The Kinder Gap: The City of God

  2. The Kinder Gap
  3. Say You Want a Revolution?

Think not that I come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)

Today we have a strongly fractured media: kids play computers games, watch teen shows, get their news from teen news shows, and read teen mags. The working class have their own weekly newspapers and talk shows, and upper class liberals have their National Public Radio. We also divide our media by cultural background: consumers from African, Korean, and Mexican descent each have their own magazines, talk shows, radio stations, television shows, and sometimes even, in the larger cities, their own television stations.

The infobahn will feed this with a vengeance. Everyone can be their own magazine.

I was born the first child, in a rural area outside of the small town of Hesperia, Michigan. Our nearest neighbor on this side of the road was at least two or three city blocks away, and (except for one blissful summer) neither of our neighbors had any children living with them. My first brother doubled my community when he was born, and each subsequent sibling--to a total of four--similarly added to my circle of acquaintances. I went to a rural Catholic school, adding twenty or so friends, and later to a small town high school with just under a hundred classmates. The city-born have more of a choice who their friends are; perhaps they’ll have an easier time on the infobahn. For me it is a different world, with everyone in the world as a neighbor. Who will become my close friends and circle of acquaintances?

I think of “who will become” rather than “who will I choose” because that is my upbringing. My friends are the people I meet. In a small town, you can’t afford any less. It probably isn’t the best way of thinking about people on the infobahn, however. It means that my friends will be whoever also happens to be on the newsgroups that I read, whoever happens to “live down the road” on the infobahn. It means that not only will my friends share my interests, so will my acquaintances. While geographically more diverse, we will be topically more homogenous.

In response to the barbarian Alaric’s sack of Rome, Bishop Augustine (who, we later discovered, was a Saint), wrote The City of God, arguing that Christianity united its members in a spiritual city greater than any physical city. Augustine was impressed because Alaric, also a Christian, had spared the Vatican and the Christians who had taken refuge there. Augustine, who had followed the philosopher’s tradition of leaving a wife and child (in order to seek ‘the truth’ but also because they were non-Christian), was not bothered by Alaric’s six-day sack of the rest of Rome. Augustine died before the discovery that when Christians ran out of non-Christians in easy reach, well, Christians are pretty easy to sack and pillage too. (?)

What does this have to do with the infobahn? It’s the “invisible city” part. There are those who believe that universal two-way communications will bring the world together, making it a more peaceful place. More likely, it just means you’ll know the e-mail address of the person you’re shooting. We can even put it on everyone’s dog tags. Ah, [j--r--y] at [teetot]. Thank you very much. Boom.

From: Bill Clinton ([p--i--t] at [])
To: Kathy Stratton ([k--t--y] at [])
Subject: The Heroic Death of Your Son, Insert Name

Dear Insert Honorific Insert Recipient’s Name

We are Insert Appropriate Emotion to learn of your Insert Relation’s heroic death fighting the Insert Current Enemy.

His dog tag and personal digital assistant will be returned to you shortly. Again, please accept our condolences. If you have any other sons who might sacrifice themselves for my ambition, please forward their electronic mail addresses to [r--id--t] at []

President Insert Current President’s Nickname

The Internet has its own version of war: The Flamewar. The very word makes a netizen’s blood burn with fear. At the first hint of a flamewar, system administrators run to their disks to protect them from data overflow. Flames lurk behind every post, and the only shield is a smiley and a killfile. Some netizens swear by asbestos suits, but asbestos is no protection against virtual fire.

What is a flamewar? It’s a war of words between the members of two (or more) opposing ideologies. Flamewars can erupt over things as silly as whether or not to split a newsgroup into multiple newsgroups, or over fightin’ topics as ingrained in our society as abortion and gay’s rights. Flamewars are noted, not for their intelligent debate, but for the insulting references to the other side. (Though there are people who, when faced with facts that they can’t dispute and that decimate their position, will call those facts ‘flames’.)

