Issue #14, June 1996

I'm sorry, but . . . the Devil makes me do it

What an incredible ride it is, for this child of the early 20th Century, as we close toward the millennium point not so far away. I stretch my territorial claim, here, for I only go back to 1927. But few and fewer of my first-half cohort, it seems, will hazard a ride on the forefront wave that crashes swift and heavy toward that unknown shore.

I refer, of course, to the Internet &emdash; that genie they'd prefer to cork back in the bottle... that post-modern Mercury whose splendorous wings they would clip, if they could.

But the gods of old, as we've oft been told,
Were always too brilliant to safely behold.
...(They could blind the incautious and the recklessly bold!)

There I go again, waxing poetic on my favorite current subject, to the sure dismay of those who'd rather hear nothing more of it. Well, I'm sorry, guys, but the Internet really is the day's frontier, and to ignore it is to cast one's lot with the past. Not that I wouldn't prefer the past, if I could only have it once again &emdash; but that particular level of technology has not arrived yet.

A time-machine . . . what a lovely dilemma that would present: a technology to assist those who cannot abide technology.

[Hang on, guys, here we go . . . back to the middle of the 15th Century . . . no, no, not in the Americas, make it Europe . . . ahh, there's a simple soul who has never heard of technology, let's ask why he's looking so disturbed . . .

["Haf you not heard of it? Herr Gute has der moon madness!"

[Moon madness? . . . Herr Gute?

["Yah. Ist copying der Bible, over und over und over und . . .

[Wait a minute, what's wrong with that?

[Das ist no goot. Der book ist not der real life! . . Und who ist can read der print, yet?]

Hmm, maybe there's no getting away from it. Well, technology per se is not the problem, as I have too long supposed it was. It is the use to which technology is put, and the values that dominate its development. Look at television, for example: our horizons, both cultural and geographic, were tremendously expanded when it arrived on the scene &emdash; until the vast audience had settled in and been counted, and the advertising industry realized what a gold mine it had in its grasp. From that point on, we were cows being milked, with content designed to hook and hold, and nothing more. Today, but for the merciful intervention of the VCR (another product of technology, take note!) it sits like a Trojan Horse, in living rooms across the land, spewing buy-messages to an entertainment-drugged nation of zombies, cued with every "Now this..." to spend more, so they must earn more, in a never-ending frenzy. It's not the technology at fault, but what we've let be done with it. It didn't have to be that way, and one day we may have sense enough to revolt and "take it back."

I hold no great hope for any soon rebellion on that account. Although, one of the late-century developments worth reflecting on is the slow growth of awareness that the good life is not something to be obtained by keeping one's nose at the grindstone. Like any such evolvement of consciousness, that insight has waxed and waned with the currents of the day &emdash; but overall, it is not hard to see a trend. The first great wave within our lifetime came through in the 1960s, spearheaded by the hip-pie assault. Then they, in great numbers, were swept back with the ebb tide, to pursue the same American Dream they had challenged.

But the ground had been prepared, and now there is new growth from the seeds planted then. Simple-living groups sprouting up, periodicals and books (like "Your Money or Your Life"), Web sites like "Disgruntled" (I'll tell you more about that in a moment) . . . people everywhere, deeply embedded in the system (very different, in this regard, from the '60s), seeing the empty prospects of that Grand Illusion.

The fresh insight will crest, probably early in the coming decade, but may have to await the middle of the new century before it is a force to be reckoned with. These significant tides of anti-conformity seem to come along every forty years or so. It's not hard to track it through past history: the iconoclastic 1920s, the fulminating heresies of Nietzsche and Marx in the 1880s (the Theosophy movement, too), the Transcendentalist 1840s ... radicalism cycles its way into the social fabric in periodic bursts, and reality changes accordingly.

But I stray too far from the point I was pursuing, which is that we too easily allow our 'keepers' to take full control of technologies as they emerge. For the most part, we've had little say about it, living as we do in the society of the Gold 'n Rule: he who has the gold makes the rules. But we often overlook the corollary to that dictum, which is: we who withhold the gold can change the rules, if we do so in sufficient numbers. It's commonly called a boycott. The dealer holds the edge, of course, for we players seldom have enough unity of purpose to make the game our own.

