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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #27      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates     September 10, 1996
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Editor's note
    *** Feeling stupid (Paul Griffin)
          The web as a space of disconnection and projection
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's note

    We publish in this issue an essay by Paul Griffin, which was one of the two second-prize winners in the SPIDER OR FLY? writing competition. (The judges awarded only these two prizes, feeling that there were no other sufficiently qualified entries. The non-awarded prize money, as stated in the contest rules, goes to the Wilderness Awareness School of Redmond, Washington.) See the contest page for fuller details.

    NF #26 contained an incorrect email address for Orion magazine. The correct address is orion@bcn.net. In its autumn, 1996 issue Orion will carry the full article by Tom Jay, which we excerpted in NF #26 as "The Placeless, Neighborless Realm."

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    *** Feeling stupid

    From Paul Griffin (griffinp@snycorva.cortland.edu)

    [This essay is a second-prize winner in the SPIDER OR FLY? competition. Paul Griffin teaches English at the State University of New York College at Cortland, where he makes use of the Internet in composition classes. He refuses to admit publicly how many hours he spends each week surfing the net in search of interesting sites. He says that he sees himself as "a cybermoderate, somewhere between the Luddites who dismiss the net as trash and the hucksters who try to make it way more than it really is." And he readily admits that as he confronts his own middle age, he is amazed at the increasingly sophisticated computer skills of the first-year college students he teaches.]

                                   FEELING STUPID

    Forget about cyberspace for a minute and think about underwear. A few years ago, a full-page ad appeared in the Sunday New York Times announcing a new brand of men's undershorts. Picture this image: a close-up shot of a surly looking adolescent, shown from the waist up. The kid's torso is naked, his body adorned only by a long string of wooden beads around his neck and a pair of the company's boxer shorts on his head, in the manner of a pharaoh's headdress. The boy stares straight on into the camera, his expression a suburban, junior-grade equivalent of the one worn by Robert DeNiro's character in the famous mirror scene in Taxi Driver. Bobby, you'll remember, says: "You lookin' at me? You must be lookin' at me, because there's no one else here." If this kid could talk, and the odds on that seem 3-2 against at best, he would be saying: "Yeah? So? Boxer shorts on my head. Like you have a problem with that?"

    All advertisers hawk their wares in one of two ways: either by extolling a product's virtues or by situating the goods in an attractive ambiance, and clearly the creators of the suburban boxer-head are taking the second tack. But just what is the context into which they are putting the new line of men's shorts? How is this ad supposed to get me to drop what I'm doing and run out to Saks and buy some designer underwear?

    By appealing to my stupidity. I use that term not in its everyday sense of "lack of intelligence," but in its literal meaning of stupefaction: cover-your-mouth, shut-your-face, drop-dead-in- your-tracks-and-try-not-to-think-about-it silence. Let's face it. Boxer Boy looks pretty foolish. If we stand back and actually look at him, he becomes nothing more than a junior-high locker-room goof-off with a bad attitude. But his demeanor tells us that he clearly doesn't give a rat's ass about how ridiculous he looks or where he is, and the ad's designers obviously believe that neither will potential consumers of the product. His self-absorption is meant to be attractive, a way of taking control by zoning out, a welcome show of "independence" in an over-commercialized world.

    To understand anything about our current attitude toward space--inner, outer, personal, public, cyber or other--you need to understand the dynamics of space at work in this ad. Certainly, we could say that the ad is a public, shared space. That's the point, after all, of companies paying the expensive prices that the Times charges. But that air- headed model occupies that space in a disturbingly private way. Private not so much because he's selling underwear; after Madonna, Marky Mark, and presidential news conferences on the subject, there's really not much private about undies. But private because he is willfully extracting himself from public space, ignoring the world and the people around him even as he looks at them straight on, daring them to call his bluff. Another current underwear ad takes this approach one step further by populating its layouts with whole squadrons of distracted models who seem to come together only for the purpose of publicly zoning out in their underpants. One boxer-head or a thousand, the number doesn't matter, since in the world these ads create people become toddlers in a sandbox, all playing simultaneously without ever really playing together.

