Light of cyberspace swallowed by darkness

July 24, 2005|By Michael Kinsley

CYBERSPACE, TO ITS early denizens, was supposed to be a prelapsarian world, free from the taint of commerce and other vices of "meatspace" (as the material world is known), full of sweetness and light and universal siblinghood.

In fact, the storyline was Genesis in reverse. Our troubles started when Eve ate the apple of knowledge. Now knowledge had accumulated to the point where it could undo the damage, reconstruct the apple (or Apple) and restore our innocence.

As many were saying a decade ago, technology was the real counterculture. Geeks who did math were going to succeed where hippies who smoked dope and lefties who read Marx had failed. They were going to get us out of crass and ugly modern life and get us back into Eden.

But as a friendly place to hang out, give me meatspace any day. The only thing cyberspace has in common with Eden is snakes.

There is commerce aplenty, but that's not the problem. The happiest and most peaceful parts of the World Wide Web are the places where people are buying things. The nasty parts are where people are doing what the Founding Surfers intended: expressing themselves and forming communities.

Why is the tone of conversation on the Internet, especially about politics, so much lower than in the material world?

And nasty? Oh my goodness. Maybe the anonymity of e-mail empowers people to shed their usual carapace of politeness. Or maybe banging out an e-mail is just so easy, compared with all the necessary elements of writing a letter, that the id can send out half a dozen e-mails before the superego can stop it.

Or maybe cyberspace just has more than its share of undersocialized geeks, sitting in front of their computers and sharing their bitterness with the world. "On the Internet," says the dog in the famous New Yorker cartoon, "nobody knows you're a dog." On the Internet, nobody knows that you're a loser, either.

While technology and other aspects of modern life had isolated us from one another, the Internet was supposed to reverse this trend. Cyberspace promised wonderful new opportunities for community. This promise has been realized in many ways. People with a shared interest in volleyball or human rights in Estonia or collecting early Waring Blenders can find one another and enjoy the company. Physical proximity is irrelevant.

Old-fashioned geographical communities have non-soul mates rubbing up against each other. The challenge is to make them "all just get along," as we say here in Los Angeles. In cyberspace, you don't have to get along with people who are different. You're not going to bump into them in the aisles of Amazon.com. This makes cyberspace communities far touchier about defending their sphere and their interests. And the instant communication tools of cyberspace make it easier to develop a grievance and promote it.

Cyberspace communities often seem to be more energized by rejecting heathens than by embracing soul mates. They love staging inquisitions and anathemas.

Recently at the Los Angeles Times, we tried using a Web innovation called "wiki" - a shared-editing process very much in the cyberian spirit. For two days, thousands of people seemed to be enjoying it. But our e-mail boxes oozed with unwelcoming contempt from cyberoids. (Except for the real innovators of wiki - the founders of the amazing wikipedia.com - who were helpful and sympathetic.) Then a guerrilla attack in the middle of the night flooded the site with pornography, and we had to take it down.

What gets called "community" on the Web usually consists of various ways that surfers can share their views. But "share" is misleading. It implies that you are interested in learning the views of others, as well as expressing your own. That does not tend to be the case in cyberspace, any more than it is in meatspace.

It's not surprising that cyberians make lousy communitarians. Libertarian instincts are a more natural political fit with the silicon lifestyle. "Do your own thing and let others do theirs" is one of the big themes of the 1960s that had an unexpected second wind thanks to the geek counterculture.

But here, too, the ugliest aspects of libertarianism - the me-me-me, the stay-out-of-my-space - have dominated, while the more attractive libertarian vision (people wandering around in robes, picking flowers and writing poetry and ignoring each other and enjoying the silence, or something like that) hasn't played much of a role.

The rallying cry of the early cybernauts was, "Information wants to be free." Information is what the Internet delivers - and advanced economies are more about information and less about physical matter.

But information does not want to be free. As the recent Grokster case in the Supreme Court illustrated, the producers of information want to be paid. And the folks who still believe information should be free, it turns out, don't really care what information or its producers may want.

Eden, it ain't.

Michael Kinsley is opinion page editor and editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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