Flamewars can float, traveling from newsgroup to newsgroup like an unwanted relative, a virtual embodiment of Chaos, dying, like Lucifer, only to reappear unscathed in another part of the net. The most dreaded demon of them all: the Floating Homosexuality Flamewar, which has probably ‘graced’ every newsgroup over a year old. The FHF is undoubtedly responsible for more deaths than any other discussion on the net.


Welcome to my killfile, Mr. Cramer.

The killfile is the last refuge of a desperate reader. The entire concept flocks dangerously close to censorship, the evil enemy of net.freedom. When a reader places you in their killfile, you are, for them, dead. They will never see your face again, at least, not on the net. Their newsreader screens the messages they receive, culls the chaff--your posts--and leaves only the ‘wheat’--everybody else’s post--for them to read.

Of course, the killfile has its downside: just because you’ve killed them, they don’t need to kill you. The net does not require mutual deaths. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of Usenet, and like Rebecca Nurse of Salem, you will be unable to defend yourself. You cannot hear. And if your arch-enemy knows you’ve killed them?

From: [j--n--s] at []
Newsgroups: talk.politics.animals
Subject: Squealer’s Delight

Squealer delights in eating babies with pork sauce. He won’t even respond to this post, because it’s true.

Farmer Jones

Net “common sense” says that flamewars erupt easily on the net because the net is an impersonal place. All you see is text on a computer screen, and it becomes, so the tale goes, easy to forget that a human being is on the other side of the screen.

In (My First Flame) John Seabrook calls flaming “a form of speech that is unique to on-line communication”. But it’s only unique in that it can happen so fast and so close to home. Flamewars erupt as often in real life as they do on the net--just watch the evening news. Virtual reality has no monopoly on misunderstandings and long-held grudges.

Flamewars erupt not because the net is impersonal, but because it’s more personal than any other form of communication this side of the personal letter. Electronic mail can wedge further into your heart than Rush Limbaugh. We read a flame-filled Usenet post and feel it was addressed to us, the royal we, conveniently forgetting that it is also addressed to the unroyal millions of everybody else on the net. We read an electronic mail message and forget that we don’t know the person who sent it; why would strangers send us a letter? And yet this friend-that-we-don’t-know has, for some reason, insulted us. Said we were wrong. Oof! It’s a hard blow to the solar plexus, that is. A longtime friend--we’ve known them for at least a minute, that’s forever in computer time--has the nerve to contradict us in a personal letter.

Better flame back, good and hard.

One of the problems is that different people view e-mail as a different thing. Some people consider e-mail another form of private conversation. Others don’t. If you converse with a group of people on a daily basis you might end up considering them friends. If you have a conversation with a single person on a daily basis, you may well consider them a close friend. I would. But you are eventually in for an unpleasant surprise if you feel that way. The net is a new medium, and it does not come with a predefined set of social norms. You make your own rules as you use it, and you need to remember that everyone else is making their own rules as well. For some, daily communication may be no more than a professional acquaintanceship; others may even decide that e-mail isn’t even worth that. People are different, and the net can and will expand these differences.

Global Villages of the Information Age

The ‘bringing together’ of diverse cultures rarely results in peace. If television’s global villages, to paraphrase Bill Moyers, (?) are Beirut and Bosnia, what will be the global village brought about by the infobahn? Salmon Rushdie wrote a book about the history of Islam and ended up with a death threat; what if an Ayatollah decides to filter talk.theology and kiboze the hell out of it, saving every denigrating Islamic reference, and forwarding the poster’s address to a special on-line hit program? That could be a lot of death threats on the Khomeini memorial web page.

I happened to wander across alt.skinheads on a dare and saw the following posting:

You, my friend are a piece of black negro shit I scooped up after my dog tok a shit. Why is it I have three niggers that pick through my garbage? I realize that the waste from a Great White man’s house is a treasure and all, but cummon, I get sick of my garbage can lid being open all the time! (?)