    The geography of this ad and the spirit of nonchalant, isolated, and apparently attractive ignorance it contains pay homage to perhaps the greatest cultural heritage of post-World War II America, the development of distracted space. The four great legacies of this period, commercial network television, the shopping mall, the fast-food chain, and the interstate highway system, all result from conscious efforts to engineer space to accommodate and reinforce the sense of freedom and efficacy necessary for people to be good consumers. Each of these environments makes a silk purse out of the proverbial sow's ear by transforming what is in fact a carefully controlled limitation of human choice--the programming of commercial television, the inventories of malls, the menu at McDonalds, the limited access of a highway--into a celebration of individual freedom. I can decide whether I want to watch the CBS news or CNN, Letterman or Leno. I can decide if I'm going to buy plain old Fruit of the Looms or the fancy boxers advertised in the Times. I can opt for a Whopper or a Big Mac. I can hop in my car and be in Chicago by morning. On the road again. Have it your way.

    What I can't do of course is worry too much about whether there's much difference between CBS and CNN, Letterman and Leno, Calvin Klein or BVD, a Whopper and a Big Mac or about just what I would do in Chicago once I got there. But that kind of necessary stupidity--"Don't Worry Be Happy"-- seems a pretty small price to pay for the sense of power I have when I walk into the Mall with my MasterCard at the ready or zoom up the entrance ramp onto the interstate with my tank full of hi-test. The public spaces that contain so much of our lives in late twentieth century America make real Henry ford's famous remark about the potential buyers of Model T's: they can have any color they want as long as they want black.

    The idea that to get power you have to give it up is central to much of Western thought, from the ancient Greeks to the Christians to Alcoholics Anonymous and the hundreds of contemporary recovery movements it has spawned. The Greek philosophers told people to take charge of their lives by abandoning the comforting superstitions of mythology and subjecting their passions to the dictates of reason. The best example of the Christian's approach to the issue of control is Augustine's moving testimony in his Confessions that he was going out of his mind until he was "born again" by giving up his pagan beliefs and surrendering himself unconditionally to the Christian god. Eight hundred years later, Martin Luther works an even better variation on the theme by telling Christians that by virtue of their faith they are "perfectly free, subject to none" and at the same time "perfectly dutiful servants of all, subject to all." And A.A. tells you to take charge of your life by giving up control to a higher power.

    What we've done to this basic Western attitude during the last fifty years or so of American culture is to redefine in our own terms the rewards of submitting to a higher power. Where the ancient Greeks touted the good life, and Christians offered love and salvation, we have conspicuous consumption and the "serenity" that supposedly comes from knowing the difference between the very few things we can change in this world and those we cannot. Think of the average suburban subdivision. Every two- bit stand-up comedian can point out its limitations: the sameness, the uniformity, the standardization of taste. Still the middle class flocks to live there, and actively seeks out the opportunity to complain about battling the crab grass and keeping up with the neighbors. By overlooking that small issue of lack of originality and subscribing to the code of neat lawns, subdued color schemes, and no noisy leaf blowers before 8:00 a.m. on weekend mornings, we open ourselves to a world of possibilities, or at least of possible purchases: weed killer, driveway sealer, lawn chairs, roofing tiles, wall-to-wall carpeting, pool liners, dishwashers, ice-tea makers, wallpaper borders, coffee table books, exercise equipment, Jeep Cherokees, home fax machines, cellular phones, the list goes on until we run out of new products to buy, new infomercials to watch, new neighbors to compete with, or money, whichever comes first. Who has more possibilities or more power than a homeowner with good credit wandering the aisles of a Home Depot?

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    The terms "cyberspace" and "the web" did not boot themselves into existence. They are metaphors, our means of stretching the world we know to encompass and explain the new, the startling, the frightening, the enticing. Like "home," "country," "civilized world," "outer space," and all spatial metaphors, these terms describe both a location and an attitude toward what goes on there.

