Is This a Great Time or What?

Becca and I still had the VW, and we took weekend jaunts to such places as the 19th-century German town of Hermann, Mo. But in mid-to late 1996, a new world began to change the landscape of my consciousness. There was no direct exchange; I didn't suddenly begin valuing well-conceived Web sites and ignoring the beautiful Victorian brick homes of St. Louis. But I realize now that my attention was shifting more and more to the intangible territory of the Internet.Many people don't yet know what the Internet is. It's millions (literally) of host computers, called servers, spread the world over, connected by millions of miles of active telephone lines. It's a party call involving multitudes of machines, all talking nonstop to one another. In many parts of the Internet the connections are more than simple voice-phone lines -- they might be dedicated fiberoptic lines, or dozens of lines twined together, called T1s and T3s. The power and speed of connections can be immense, and transfers of millions of bytes of data from one computer to another can take place in a split second. There are multiple millions of listening computers, ones that don't serve data to the others. They are the desktop computers of people browsing the Web and checking their e-mail.E-mail works this way: Somebody types your e-mail address in the "to" field of an e-mail message. The message goes to a server owned by their Internet service provider (ISP) and requests information: where in the world is that location after the "at" symbol in the e-mail address? That location is called a "domain name." For example, "aol.com" is a domain name. So are "compuserv.com" and "irs.gov," and so is my company's "schwa.com." The server routes the message on to a smarter computer at a nearby Internet hub, probably owned by AT&T or MCI. That computer translates the domain name into a string of numbers called an IP (Internet protocol) and then fingers the computer on the Internet that has registered that IP -- a server owned by your ISP. Your ISP's mail server then stores that message as a tiny data file. When you select "get new messages" in your e-mail application, your personal computer asks that server whether there are any new data files queued up for your user name. If so, your computer uses SMTP (simple mail-transfer protocol) commands to retrieve those files, transfers the data over your phone line and then converts them into legible messages on your computer screen.In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis uses the phrase "man's conquest of nature" to describe the process of applied science. He refers to "the aeroplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive" as three typical examples of "man's conquest." Now, 50 years after the publication of that book, we can direct wires, magnetic storage devices and silicon chips to route almost any kind of information anywhere in the world. Man has advanced communications beyond the dreams of the great dreamers of prior centuries; who could have guessed? But the downside is that a new elusiveness has emerged, an antitype to the ruggedness of the physical letter with its tattered envelope and ink-marked stamp. If we were tempted to make more and cheaper products with the assembly line 100 years ago, how will we fare with the Internet?I realize now, looking back the past two years, that I've become frustrated handling ghosts. The use of my old green filing cabinet has dwindled as the directories on my hard drive have multiplied. I feel like becoming a subsistence farmer in Virginia and writing poems with a brown-ink fountain pen on paper milled from my father-in-law's wood chips.II.Critics have noticed that our culture's response to the rise of communications technology (or "information gluttony," as Read Schuchardt calls it in a recent issue of Re:Generation) has been to go retro. People who stare into a color computer screen all day long come away hungry for something old-fashioned, yet without the patience for anything substantial. Hence the surging popularity of Nick at Nite and revival movies such as Batman and The Jetsons. Seventies polyester was all the rage when I went to school in Greenwich Village a few years ago. Cultural artifacts tend to be the lifeblood of a society that can no longer easily produce its own unique array of symbols. Web-surfers suddenly becomes part-time museum curators, digging through old Styx LPs and episodes of Hawaii Five-O, immersing themselves in the kitsch of days gone by.It is not purely the result of being in one's 20s that a person needs these old symbols (as Doug Coupland might have us believe). It's a necessity brought about by the deluge of cheap information that technology has created. Looking for an emotional landmark, we grasp for anything that is not moving -- surf music, for instance.Two of the most remarkable products of our current culture are TV programs: Seinfeld and The X-Files. The first of these is an effective antidote to information gluttony, a classic comedy in the style of Abbott & Costello. The second is an exploration of the unseen, unknown thing that is always supposed to be "out there" -- the truth. Ghost-handling is the name of the game. Despite the success of these two shows, our cultural landscape is remarkably