But it is possible, and the best time for it is when the game is new and its rules are still fuzzy. On the Internet, right now, the flux and flow is amazing to behold, and it will be awhile &emdash; maybe five or ten years, yet &emdash; before the lines begin to solidify, the ground to freeze. Everything, for this brief golden period, is up for grabs.

Needless to say, the money-grabbers are doing their damnedest to secure the field . . . but certain things work to their disadvantage. For one, the competition is fierce, and some of that competition is clever and daring enough to surge ahead by giving their product away for free. Thus, it's quite easy to get some of the finest browser software available (Netscape), just for the taking. Even email service can be had for free if you know where to look. These points of information are networked along the line by the substantial mass of users who have no great loyalty to the Gold 'n Rule system, and they are not hard to tap into.

But one particularly potent factor, operating in tandem with the net's long tradition of sharing, will keep the budding commercialization from overwhelming everything, as it did with TV. That factor is: the interactive element, which sets this medium apart from all forms of mass-communication technology up to now. What it literally comes down to is that everyone is a broadcaster, sans license . . . everyone a publisher, without need of advertising or sales revenue for any big print job, able to have their say with no body of confining, confusing legislation and nobody holding a cudgel of proprietary rights over their head, with which to dampen their free expression.

Picture it: my book goes out on the Web, to the whole wide world, and it is there for the reading &emdash; for the taking, if anyone is so disposed. It wastes no paper for printing, it takes up no precious shelf space (my own included), it requires no one's approval as to content or marketability, it contends with no tax laws, calls for no postage or shipping cost, and need never be out-of-print. Furthermore, embedded in the very text of it can be requests for comment or opinion, facilitated by instant email. Or whatever feedback my inspiration can de-vise: a survey of others' experiences with innocent travel, a search for those who have been where I went, a bid for "next round" hospitality should I travel that way again . . . why, heck, I could even generate a small business in full-size prints of the art work I did for the book.

And such as this, my friends, is what will keep a significantly large portion of the Internet free of the corporate myopia that has so dreadfully depleted the country's fresh creativity during the past half-century. My vision of the Internet is that it will bring back into being and prominence a view of the world, and life itself, that does not sacrifice integrity for profit potential or view money as the dominating function of every equation.

Don't you see it?? &emdash; we have a world in our hands, again, as it has not been since the wide-open, trail-blazing days of the westward expansion &emdash; and this time, to no ruination of the natural environment, to no displacement of indigenous peoples. And we'll not have to fight over territory amongst ourselves.

My longtime friend, Burt, who recently

moved from San Francisco to Hawaii, does not seem to see it. And it is not because of his retreat into a setting of paradise, for he wasted no time, there, before actively getting involved in grassroots political activity. No, he registers a genuine resistance to a technology that would push us past the outer threshold of our humanity, toward a world that only exists in the realm of mind. His views are not the least bit strange to me...

"Cyberspace is never anything other than a virtual reality. One cannot inhabit it, one cannot hideout within it against the knocking on the door when the mind police come around...The computer is a tool. Nothing more. To the degree that it is used unreflectively...or with pious hope...that tool, the net, the whole virtual reality of fantasy existence will confirm the entrapment of an artificial existence."

He sounds like writer Harold Gilliam in a 1983 S.F. Chronicle article under the presumptively insightful heading of Future Watch:

"When futurists...start talking about the coming information age and how the silicon chip is going to replace the smokestack industries, I am seized by an intense desire to leave the room.

"I have a secret feeling that the computer, that veritable avatar of the information age, is the most overrated invention in history."

But Gilliam, at least, was opining before the day of modem and Internet.

Burt has not taken one or two things into account &emdash; perhaps because he has not yet set foot, himself, into the new reality that this mere "tool" has opened up, or perhaps (being my own age) because the footing becomes perilous as one ventures beyond the lifetime's familiar reality. I understand. But I am not content to see such a stalwart, vibrant soul, who has weathered magnificent change in his lifetime, simply drift away with a dying century, without taking my best shot at pulling him over this one great hurdle. It would be like watching a friend go down with the Titanic, when I could readily toss him a life preserver. Not that he will grab it, for the man clings to the reality of this sinking ship like any other sort would assure him a place among the damned.