    In his history of architecture, Vincent Scully traces the development of Western architecture as a series of efforts to define, enclose, and master sacred space. He begins his study by looking at what he calls "sacred mountains," the pyramids and ziggurats of ancient Mayan, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian cultures that show the power of humans to use technology to mimic the surrounding natural topography. In creating this imitation, he argues, ancient builders were not trying to master the natural world but to pay homage to it, and so to heighten people's awareness of its presence and its power.

    Scully then turns his attention to the Greek temple, Roman public spaces like the Forum and the Coliseum and then the medieval cathedral. What these types of building have in common, according to Scully, is an effort to enclose and master nature, to create what he calls "a transcendent interior space," a place which evokes the sacred or the spiritual not through a direct repetition of nature, but through the assertion of the human power to contain and dominate it. Think of the finely carved stone flowers decorating the tops of columns in a Gothic cathedral or the more familiar gargoyles on the outsides of those buildings: they take us to the natural world but only on the builder's terms. The formal gardens of the Renaissance represent the next logical step in the progression Scully describes.

    Walk into a Greek temple, a Gothic cathedral, a Renaissance palazzo and its gardens, and you have very little doubt about the values they celebrate: reason, divine transcendence, and the grandeur of the human scale, respectively. You cannot say the same about a modern skyscraper or apartment building or even a McDonalds. For the actions they enclose and permit are not ones of worship or craftsmanship, but the power of business and the movement of capital, which by definition cannot stand still or be fixed. Look at any great early modern building--the New York City Post Office and the Boston Public Library spring to mind--and you'll find it covered with inscriptions and mottos. We don't do that anymore, and for good reason. For while we can perhaps put a word on the values we see made concrete before us in our great buildings, that word doesn't help all that much, doesn't lead to any real understanding. The building is there, the value is suggested, and there you have it.

    What these buildings celebrate is not the human recreation of the sacred, but rather the power of technology to control space totally: anyone who has studied, lived or worked in a hermetically sealed, climate controlled, secure creation of modern architecture knows what this space feels like. Massive, functional, large, impersonal, and bland on the inside. Which is not to say that individual buildings are not comfortable, attractive, or even interesting to inhabit. But they are buildings made for a skyline, units that fit together in much the same way as the boys in the underwear ad I mentioned above or tots on the playground or houses in a subdivision: engaged in simultaneous though similar monologues rather than any conversational interaction.

    Perhaps the most useful commentary on modern architecture occurs in Thomas Pynchon's 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49. Early in the story, the heroine is driving through the changing southern California landscape of the early sixties and stops her car to look out below her at the growing sprawl of a subdivision. It strikes her that the pattern of houses and streets looks like a printed circuit board, but she doesn't really know what it means. She realizes that the landscape is like a hieroglyphic which she cannot translate: seemingly pregnant with meaning yet impossible to interpret. Pynchon is suggesting that the scene his heroine looks out on, like much of the architecture of our day, is perhaps the first known human construction that memorializes human stupidity.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Yesterday's newspaper brought word that a Jewish congregation in Manhattan had opened a special web page for Passover, a virtual Seder for those people throughout the world who wanted more information or lacked access to the real thing. Anyone who's spent more than ten minutes on the internet knows that in addition to the Seder, you can find virtual universities, virtual fraternity houses, virtual bordellos, virtual libraries, and a virtual equivalent of the site of almost any human activity you can imagine. One favorite of mine: a virtual monastery created by a band of monks in the New Mexico desert who see the illustration of religious web pages as a logical extension of the manuscript work that occupied their medieval counterparts. (And I'm pleased to report that at last account the monastery was in the running to design the Vatican's web page.)

    The question we need to ask though is just what makes virtual space virtual. A "virtual" Seder differs from a real one in pretty much the same way that watching a video by yourself differs from going to a theater and watching with other people. Virtual worlds isolate individuals and then reinsert them in a world where they can be sociable on their own terms. We've all read the stories about the groups that meet on the net and converse for years but only come together to attend a funeral when one member dies. (Or they hold a virtual funeral.) And we've seen the CNN reports about paraplegics who can interact on the internet and never let on that they are "differently abled."

