On-line 'flame' burns New Yorker writer Wired rides with electronic cowboys

MAGAZINES

June 05, 1994|By Matthew Gilb | Matthew Gilb,Boston Globe

If you can't take the heat, stay off the Internet? In the New Yorker for June 6, writer John Seabrook recounts the trauma of getting flamed on-line -- receiving a red-hot insult in his e-mail.

The flame, which referred to Mr. Seabrook's January profile of Microsoft's Bill Gates, lapsed in and out of obscenity as it urged Mr. Seabrook to "look around and notice that real reporters don't fawn over their subjects" and that Tina Brown's magazine "is fast turning to compost."

Licked by the dragon's tongue, Mr. Seabrook is devastated, and he has an information-age breakdown worthy of a Victorian novel: "I felt cold. People whose bodies have been badly burned begin to shiver, and the flame seemed to put a chill in the center of my chest which I could feel spreading slowly outward. My shoulders began to shake." Mr. Seabrook also turns wildly paranoid, thinking the sender of the insult may have deposited a corrosive little virus in his computer.

The piece, called "My First Flame," is an enjoyable cyberquery. How does a person of delicate sensibility and exaggerated decency fare in a world whose inhabitants don't have to think twice before brandishing a blowtorch? Is the sheer freedom of speech on-line becoming offensive and weighted with criminal potential?

Mr. Seabrook ends his feature with the Rockwellian image of a father and his 13-year-old daughter stumbling onto an ugly flame war in the Pearl Jam newsgroup. Daughter: "Daddy, do these people have a life?" Father: "No, darling, most of them don't have a life." Is Mr. Seabrook secretly wishing for an on-line fire station? Enforced encryption?

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Wired for June has a cover profile of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group of 1960s graduates dedicated to preserving equal access for all. The civil liberties group, which includes a few of Wired's contributing writers -- John Perry Barlow, Stewart Brand, Mitch Kapor -- views on-line technology as the future of politics because it could replace centralized government with "push-button, interactive democracy." With typical hippie-meets-hacker enthusiasm, Wired goes a little far in portraying the EFF as a new version of the 1960s Merry Pranksters, the utopian adventurers led by Ken Kesey and including Mr. Brand.

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Vibe for June/July also does some cyber-rights exploration in a piece called "Of Phreaks and Hackers." Writer Carol Cooper attends the fourth annual HoHoCon, a Christmastime convention (thus the name) in Austin, Texas, where she celebrates the underground of hackers whose experimentation and iconoclasm often fuel computer development. As rebels, these people are continually facing reprimand by the police and by corporations.

"The question," Ms. Cooper writes, "is how to legitimize a collection of software pirates, hippie academics and teen-age 'phone phreaks' to the point where the mainstream would be willing to employ them as consultants instead of locking them up as criminals."

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Rolling Stone for June 16 interviews PC pioneer/entrepreneur Steve Jobs, who is back to lead yet another revolution, a software revolution of object-oriented programming -- pre-assembled programming chunks "to be assembled like Tinkertoys."

Mr. Jobs has some strong feelings about the Microsoft monopoly, which is going to "pose the greatest threat to America's dominance in the software industry of anything I have ever seen and could ever think of." Asked if the world is a better place 10 years after the PC revolution, Mr. Jobs gives an unequivocal yes: "Individuals can now do things that only large groups of people with lots of money could do before."

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Also of interest in Rolling Stone: Hunter Thompson bids a passionate farewell to Richard Nixon, the man he loved to hate. Mr. Thompson pulls out the stops, calling Nixon "a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president" who was "so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning." Mr. Thompson is aware of his deep connection with the former president: "It was Richard Nixon who got me into politics, and now that he's gone I feel lonely. . . . As long as he was alive . . . we could always be sure of finding the enemy on the Low Road."

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