The Future I Wish I Hadn’t Predicted
It’s really that bad.
On February 16, 1993, I wrote an article for my friend’s fanzine, The Legions of Rassilon Quarterly, about “Internet.” (Here’s a link to the PDF of the original article so that you can see it’s real.) We called it “Internet” rather than “the Internet” back then. It basically consisted of email and the “newsgroups” — a series of essentially text-only public bulletin boards, some of which were moderated, but most weren’t. The article is terribly pretentious, wordy, and filled with both typos and quaint artifacts of the time period. But everything else…oh, God. Oh, dear, dear God…
For example, I wrote: “Technology is simply evolving much faster than we can shed our prejudices and much swifter than we can learn to respect one another.”
So, yeah. And there’s more. Much, much more. What follows is the text of the article exactly as I wrote it on February 16, 1993. Read it. Weep. And #deletefacebook.
The “Net Worth” of Internet Newsgroups
(for Those on the Cutting Edge)
We are living within arm’s length of the future: every week, science
brings us closer to technology in worlds envisioned by Philip K. Dick, John
Brunner, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and William Burroughs. These
writers did not create worlds of the 28th century, but rather worlds of tomorrow.
And tomorrow we may live in those worlds, but today we are breaching the
barriers that previously prevented us from molding a new reality from these
writers’ ideas. Now that we have penetrated some of the technological barriers, we have numerous new technologies: virtual reality, nanotechnology, cybernetics, bioengineering, artificial intelligence, and multimedia, to list a few.
One technology, developed by writers like William Gibson in his book
“Neuromancer,” is the universal network of information called the Net. In
fiction, the Net is a network, and everyone has some sort of identification that allows them to access some sector of that network, either through a work terminal, home computer, or public access (PAX) machine. Certain individuals (called “netrunners”) can mentally transverse this universal network as they “hack” into various sectors of information. Information is the ultimate power, and he or she who has access to information has power. The Net is a place where minds converge and diverge, collide and pass, inform and reform in the panorama of cyberspace, regardless of sex, age, race, or background. For many, cyberspace is the true “equalizer,” a place free of the social and racial prejudices that plague our society, a place of pure intellectual power and freedom. It is the ultimate mental frontier where the electronic terrain challenges us to penetrate its fortresses. The Net allows individuals to connect with the rest of the world to create their own reality and invade the reality of others. But while most of the technologies listed earlier all have practical applications today, the fictional concept of the Net is elusive: many institutions and individuals maintain separate computer systems, and only a fraction of them is linked in any way to a larger network. The ones that are linked may use one of a few international networks; one of these is called Internet.
Internet is a UNIX-based network that allows individuals, corporations,
universities and the military to connect to its system via a variety of gateways and nodes. Users can send electronic mail (e-mail) to other users as long as they have the appropriate electronic “address.” Usually corporations, for example, will have internal e-mail that is not linked to Internet or any other
network, but they can purchase links to the bigger networks if needed. Internet allows individuals to transfer large amounts of information, including a variety of file types, anywhere in the world that the receiver has an Internet electronic address. Computer hackers can traverse these electronic airwaves and break into systems, but not in the manner so graphically depicted in movies such as “The Lawnmower Man.” The Net as it exists today is merely a communication tool that allows people to communicate the written word faster than ever before, without the chrome-like luster of cyberpunk. However, many wonder if the Net as it exists today will ever evolve into the concept detailed so exquisitely in William Gibson’s novels. So, what can someone expect who begins to use Internet functions with only a copy of “Mona Lisa Overdrive” under their arm?
Certainly one of the more entertaining aspects of Internet is a program called “read news.” Internet supports hundreds of “newsgroups” on a variety of scientific, recreational, and computer-related topics. It also supports a rapidly growing number of “alternative” newsgroups that discuss myriad miscellaneous topics regarding literature, entertainment, and personal experiences. Whatever your interests might be, there is probably a newsgroup that discusses each one.