What I think Burt has not yet seen &emdash; and I can identify entirely with him, for it wasn't four years ago that I strongly reacted to the term, myself &emdash; is that "virtual reality" speaks to a concept, quite aside from the feckless usage it first had, as a software/hardware interface that promised to put one into a holographic world. The concept goes back at least as far as Hume's Treatise on Human Nature, but until very recent times it had little bearing on what we call real life. Simply put, it is the realization that each of us actually lives in a virtual reality which reflects the unique particularities of our own lifetime's experience. We communicate with each other from distant worlds, as it were, relying on some commonality &emdash; and so often distressed when it is missing, at crucial junctures. To then label a certain non-tactile avenue of experience as a "virtual reality," with pejorative emphasis, is kind of silly, if you think about it.

In case that isn't sufficiently obvious, let's take a moment's journey back across the century, to the virtual reality of a 1911 high school setting in Portland, Oregon, by way of a selection (just a portion of it) from their annual yearbook, the Portania:

"The Benson household was in a high state of excitement, for it had been advertised in the Pasco weekly paper that the Friedham Mercantile Company, of Pasco, a town five miles distant, was to have a great bargain sale of ribbons; and Mrs. Benson, who had not been in a store larger than ten by ten, since her marriage, had really gotten consent of her husband 'to take the old gray hoss and go.' But the one drawback seemed to be the twins, Mary and Mamie, aged eight years. However, after consulting the neighbors on the question, Mrs. Benson decided to take the children with her. At last the day of the sale came, Mary and Mamie were up before breakfast was half ready, and busied themselves by questioning their mother concerning the Bargain Sale...

'Ef yer youngsters don't ask fewer questions, yer can jest have the pleasure of stayin home today,' Mrs. Benson answered in an annoyed tone. This warning proved a good remedy, for after this the twins paid strict attention to eating their breakfast. Finally, after the breakfast was cleared away, the twins had completed that odious task of 'getting dressed up' and Mrs. Benson had succeeded in securing from her not too generous husband the sum of one dollar, the three happy bargain hunters were ready to depart."

Bearing in mind that the author of that wistful piece could still be alive, it clearly portrays a reality absent from real life, today, either in Portland or anywhere in this country. Time has assured us of that; but just as surely, no one anywhere, today, lives in a reality quite like mine...or yours, or Burt's.

Burt knows this, too, but he has a hard time with the idea of a reality that has no physical dimension. He has come into the world of the computer, but not as far as the modem or the Web. What is said of the world beyond where that line is drawn, for Burt, is about communication, not reality. Well, the same could be said of "Herr Gute's" printing press &emdash; just a tool, nothing more &emdash; but it sure had a potent effect on reality. And who, today, hassles the fate of folks who lose themselves in books?

There is one thing more that Burt overlooks &emdash; something that qualifies the Internet as an exceptionally timely kind of reality-stretcher, in terms that can be particularly advantageous where he is now located. The 'real world,' as we have known it in the course of this past half century, has become insufferably crowded and noisy and filled with the clutter of Too Much! Getting away from the material crush and pace of things is part of the reason Burt moved to Hawaii. Fine...but being there, the Internet would allow him to both have his cake and eat it, too, in the perfect blend. Here's why:

Better than any other piece of current technology, the Internet computer is the ultimate extension of one's own being. Just as no two of us share the same reality, the Internet configuration of no two people is similar. Each one 'surfing the Web' (an unfortunate term, for it suggests a mindless, aimless pursuit of thrills or curiosity) explores it in a pattern reflecting the inner self, just as perfectly as one's own collection of books is such a reflection. The list of links one collects and saves is the pathway to the world one chooses to live in, reflecting all the quirks and passions in one's makeup. Mine has to do with philosophy and synchronicity, the I Ching and reaching out to people, and other things too diverse to classify. Burt would not want mine, I'm sure, and I'd not want his.