    John Fiske in his study of Television Culture reports on research done in Britain which suggests that when people watch television, especially soap operas, they tend to spin their own plots. That is, they watch the show as broadcast, but in their own minds "edit" it to focus their attention on the characters they like or the plot situations which intrigue them. So the pleasure these viewers take is not so much from following the script of the show as it is played out, but in playing off that common script in a kind of private monitor of the mind. In other words, they turn a broadcast into their own "narrowcast," a "real" show into a virtual one that lets them be not just passive onlookers but active participants in the "production" of the story. So called "trash tv" plays to this dimension of the medium by offering audiences not so much a story to follow ("my boyfriend slept with my mother") but an intense emotion to play off. Be titillated, be angry, be amused, be sad: your particular reaction doesn't really matter, so long as it keeps you watching.

    In a similar way, local news stations insert "teaser" messages into the commercials they air in the hours before the local news broadcast. Example: "Will we have fair weather tomorrow or are we in for more rain? Meteorologist Dick Happyface has the details at 11." I take these teasers as the station's acknowledgment of two important points about local news broadcasts. First, if they just came right out and told us the weather for tomorrow, we wouldn't bother watching the news at 11. And second, what will get us to watch are not so much the details of the weather themselves, the "real" content of the show, but a sense of suspense, an emotional thrill of which the weather is only a "virtual" catalyst.

    This aspect of television is the most important cultural context in which to understand the web and its influence on the way we live now. For what the computer and its networks do for us is to make all information, all data, all words, all sounds, all images simply virtual, a series of bits, a hardware configuration that has no meaning other than what we as individual users want to assign to it. The rapid shrinking in size of the computer itself, from boxy mainframe to sleek wireless and thin laptop, highlights this key aspect of cyberspace: its point is to situation the user at the point of maximum "freedom" in both the physical and metaphysical senses of the term.

    Cyberspace, then, like the burgeoning subdivision Oedipa Maas looked out on thirty years ago in Pynchon's novel, seems like it should mean something simple, be understandable as a spider's web or a lifeline or some other useful metaphor, but the more we wander through this geography, the more difficult it becomes to find that simple metaphor. Perhaps the best we can do is to acknowledge that we are entering a space that we will recognize not so much for its physical configuration, its landmarks, or its monuments, but for the way it makes us feel, for the strange sense of power, and awe, and delicious stupidity it evokes in us.

    In Walden, Henry David Thoreau gives his reaction to the new technology of his day, the telegraph. In a passage beloved by cyberphobes everywhere, Thoreau observes that "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraphy from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate." Thoreau assumes here that the medium is merely the passive conduit of the "real meaning" contained in the message being sent. He neglects the way in which the medium influences the message or can make an important message out of the very fact that people are linked by it. Jump forward a century to Oedipa Maas looking out over a California subdivision. She is still thinking like Thoreau in a world where such thinking is no longer possible. She wants there to be an all important meaning or "message" in the landscape, but fails to realize that the experience of her own stupidity is all the meaning she's going to get.

    Thoreau warned his contemporaries that humans were becoming enslaved by what we would now call "technology," that they were becoming "tools of the tools." Freud, writing some fifty years later, would delve into the reason for this situation when he argued in Civilization and its Discontents that by the beginning of the twentieth century, technology had made humans into "prosthetic gods." Freud saw, in other words, that a good part of the "meaning" of devices like the telegraph was the exhilaration and power people felt in simply being able to use them. (I'm convinced the same feeling motivates people to upgrade their computer hardware, merely because the more powerful upgrade is available.)

    To understand the influence of the internet and cyberspace in our lives, we need to examine this feeling of being free, connected, in control. And the complimentary feeling, less frequent and less pleasant, that the web can never be anything more or less than the virtual holder of any meaning we assign it. In other words, the web doesn't really have any significance at all, except, of course, the one we want to give it as a place where we can feel free. As that doe-eyed kid with the shorts on his head might have said, "It's the feeling, stupid."

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    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1996 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.

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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #27 :: September 10, 1996

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