In cyberspace, no one can hear you curse. Thank God: The expletives have been plentiful and loud since the two of us "jacked in" and tried to "surf the net" on our computers.
For those of you still in the dark, that's geekspeak for exploring the Internet, the worldwide network of computer networks started by the U.S. government as a way to link the Defense Dept. with academe and ensure that some computer somewhere would survive a nuclear war. Since its creation in the late 1960s, the Internet has for the most part been the province of university computer-science departments and engineers, who quickly made it a useful tool for sharing information on everything from research to recipes.
Today, however, it's a media darling--a precursor to the Information Superhighway. And if you believe all the computer-industry hotshots and media hype, the highway will be our lifeline, once it's built. Movies on demand, instant news reports, shopping for just about anything, virtual classrooms where students learn from teachers who are miles (even continents) away--all that and more will come to us in the comfort of our own homes.
But that's not the Internet. The net is a sometimes seamy, sometimes staid culture of its own. It's 2 a.m. "talks" via eye-straining computer type with folks on the other side of the planet. It's subversive literature peppered throughout obscure usenet groups. And it's, ah, "adult" bulletin boards where no netherworld fetish goes unexplored. Nobody knows what really lurks in the heart of the Internet. It doesn't belong to anybody, it's not patrolled, and there are no rules. On this wild new frontier, it's every geek for him- or herself.
So who could blame us for wanting to take a joyride? With the help of one on-line gateway, Delphi Internet Services Corp., which gave us the keys to the car, so to speak, we hit the road--Paul the tech writer and Julie the newbie.
What we found was an impossibly huge collection of data bases and info freaks. An enormous virtual library and an ongoing oral history of the world at this very minute. Cranks, misfits, scholars, sneaks, fans of everything from devilbunnies (don't ask) to Elvis Costello, members of a virtual drum-and-bugle corps, aquarium keepers, you name it. Exploring can be addictive and take over your life. We have learned this after just a short time on the net, and it's a sentiment shared by lots of internauts:
(cranberri) What's up?
(GOWAN) NADA. just netsurfin'. wasting valuable moments of my life. that kinda thing.
Yeah. Us, too. One night, we stayed late at the office, ordered pizza, and resolved to get as far into the net as we could. We started by logging onto USENET, equivalent to a giant public bulletin board. Topics range from serious scientific research to the most trivial obsession, such as adding your own ditty to cascading lines of rhymes--"the bees are quite proud of their killer sneeze/The trees...killer freeze...." And so on. Although many sections, such as "sci.physics," deal with information only specialists can understand, "rec" groups, including "photography.rec," have broad appeal. What's more, no topic or interest is taboo. Consider the various "alt" groups--topics any internaut can create--such as "alt.fan.letterman" or "alt.sex.bestiality." We looked into a heading that seemed manageable: Best of the Internet, which yielded a fine collection of odd postings, including World War II espionage tales, free verse, a diatribe against women's-studies majors, and resulting tirades from others who disagreed.
HOOKED. When we next looked up, our pizza was cold and more than three hours had passed. We'd just gotten started with a few hundred messages (and concocting our own freeze/sneeze/cheese rhyme), but we were hooked.
One way to get yourself unglued from your PC is to stop browsing and start downloading. Paul managed to transfer some files from the various computers on the net to our PCs. Using "FTP," or File Transfer Protocol, he was able to download not only text messages but images. "FTP-ing" into the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., we pulled off GIFs (graphic interchange formats) that showed a satellite weather map for Europe and the stars of Orion.
An impressive trick, we thought. Then, we found IRC, or Internet Relay Chat. It's where real netsurfers go to keep up with each other in real time. Think of it as a big electronic meeting hall with countless "rooms." Instead of posting messages that may or may not get read for days, as in ordinary newsgroups, what you type is instantly displayed to everyone else in the room.
But getting there, like anywhere else on the Internet, required some knowledge of Unix--the computer language of the engineers who first used the net. User-friendly, it ain't. Especially for lowly newbies such as ourselves.
To keep from spending our lives in the office, we agreed to rendezvous in IRC from our home PCs. While bumbling around the perimeter of IRC, Julie met her first sysop. That's cyberspeak for systems operator types who float through the net dispensing instructions and advice.
"What are you trying to do?"
"HELP," she wrote. "I CAN'T FIGURE OUT THE IRC!"
And so she was "flamed" for the very first time. A flame is an admonishment, sometimes gentle, sometimes not, for breaches of "netiquette," (Typing in all caps is considered "yelling," one of the social gaffes to be avoided in cyberspace--unless you want to demonstrate what a blowhard you are.) But after being corrected for her faux pas, she followed the sysop's instructions and tried to tell her PC what "terminal emulator" and "/echo host" it should use. No good. The text on the screen went over into the far-right margin, one letter at a time. Then, her screen froze. Clearly, she was flamed for naught, she thought.
Meanwhile, Paul was at home getting flamed himself. You wouldn't think this could happen to people like Paul, who seem to spend most of their lives on-line. But no sooner had he signed on than he was mocked by another user for using a commercial on-line service to get onto the net. Delphi, our on-ramp to the Internet, has been acquired by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Veterans view encroachment by mainstream media into the electronic underground as an outrage. As "HeadFlex" put it: "Internet should be free! I couldn't deal with paying money for this stuff. Plus, I'd go bankrupt." He ended with an expletive-laden description of our on-line service.
HeadFlex, after six months on the net, seems like a typical convert to the Internet counterculture--and disdains wimps who pay for easy-to-use "front ends" for access. It was all pretty petty to Paul, though it got his hacker's ego riled up. He started wondering how he could get jacked in without the help of an on-line service.
Meanwhile, in the same room where Paul met HeadFlex, two other users were busy making a first date. Ah, cyberlove. This is the allure of the network: You don't even have to change rooms to shift from arguments, discussions, and dissertations to courtship. The depth and variety of virtual connections are drawing growing numbers of people into cyberspace. Steve Cherry, a director of the Society for Electronic Access (SEA), a computer user/activist group in New York City, says the number of Internet users has been growing by about 10% a month. It's estimated that there are more than 15 million Internet users worldwide. But because there's no umbrella group that governs the net and no way to count actual users (as opposed to machines connected to the network), it's impossible to document how many newbies are really logging on.
SURE CHANGE. Traditionally, new users have come from each new crop of college freshmen who take up computer science, "but in the last year, it has really reached critical mass," says Cherry. A recent New Yorker cartoon of a dog using a computer, captioned "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," has become a running in-joke on the net. "The very fact that enough people knew enough about the Internet to laugh at that cartoon says something," says Cherry.
As more commercial connections are built into the net and even more newbies enter the fold, the nature of the net is sure to change. Someone will come along to guide new wanderers through the uncharted territory of cyberspace. Indeed, there are whole newsgroups set up to discuss issues of privacy and censorship on the net. But we are still trying to rendezvous from our home PCs.
There was a brief moment of triumph when Julie finally jacked into the IRC. Paul was supposed to be there, but....
(jtilsner) Hey! So where am I exactly?
(anon) You're in IRC. Where do you want to be?
(jtilsner) In IRC.
(jtilsner) Peng? Peng, dammit! Are u in here?
In cyberspace, even the best tech-heads get lost.