"The Psychology of the Internet," by Patricia Wallace. Cambridge University Press. 264 pages. $24.95.
As the 1990s slip away, it is time for a cursory backward glance at what the century's twilight years have brought for our country: the supercharged expansion of the economy, the impeachment of a president, the periodic violent sprees of sick men and lost boys.
Underneath all of this, underneath seemingly everything that happens to us now as a society, is another of this decade's signal developments, the mass embrace of the Internet.
Only a few years ago, this web of data transmissions was the province of a technocratic few. Now, of course, the web is the Web, and the Internet is the river that carries our garbage and our driftwood, our showboats and our barges of commerce. It's a muddy wash of conspiracy, smut, solipsism and drivel. It's a life-giving stream of education, activism, companionship and art.
The Internet has been credited (and blamed) for shrinking the world, destabilizing traditional social structures and throwing open new realms of information and entertainment. These claims are true, but they often ignore that the Internet is just the latest stage in a long process.
After all, one of the themes of our dying century is the erosion of institutions that had formerly held the individual in check -- family, community, organized religion and the autocratic state. This process has been both healthy and harmful, but it is not new. The Internet has simply taken it a few steps further.
The astonishing growth of the medium begs a lot of questions, none more fundamental than this: How does the Internet affect the people who use it?
Patricia Wallace's new book is a timely and thoughtful attempt to provide some answers. To call it an attempt is no insult, because as Wallace herself wisely concedes, it is premature to draw firm conclusions on this subject. The Internet is still too new, and is changing too quickly, to lie down serenely on the analyst's couch.
Wallace, the executive director of the spookily-named Center for Knowledge and Information Management at the University of Maryland, starts off with the striking thesis that the Internet can still be shaped, and has not grown completely beyond our control.
"[I]t is an environment that we, as Internet users, can affect and mold -- provided we have some inkling of how, and why, it can change our perceptions and behavior," she writes.
"The Psychology of the Internet" is more narrowly focused than its title suggests. The book pays relatively little attention to the psychological aspects of the personal and organizational Web sites that, for many users, form the heart of the Internet experience. Wallace's book is not long, and it would have profited from a more substantial discussion of the purposes Web sites serve for their viewers and creators.
The book focuses on other, more purely interactive aspects of the Internet, such as chat groups and e-mail. Wallace draws intriguing conclusions about how these venues affect the way we fight, flirt, befriend and organize: the Internet makes nonconformity easier, but can dilute the power of the dissident voice; it invites intimacy between strangers, but its unadorned text lends that correspondence a chilly edge.
In other words, the Internet -- for all its allure as a place of escape and quickie self-improvement -- is as complex and contradictory as any other budding civilization. Beneath its shiny carapace, it is human to the core.
Mark Ribbing has covered the telecommunications industry for The Sun since 1997. Before that he was a lawyer and staff writer for a chain of newspapers in Colorado.