And if there isn’t one, you can create one! Users may post messages to all the other users of a newsgroup to ask a question or make a comment. One of my favorite newsgroups discussed films, and when a new film debuted, dozens of users would post reviews to the newsgroup right away. Also, if you didn’t understand some portion of a film, or simply wanted to discuss it, there were plenty of people who were willing to trade views with you via written messages that everyone could read if they wished.
This kind of information exchange can be very educational and healthy
because through the newsgroups a user can communicate with people from
various backgrounds and age levels in an open forum. A user’s sex is the only personal aspect ascertainable through e-mail messages to the newsgroup, and even then it is not always clear. Internet’s newsgroups provides a place where people can express their views and glean information almost anonymously.
But since we live in society and not in “the Net,” we are not free of racial, religious and lifestyle prejudices. On the anthropological newsgroup, an Australian man vents his rage on Christianity, saying that every Christian
should be tortured and killed. On another newsgroup, citizens from the States express similar feelings towards homosexuals. Women and minority groups are always under philosophical and social siege. I witnessed people of faith being attacked far more often than any other minority group in the newsgroups, with less rationale and more emotion. If you thought for a moment that Hitler and was dead, think again.
Anonymity affords the writer the freedom to express his or her ideas
without fear of retribution, giving the writer the dangerous illusion of
innocuousness. It is quite revealing what people are willing to say and with
what venom they express it if they do not have to physically confront the person to whom they are responding. Sometimes honesty is particularly valuable; but who should endure abuse for the sake of honesty? Is it true honesty to not account for the humanity of the recipient, or merely negligence? For where everyone is relatively anonymous, therein is the most poison injected: hatred, condemnation, and irrationality are broadcasted in a cacophonous deluge. Is this equality? Is this freedom? Our First Amendment rights guarantee freedom of speech, but too frequently our speech is imprisoned by our prejudices.
Informative discussions can and do arise; people express their opinions
and ideas cogently and persuasively, responding to objections with some wit, intelligence and finesse. Unfortunately, though, many otherwise meaningful messages are obscured by poor writing. We simply cannot communicate in writing the same way we do in speech. There are typographical symbols used in e-mail messages to indicate irony and sarcasm, but symbols cannot complement an otherwise illiterate response. Some might argue that the
frequent use of e-mail to transmit ideas is proof that good writing and proper English are not critical for communication. The problem here is that although it might be easy to transmit written statements, it is not as easy to transmit written ideas effectively. While it takes one well-written message to transmit an idea, it may take three poorly written messages to communicate that same idea. Ultimately, the time saved in transmission may or may not compensate for the time it takes to clarify an idea.
However, if someone is merely transmitting data, which is often why businesses use Internet, then this argument and every concerned raised here becomes moot. Data is not associated with people and personal communication. It is free of emotional refuse and prejudice. Data influences ideas and actions more powerfully than any other form of communication. Even though many are aware that statistics can be deceptive, people are still greatly influenced by charts and graphs. A modern adage makes the point
clear: if you don’t have data, you’re just someone with another opinion. And
driving technology with opinions is like putting water in your gas tank: the tank may be full, but the car still won’t run and now the motor is ruined.
Essentially, then, Internet provides two kinds of communication:
personal communication for entertainment and business communication for technological growth. Internet provides corporations and smaller businesses with the capability to transmit technological data quickly and effectively, promoting technological progress. It is this information which the hacker, the true urban cowboy, seeks, and wherein the real power lies. In this respect, Internet resembles the fictional Net; many corporations install robust security mechanisms on their Internet links to prevent hackers, current day “netrunners,” from invading their systems. Internet is well suited for the
communication of data, and it is therefore invaluable to the accelerated
development of technology, bringing us closer to the science fiction about our tomorrow. Its value for the development and exchange of ideas, however, is questionable for it often perpetuates emotionalism over logic under the guise of personal expression, and verbal abuse behind the shield of anonymity. Technology is simply evolving much faster than we can shed our prejudices and much swifter than we can learn to respect one another.
So in this case, no news may truly be good news.