Virtual neighbors put their lives on-line in cyberspace community

March 20, 1994|By Neal Lipschutz

Social critics bemoan the deterioration of our public life. The town squares and city parks that once drew people to talk, argue and otherwise blend into a real community too often became barren victims of blight and fear of crime. Suburbs demand autos and increase insularity. Alienation seems everywhere on the rise.

Howard Rheingold thinks he has a solution for this, a way for people to recover positive relationships with others outside work and family. There is a way for citizens of a republic to act like citizens again, not just passive consumers of entertainment and information. This solution involves people sitting alone in their separate homes.

It sounds like a paradox. Well, the people are alone, but not really. You could say they're virtually together. You need computers and modems for this New Age community. The new town square is in cyberspace, the gift of "computer-mediated communication."

This revealing book comes courtesy of a free-lance writer and veteran "homesteader" on the cyberspace frontier. Mr. Rheingold is familiar with the technology that's changing our world, but loves it not for its own sake. He's more concerned about how we can breathe some life into very low-tech values in a high-tech world, and about the human potential of Internet and similar networks that allow people to "talk" to one other, dozens of others, thousands of others as well as retrieve information on a dizzying variety of topics.

Mr. Rheingold is an experienced guide, a member of a caring, supportive cyberspace community, called the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link). It consists of people who got to know each other by tapping letters on a keyboard.

bTC Mr. Rheingold's vision of interactive communication would spread democracy and increase cross-cultural understanding. It is far removed from the corporate interests now trying to figure out the most profitable way to lasso the communications revolution. He laments that information highways are often seen only as "ever-more-effective conduits for broadcasting more of the same old stuff to more people, with most interactivity limited to channel selection." He thinks people want computers to allow them to find each other, not "download tonight's video rental instead of walking a block and a half to the video rental store."

Though strongly felt and generally well-written, this is far from a perfect book. The middle chapters, which recount the history of grass-roots on-line developments of the past few decades, are boring and overburdened with acronyms. Perhaps the author thought a record needed to be set down of these rapid technological advances often made outside the capitalist mainstream.

Sections on nascent on-line communities in Japan, England and France are better, especially when they illustrate computer communications winning the author friends and career opportunities around the globe. Cultural understanding is definitely enhanced for Mr. Rheingold. The potential society changing nature of on-line communications is demonstrated in a Japanese town in which it allows people to break class and gender barriers and forge political action.

What's best are the early pages that deal with the author's experiences in the WELL. Mr. Rheingold has been on-line since the 1980s, and approaches it with a ferocity even his 7-year-old daughter recognizes.

She knows her father "congregates with a family of invisible friends who seem to gather in his computer. Sometimes he talks to them, even if nobody else can see them." We see how love and important medical information is provided for a "WELLite" whose child develops leukemia, how aid is organized for another on-line member who gets seriously ill while abroad. There is soul-searching after another regular member of the cyberspace community commits suicide.

The author knows the world of virtual communications is no paradise and that it raises its own prickly questions about interpersonal relations and the nature of identity itself. He talks of on-line addiction (some college students spend far more time on-line than in class or studying), the problem of people creating false identities and a plethora of privacy issues. Too often Mr. Rheingold is content to simply raise a social issue or call for more study rather than offer his own informed opinion.

The crucial on-line issue of the 1990s, in Mr. Rheingold's view, is whether a growing and disparate band of enthusiasts can hold ground against the businesses whose main interest in computer-mediated communication is economic. He thinks we're quickly approaching the point where the grass-roots/corporate battle for cyberspace is decided once and for all.

Anything that limits the vast potential of interactive communications would be unfortunate, he feels, and one hopes no irreversible directions are taken before many more people hook up, dial in, and see what all the fuss is about.

Mr. Lipschutz is a writer who lives in New York.

Title: "The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier"

Author: Howard Rheingold

Publisher: Addison-Wesley

Length, price: 325 pages, $22.95

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