So the Internet computer is whatever one wants to make of it, and I shall demonstrate that in just a moment. Though any demonstration I can make will no longer be bound by the limits of the medium, but by the limits of your own headspace. If you have not yet gotten into it and explored it for your own purposes, you'll will get hung up on your own preconceptions.

I remember my mother, in this regard, who had worked as a key punch operator for some thirty years, and was quite familiar with data processing. But she knew it only in the context of IBM machines controlled by interchangeable panels that were plug-wired to pick up the data from punched cards. Later, when I became a programmer in 1964, I tried to explain to her that the punched cards, themselves, could now carry "programs" that directed the processing of the data cards. But I couldn't get the idea across. After all, she was 63 at the time, and just not ready for a world of computers.

So, if you are still hung up on your certainty of "what it's all about," then don't bother with the rest of this. If you care to venture beyond your 20th Century boundaries, then come on along for a sampling . . . which is merely what I had planned to send to Burt. And so I shall lead off with my message to him...

Burt, on the weekend your letter came, the Sunday paper's Personal Technology section seemed the best thing I could send, to give you a look at one week's noteworthy new sites. I usually save them in a file for later lookup, so I would have to check out the one or two that interested me, before I could pass it along.

First off, there was a new Web periodical called Disgruntled, catering to the disenchanted in the ranks of wage-slavery &emdash; and you need hardly wonder at why I had to have a look at it. It took only moments for the site to materialize on my screen &emdash; or perhaps virtualize would be the better term. A bright yellow banner topping a series of links to what were obviously articles on themes of relevance to disgruntled workers everywhere. No longer being one, myself, I didn't go for any of them, or look into the five back issues that were also linked in, but continued down the line of items, pausing briefly at only one that amused me: an instant link to a screen mockup of an "Annual Report," to be used if the boss should suddenly pop into the diddling employee's cubicle. (Ah, those good old days!)

I went on, and tapped into something called "Getting Gruntled," a forum on the question of what can be done to make life at work better, initiated by a strong union advocate. After reading some of the contributions, I added my own few cents worth, putting in a link to my Home Page for those who want to see what a dropout's life can be like. (Yes, you can actually add real, live links when posting a commentary like that. I've already heard from some folks who reached my site from there.)

Then I went to their section of links to other sites. This is a common element in a Web site, and where there is some compelling thematic appeal, the outside links can be a trove of fresh discovery. There were more than forty links, here, ranging from other rebellious publications (some, like Mother Jones, already known to me, but others I'd never heard of), to legal and union resources, to even larger collections of links. It was one of the latter that drew me on: Progressive People Links. I clicked on it, and in short order I had a list of ten general categories, each of which could lead me to any number of other Progressive sites. I'm listing them in the box on the next page, so you can see the range.

I bookmarked the site for future return, but one listing I simply could not resist, and I went for it: A Different World...and, POW! It opened up a real cornucopia of promise. More than 40 individual temptations, for any activist soul to delve into. Some were obvious about what to expect from them: Artists for Social Responsibility, Union of Concerned Scientists, Ralph Nader, People's Park, Timothy Leary's home page, Noam Chomsky archive...

And then from the obvious, it went to the suggestive: Project Nature Connect (writers, thinkers and activists proposing a deeper, more respectful link with nature...), Commission on Global Governance (high-level commision of current and former government leaders...), The Reactionary Right (comprehensive site that tracks, exposes and analyzes it...), New Civilization Network (building a world society based on people working cooperatively and in teams), Love and Rage (anarchist federation site..), etc.

And finally there were wild and wooly 'who knows what' sites: Burn! (gorgeous site by a collective of artists and activists...), The Spleen (explore processes of perception, understanding and experience...), Here (anecdotes whose meaning and inter-relationship deepen as we re-read and think about them...), Fight V2.0 (15-yr old Canadian teenager manages a progressive web site...), Summum (different, unique, some might say it's off the wall...).

Well, you get the idea. Those parenthetical blurbs are not mine, but from the link list itself, in case you were wondering. I did try one of those latter sites &emdash; The Spleen &emdash; and was amazed by its technical virtuosity (though still a bit vague on the meaning of it all). But the important thing is that I know, now, where to go for my occasionally necessary 'radical fix.' One of the sites, in that run, that I have subsequently tried, and sent some commentary to, on our housing battle here in Seattle, returned me an overnight email response from the site's honcho, who was interested in what we were doing. Made me feel, indeed, like I am part of a larger vigilant community.

