a town full of fishermen or philatelists or antiquarians." Most of us wouldn't want to live in any of those three towns. But there are thousands more to choose from, and the number is growing fast. More to the point, how many Americans are wild about the towns they do live in? One of the most discussed trends at the end of this century is the collapse of community, the number of people who don't have neighbors or colleagues who share their interests or values. The Net is a natural answer. One Net user predicted that in twenty years "electronic interaction will be a significant part of our personal lives." Another (a "photographer/artist" who had been "thrilled to find others like me, not techies or geeks" on the Net) said, "I just hope it doesn't make us less likely to leave our homes and seek out others face to face!"

Hence Big Question #6: Will the Net hasten the demise of physical community? Probably. When you're talking to people on the Net, you can't be talking to people back on the planet. But what exactly this means will depend on how many people spend how much time in cyberspace (and on how this varies by, say, socioeconomic class). And this in turn depends on lots of other things. For example: although pure print will remain the ideal medium for many purposes, the Internet will likely evolve into a multimedia experience. There's already a weekly Net radio show, and video signals can be sent too. For that matter, the ultimate mode of life in cyberspace is virtual reality--a 3-d experience that looks, sounds, maybe even feels like physical reality. (Virtual reality was the context of the coining of "cyberspace" by William Gibson in the novel Neuromancer.) A cyberspace with real virtual reality could, decades from now, acquire truly irresistible power, and have unfathomable effects.

It's of course ironic that the Net, in addressing the problem of cultural fragmentation, may in some ways deepen it. But that does seem to be in the cards. Though cruising the Net widely is fun, many people seem to settle finally into their own niche of a few particular groups. These groups become--for hours at a time--their whole world, liberating yet confining. But, hey: it beats solitary confinement, a common condition these days, and one that espn, the Home Shopping Network and Court t.v. don't really alleviate.

Some Net users have boilerplate signatures, featuring a picture cleverly built out of keyboard characters and, often, an epigram. Of all the epigrams I saw in cyberspace, by far the most memorable was, "I post, therefore I am."

About the Author

Robert Wright is a senior editor at the New Republic and author of the book `Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information' (HarperCollins). The book uses miniature biographies of three thinkers--computer scientist Edward Fredkin, biologist Edward O. Wilson, and social theorist Kenneth Boulding--to explore the scientific and philosophical undercurrents of the information age, as well as its social implications. The book's premise is that only by understanding information processing at many levels--within computers, in bacterial DNA, in and among human cells, in ant and ape societies, in multinational corporations, etc.--can we truly grasp the meaning of the information age.