Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Infobahn

This article originally appeared in Zenith City Arts circa 1995.

Lost in Cyberspace
My first inkling of linking up with the Net emerged sometime in 1993. I knew I needed a modem, but in order to do this I had to upgrade my Mac since I was still driving my original 512Ke.

This done, with the help of some freelance income, I looked forward to Christmas when I could ask for a chunk of the payment toward a good fax/modem from Mr. Deep Pockets--as in Dad.

I had, unfortunately, some major writing projects I needed to tackle and I feared getting into Pioneer Netsurf Mode would endanger my productivity.

Fast forward to May 5, 1994. It is a Thursday, and I decide to visit Thinkman--a Net Surfer. He opens the gates and I get my first peek inside the realm I'd heretofore only dreamed of. Naturally I was hooked.

May 7, journal entry: Thots continue to orbit around the idea of Cyberspace and Connectivity. Made a purch. Will receive modem & AOL by next week. What will all this jargon do to mod lit?

Net travel becomes the primary pre-occupation in my thoughts. It is part of every conversation. I am bombarded by a whole battery of questions. How time consuming will it be? How long does it take to learn the protocol for getting around? How accessible is it, really? Will my anticipation lead to disappointment?

BUT A FUNNY THING WAS HAPPENING on my way to this peak experience. People around me were not all that excited. I mean, most of my workpace peers didn't even know what I was talking about. "Cyberspace? Infonet? Huh?"

Except a few. THEY knew. They knew something about it because they had seen it on television a few days earlier--a segment on one of those News Magazine-type programs that led them to believe the Infobahn was a world of terror where your worst nightmares come true... as stalkers and lurkers and hate mongers track you down, threaten your children and, generally, ruin your life.

Then there was the Newsweek cover story. Same week. Same fear-mongering. Is this really how it is out there?

After my first fifteen hours logged online here's my reaction: It's beautiful. Meeting people I could have never met any other way. A writer's group. Very open and friendly chat room experiences. A sympathetic, heartfelt discussion about Jackie O's sudden passing was in AOL's The Front Porch Room before it hit the news.

Of Flaming? What are these people talking about? I know, I'm a neophyte... so I speak out of ignorance. But how prevalent is it, really?

The whole of it seemed a little childish in my opinion. Sort of like the exaggerated caricatures of dope fiends in the film Reefer Madness.

Well, can you imagine if driving cars got this kind of publicity? Show pictures of bleeding heads hurled through windshields with a large banner that reads, 'THIS COULD BE YOU! DRIVING IS DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH1" M.A.D. ('Mericans Against Driving.)

My experience has raised some questions though. Does the major media respond this way because it feels threatened? Does it hope that the negative PR will prove detrimental to the movement? Did Michael Crichton's warnings to the National Press Club* send shivers up some spines? Or is this an addiction the new media has for which there is no cure until they are buried? Making people feel afraid must be an easier task than making people feel good.'

* * *
Now, here's the thing. You're interested in having a dialogue with peers at work about a book by Italo Calvino, or Jorge Luis Borges' use of labyrinths as a metaphor in his stories. Problem is, your peers do not read Calvino. In fact, most have never heard of Calvino, or Borges. They all watch television, and if you do not you are unable to meaningfully contribute to their perpetual break room revelry on the merits of the latest mini-series.

You suddenly discover a group of Borges fans discussing THIS VERY SUBJECT in a forum on America Online. This new expansion of your world is a blessing-and-a-half. Then you find that other interests of yours are also being discussing in various forums around the Matrix (another nickname for Cyberspace or the Net.) Who can blame you for wanting to spend a little more time with these people who share your interests? They, unlike others in your geographical sphere, understand where you are coming from. They appreciate your off-beat perspectives or narrow interests. And it feels good to know you are not isolated and alone in your views.  You feel affirmed, and just plain good about your world again.

* * *
A month has passed. My "flight log hours" in Cyberspace are adding up. Has my enthusiasm for this Big Adventure dissipated into mist? Hardly. List serves, Usenets, Veronica searches in Gopherspace... a universe has opened to me. And guess what? I've met some new friends--Mad Zeno, Therofax, Merlyn--as well as business contacts, including a literary agent who is interested in my work.

Nevertheless, the Media still seems intent on fear-mongering. A June 10 commentary by Bill Bishop in the local Duluth News Tribune again emphasized the down side of the Net. Cyberspace will ruin language and communication, he predicts, citing an obscure notation by a Harvard political scientist's study of communities in Italy.

Is this guy being a bit alarmist here, or what?

The future is upon us, folks. And if you'd rather buy buggy whip stock, have at it. My bet is on the technologies of Tomorrow. The wonders of Internet are available to all. And an open invitation is extended to anyone with a terminal.

Sure, there's hype. But there's some substance to the message of those Infobahn Evangelists, too. It's a New Frontier, calling for a new breed of Pioneers.

Columbus discovered the New World, Daniel Boone carved the Wilderness Road and historians have certified their importance by immortalizing their achievements in history books. Without a doubt, in the same way many of today's Cyberspace Pioneers will become legends in the history books of tomorrow.

If you want, you can be a part of it. Or wait... and watch your grandchildren read about it later.

# # # # 

I came across the 1994 article above while cleaning clutter out of my garage this past weekend. I thought it might make a suitable blog post for Throwback Thursday. How did you first discover the Internet?

*April 6, 1993, Michael Crichton predicted that our current perception of “mass media” would disappear within the next decade, and focused on the problems of the current media which has been charged with fabricating images to accompany news stories and with dealing in trivialities.

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