A history of America Online, a glimpse of cyber-madness On Books

July 05, 1998|By Michael Pakenham

Surely, the greater the communication among the peoples of this planet, the less are the dangers of such stupidities as war, unchecked human abuses and the perpetuation of ignorance. Though it is still in its technical infancy, instantaneous and inexpensive electronic communication -- the Internet or whatever already constitutes the most massive expansion of humankind's capacity to exchange words and information in all history. It is hard to argue that it is not an enormous boon.

Yet in my grimmest moments, I can imagine no more dangerous blight on the human condition than the isolation into anonymity, virtually total removal from genuine human contact, of important parts of the world's population. Without the irreplaceable benefits of human involvements -- family, neighborhood, village and beyond -- souls implode.

Those are, I grant, the most apocalyptic terms. And there is no small degree of paradox: Communication as a cause of isolation?

But today there is growing cause for concern as millions of people all about the industrialized world disappear into private electronic capsules. That is but one -- perhaps one of the less significant -- of the impacts of the cyber age on modern life and institutions. Few of those impacts are today within reach of comprehension.

There are avalanches of books about it all. Among the plethora of handbooks alone, a hugely successful series is directed placatingly to "Dummies" and another to "Idiots." There are volumes on everything from cyber-astrology to futurists' musings the implications beyond the 21st century.

Nobody really knows what's going to evolve. But one can take bits and pieces and make some sense of them. One of the more impressive efforts I have found in the last several years is "aol.com: How Steve Case Beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads, and Made Millions in the War for the Web," by Kara Swisher (Random House/Times Business, 333 pages, $25).

On the next page, Michael Waller's review of "Burn Rate" gives a crisp, fine summary of the industry -- volatile, predatory, sex-charged. Swisher's book explores much of the same territory, but with main focus on the battle for dominance of personal-computer e-mail, chat-room and advertising services. AOL founder Steve Case won that war in a decade of bitter combat with Bill Gates' Godzilla, Microsoft.

Technical developments have come on at mind-numbing speed, enabled by astonishing progress in micro-miniaturization. Some companies -- some entrepreneurial business leaders -- make millions, even billions, of dollars. Is it their supreme competence, their business genius? Or is it lightning striking when they happened to be standing in its way?

Swisher's book is a meticulous, step-by-step tracing of the birth, growth and evolution of America Online, interwoven with surrounding clumps of software, communications and financial businesses. The personalities of the players -- many of whom who make the term "eccentric" seem like oatmeal -- crackle with clarity.

Formerly a reporter for the Washington Post, now on the Wall Street Journal, Swisher pledges not to take sides with either "those who abhor it [or] those who adore it." She largely succeeds.

AOL, led by the now legendary Case (whose elusive personality is the armature of this book), emerged from a writhing nest of start-up companies. Today, it reigns. By early this year, it had developed 11 million paying members, not counting a couple of million it got by swallowing CompuServe, which had been a major competitor. That constitutes several hundred million monthly hours of on-line time, growing fast.

From early on, it was a rough-and-tumble, often dog-eat-dog, market. Basic purposes, financing, broad concepts and tiny but fTC vital intricacies shifted, changed fundamentally, in months, even weeks. Large pieces of capital were put up and lost or abandoned as whims and winds shifted.

There were roller-coaster quests for investment, incremental bits capital when times were hard, huge chunks from multibillion-dollar corporations and reclusive individual billionaires. Poison pills and other defense mechanisms

proliferated. High Noon at Cyber Corral.

And so goes the entire book. At this moment, Case and AOL dominate. Will they next year? Next quarter? Swisher makes it very clear that there are no guarantees.

What are the larger meanings?

In the business, there's mad money to be made -- perhaps as much by luck as by genius.

To the general population? Well, half or perhaps much more of those millions of hours are devoted to sex and pornography. Almost anyone who has a personal computer and $200 or so a year can concoct fantasy personalities and lives and spend a significant part of his or her waking hours "chatting" with people who have no idea of whether their chat-mate is man, woman or child, a rock star or a dish washer -- or perhaps yourself.

Is this enhanced communication or increasing isolation? The answer awaits us.

An apology

Last week on these pages, we published answers from 22 interesting people to the question: "A fluently English-speaking alien from outer space pleads with you to help it understand the United States as it is today, as quickly as possible. What single book would you tell it to read and why?"

Among those who were kind enough to respond was John Waters, the distinguished Baltimore filmmaker, writer and artist. Through a most regretted mechanical error the second half of his response was dropped from the page. His answer, in full: "'Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang' by J.E. Lighter, Random House. There's nothing worse than an over-educated linguist who can't talk about sex in a dirty way."

Pub Date: 7/05/98

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