Moving along, there was one more site in that Sunday paper that I had to check out. It was called UnCover Web, and turned out to be a service with a cost attached. But it's one that I might yet decide to go for! It's a library database service dedicated to the indexing and cat-aloging of periodicals &emdash; 17,000 of them! For the modest fee of $20 per year, they will regularly send the "tables of contents from up to 50 journals, and store up to 25 search strategies to be run against the entire database." That is precisely up my alley, and easily worth 40¢ a week to me, less than the price of a daily paper.

This is an instance, you see, of facilitating my own 'personality profile' on the Internet... the sort of link that reflects a lifelong passion. When I was still in gradeschool, the library was my favorite place to hang out, tracking down one subject or another, often far outside the bounds of classwork. I discovered that the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature could track things back well into the last century, and nothing gave me such delight as reading contemporary accounts of Jesse James, or of early-day aviation exploits.

I still tend to do that sort of thing, and the Internet is the perfect foil for it. They have added search engines faster than I can even try them out, and each has certain unique features ...can do certain kinds of searches to best advantage. I tried my own name on one, the other day, and turned up 14 linked sites. Two were for other Irv Thomases than me (one of whom I could have reached out to by an email link). The others were either links to my own Web site, or to commentaries that I had sent to other sites. One had me listed as the editor for the Earthstewards Network News, a post I left more than six years ago.

Cleaning out some old files, the other day, I got curious about three items that dated back to my Berkeley years. You might be interested in how a tracking search, for more information, turned out.

One was a page of notes I had made, during a talk by an emeritus professor of engineering at UC Berkeley, fascinating old fellow named Hubbert...must have been in his eighties at the time. His talk was on "Two incompatible Intellectual Systems: The Science of Matter-Energy and the Culture of Money." I found myself wondering if anything publishable had ever come out of it. I went first to the UW library catalog, where a few items under his authorship turned up, but nothing of interest...then I went to the UC Berkeley library catalog, since that was where his work was done. Eleven items turned up there, but not what I was seeking. Finally, I went for the OCLC, which lists the library holdings for the entire country in one massive database, but alas, to no avail.

Next up: an article, by one Joe Campbell, that I had saved from an issue of the Berkeley Monthly &emdash; back in 1978. It was in two parts, and I never ever got ahold of the second part. Well, there you are...18 years there any hope that I can find the other half? A quick search engine probe for Berkeley Monthly led me to The Media Clearinghouse, a humongous list of magazines and newsletters. It gave me no address or email access, but was geared to forward a message to them (presumably a subscription request or something). So I sent a note regarding my quest, and maybe it will get there. Not fully done with it, yet, I noted that Joe Campbell had a business called Resistance Repair, in Berkeley, so I went for one of my favorite resources: Switchboard, a nationwide telephone directory. And sure enough, there was still an outfit by that name in Berkeley.

The final one had to do with some old clippings about annual surveys of entering university freshmen &emdash; their politics and values &emdash; conducted by the American Council of Education. Thinking it would be good to see the current trend, I tried the library catalog again, only to be boggled by too many listings under their authorship. So I tried the organization name in a search engine, and quickly spotted the lead to their Web site. I went directly to it, then, but it was poorly constructed and had no actual contact link. Two of the administrative people, however, had email links, and so I sent off a query. No reply as yet.

So that's what it's like, in this medium. No runs, but a couple base hits, and always the fascination of the search . . . if I only had more time for it. To cap it off, I just went to the SF Chronicle site, to see if Harold Gilliam is still there &emdash; I wanted to ask him about that 1983 Future Watch comment of his. He still writes for them, I discovered, but has no email access listed. So I dropped a note to Herb Caen about it, instead, asking if he'd be good enough to pass it along. Why not? The easy camaraderie of the Net makes anything possible.

Jump in, Burt. The water is fine, and you really don't know what you're missing.

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