The posting continued for two or three pages. Would he have said this in real life? Who knows? People do say that sort of thing in real life. Racism didn’t start with the Internet. How can we expect it to end there?

Where racial and ethnic divisions exist, we can’t expect the Internet to magically heal them. Where such divisions exist, the Internet will bring together vast numbers of people who hate each other, and allow them to hate each other all the more.

It will allow people with minority beliefs to join together no matter how far apart they are physically. People who thought they were alone will find others of similar mind on the net. Some of this will result in greater freedom, wells of innovation, and invention and art, but it will not result in greater cohesion. Far from it, it will result in furthering any breaks that already exist, and magnifying divisions of one into hundreds and thousands.

This is a good thing. It’s called diversity. The last thing we want is a “homogenized culture” where everyone speaks English and Thinks the Right Thoughts.

Fringe groups make it big on the net. Why? Because no matter how strange you are, there’s someone else just like you among the millions of people on the Internet. And as more and more people hook up to the net, this becomes more and more true. People will no longer have to live together in communes in order to share the same beliefs. They will be able to be geographically diverse and still maintain the integrity of their belief structure. And knowing you’re not alone is heady reinforcement for any belief.

Flaming Junk Mail

A law firm by the name of Canter & Siegel managed to generate quite a few ‘flames’ when they sent junk mail to the entire population of Usenet. In Canter & Siegel’s case, it wasn’t the junk mail so much as the way they did it. Usenet has an effective means of posting to more than one newsgroup. It’s called ‘crossposting’, and it ensures that people who read more than one newsgroup only have to see the message once. The message is posted only once, but it appears in every newsgroup the message is crossposted to. Canter & Siegel didn’t do that. They posted their message separately to every single newsgroup. People who read five newsgroups saw it five times. People who read ten newsgroups saw it ten times. Twenty times. Thirty. Many people got very annoyed at Canter & Siegel. A few people got so annoyed that they flamed back; the result was that Canter & Siegel’s ‘Internet provider’ was inundated with mail. They received so much mail that their computers crashed under the load.

Canter & Siegel deserved this treatment: their message was completely inappropriate for most of the newsgroups it was posted to, and in any case, they should have crossposted as much as possible instead of posting separately to each and every newsgroup. Part of the freedom of the net is that if you can send messages to someone, they can send messages back to you. If you send 10,000 messages out, expect 10,000 messages to come back.

Recently, Canter & Siegel have come out with a book explaining how to use the Internet to advertise. It’s sort of like a twelve year old, holding up traffic with his father’s tractor, writing a book about how to drive a car.

Trust in Electronic Communities

Combining the real world with the infobahn can be dangerous. Stewart Brand tells the story of a small research group in San Diego who, in the dark ages of 1982, started a private electronic mail system for themselves. For six months it was geek heaven. Then someone started sending out anonymous insults to members of the group. Everyone implored this anonymous flamer to stop, but to no avail. “Before long, the community was so absorbed in an attempt to identify the bad apple that constructive discourse ceased. The group posted many messages imploring whoever was doing this to stop, but the person didn’t, and the community was destroyed.” (?) But it wasn’t just the electronic community that was destroyed; they lost their trust in each other in real life as well. “To this day, they don’t know which one of them it was.”

Of course, some people would rather get flames than not get any e-mail at all. That’s what talk.politics.abortion is for.

  1. Historical information from Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe II . Carl Sagan calls it “a better way to learn human history than 90 percent of the school textbooks.”
  2. John Seabrook, “My First Flame”, New Yorker, June 6, 1994, p. 70-79
  3. Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, p. 24:

    It strikes me that Marshall McLuhan was right when he said that television has made a global village of the world... but he didn’t know the global village would be Beirut.

  4. Tony Depta, alt.skinheads , April 4, 1995.
  5. John Seabrook, op. cit.
  2. The Kinder Gap
  3. Say You Want a Revolution?