Wired

RICHARD LOUV

June 29, 1993|By RICHARD LOUV

San Diego. -- While discussing drugs with my 11-year-old son the other night, I figured it was time to tell him about altered states of consciousness. No way around it. Through history, I explained, human beings have exhibited a definite desire to step outside what we normally consider to be reality.

Some of the methods of doing this -- drugs, alcohol, cultism -- are ultimately damaging or lethal. But other ways -- prayer, sweat-lodge ceremonies, fishing -- are usually beneficial or at least do no harm.

''Give me another example,'' he said.

Well, computers offer some folks an altered state. (Call it Nerdistan.) Lately, there's been a lot of talk about virtual reality -- the use of high technology to simulate experience. My son knows something about virtual reality; I figure he's likely to be part of what Wired magazine calls the digital generation, for which technology is the new drug. Wired aims to be for the '90s digital generation (or cyberpunk movement) what Rolling Stone was for the '60s generation of drugs-sex-and-rock 'n' roll.

''Why Wired?'' asks a message from the editor. ''Because the Digital Revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon -- while the mainstream media is still groping for the snooze button. And because the computer press is too busy churning out . . . its ad-sales formula cum parts catalog to discuss the meaning or context of social changes so profound their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire.''

The cover and table of contents suggest a definite departure from consensus reality: Digital Sex, War is Virtual Hell, Beyond the Valley of the Morphs, Cellular Phreaks and Code Dudes, Libraries Without Walls for Books Without Pages, and The Incredibly Strange Mutant Creatures Who Rule the Universe of Alienated Japanese Zombie Computer Nerds.

Here is the world envisioned by Wired.

Nintendo is passe; something called 3DO -- interactive multiplayer gaming -- has arrived. ''Those who have seen mock-ups of 3DO games describe the experience as nothing short of living inside a movie. Imagine Flight Simulator (a popular computer game) in full-blown photo realism.''

In the Wired world, art is fused with technology, and the best media are the most interactive ones; readers or viewers should respond by jumping to their keyboards and zapping instant opinions to journalists. (Wired interviewed media guru Camille Paglia, billed as possibly the next Marshall McLuhan, and sent her a transcript of the interview for fact-checking. Ms. Paglia sent it back with lots of corrected spellings and grumpy remarks in the margins; the magazine ran the transcript complete with Ms. Paglia's hand-written edits. That's interactive journalism.)

In the Wired world, technology is to be hacked: The magazine reports that cellular phones can be hacked: ''They can be dissected and disassembled and put back together in remarkable new ways. Optimized!'' For example, cellular phreaks have discovered secret code that can turn a cellular phone into a powerful cellular scanner that can pick up the shower of calls zipping through the cosmos.

In the Wired world ''a researcher in San Francisco might, without leaving the desk, reach into the database of the British Library to grab a copy of the Lindisfarne Gospels . . . Instead of fortresses of knowledge, there will be an ocean of information.''

And in the Wired world, the line between electronics and sex disappears: The magazine reports how one woman, who, when logging on to computer networks, called herself ''The Naked Lady.''

Young and not-so-young men, intrigued with her nom-de-keyboard, sent her all sorts of fantasy messages. ''At the start, The Naked Lady was a rather mousy person. . . . But as her months of on-line flirtations progressed, a strange transformation came over her. . . . She got a trendy haircut. Her clothing tastes went from Peck and Peck to tight skirts slit up the thigh. . . .''

Indeed, this young digital generation dreams of the ultimate safe sex: computer-simulated, interactive sex, of the kind portrayed in the cyberpunk cult film, ''The Lawnmower Man.''

Reading Wired, you get the feeling that the editors are right, that something is being born here, and that people in their late teens and early 20s are the most likely to understand the fusing of art and technology; to them, cellular phones and videocams and computers aren't gadgets, but doorways. And yet, there's an irony working here.

It took a conventional magazine to tell us about the Wired world. Deep in its pages a lone voice asks, ''Is Interactive Dead?'' Max Whitby, a specialist in interactive media for Great Britain's BBC, cautions:

''It seems to me that we are rushing to implement interactive CDs, cable shows and personal electronics in the crudest ways without pausing to consider whether an improved medium will result. Storytelling and narrative lie at the heart of all successful communication. Crude, explicit, button-pushing interaction breaks the spell. . . . ''

And what minimalist medium weaves a spell in which the line fades between what is real and what is not; what medium transports us, without the intrusion of cables or keyboards, to worlds we can only imagine? A good book.

Which, being a father, is the drug I recommended to my son.

Richard Louv is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. His next book, ''Father Love,'' will be published by Pocket Books.

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