poor, thriving as it does on regurgitation of cultures past.The information age has brought with it other trends, too. Our culture's literacy rate is declining. America's poets can't compete with international poets. Our country has only produced one Nobel Prize-winning poet during this century, T.S. Eliot, and he spent most of his life in England. Since then the prestigious award has gone to poets from Chile, Mexico, Sweden and Poland. Is high-tech to blame?Todd Oppenheimer's essay, "The Computer Delusion" (Atlantic Monthly, July 1997), addresses the question of whether computers should be used in school classrooms. Section titles such as "Articifial Experience" and "Hypertext Minds" reveal Oppenheimer's bias. A teacher reports that his students "don't link ideas ... They just write one thing, and then they write another one, and they don't seem to see or develop relationships between them." Oppenheimer quotes Jane Healy, the author of Endangered Minds, who proposes that "more commonplace activities, such as figuring out how to nail two boards together ... may actually form a better basis for real-world intelligence."Whenever Becca and I have traveled down to North Carolina, I've spent a lot of time on my brother-in-law's computer playing a couple of interactive games called "Doom" and "Hexen." That activity took place mainly over holidays, so it didn't dent my productive writing time or my reading time. During late 1994 and early 1995 I had developed a rigorous schedule -- getting up at 5:30 a.m. and writing for two hours. But in '96, after starting Schwa, I suddenly had high-power computers at my fingertips every day from 9 to 5; we had video games at work, one called "Marathon," one "Warcraft." It bugged me when the other guys played video games when I thought we should be busily setting up shop -- a new business should not be plagued with time-burning games. But I soon found myself joining them in interactive play. Amazing sound effects and realistic 3D images made "Marathon" hard to resist; "Warcraft," a strategic "Axis-and-Allies" type of game, accounted for the whole wartime economy of a medieval city-state. Who says the detrimental effect of interactive computing is restricted to classrooms?Another national trend is that our level of physical fitness is slumping. A July 7 story in the Chicago Tribune titled "Sedentary Life" reported a survey that had found that only one American child in four gets 20 minutes of vigorous exercise each day, "fueling a trend toward sedentary children and overweight adults." That same survey, according to a press release from the International Life Sciences Institute, found that, "two out of three parents who say their youngsters don't get enough activity point to lack of interest or competition from TV, video games, and computers as the real reasons" (http://www.ilsi.org/nhppress.html).In the fall of 1995, when Becca and I first moved to St. Louis, we joined the YMCA. One of my classmates, Matt Christian, met me there often, sometimes to play basketball, usually racquetball. After several months of going to the Y, I still wasn't exactly fit, being about 200 pounds and 6-foot-3 -- I should have been hovering around 180. But I hadn't exercised regularly in my two years at NYU, and now I was. By the summer of 1996 I wasn't going there at all, and then in the fall my membership expired, and I didn't renew it. I also temporarily dropped out of seminary to start Schwa.I don't want to blame information technology alone for my increasing laziness or for our cultural fallowness. But I do want to illustrate the potential hazards of human use of this technology. Aside from its apparent dilution of American scholastic culture, this new land we have pioneered has made the hard goods of my life -- cash, cassette tapes, LP records, books, newspapers, racquetball, posted letters -- increasingly obsolete.III.Kevin Kelly is the executive editor of Wired magazine and a roving philosopher of high-tech culture. In his 1994 book Out of Control, Kelly illuminates recent trends in technology and biology that he considers harbingers of future civilization. He recognizes a late-century paradigm shift in the way science understands and emulates human intelligence; a good part of the power of life, we are discovering, is distributed and physical rather than centralized and cerebral. Scientists can construct much more effective walking machines if they conceive of the artificial organism as instinctive rather than all-knowing. By placing minimally intelligent reflex sensors along the limbs of a robot, even without the use of a central on-board computer, researchers can build an ambling, adaptable contraption that has little trouble navigating hills and avoiding trees and trash cans.The controlling metaphor of Kelly's book is the beehive. A bee collective has a unique set of behaviors and therefore a mind and spirit of its own. The hive roams the forest as a single entity, and therefore scientists should treat it as an organism. Kelly calls this "hive mind" and uses it as a model for the way computers should function.The Internet itself was born from this idea; a distributed, redundant system is more stable than a linear one. Even at the component level, the Internet is beginning to live by this principle. The latest technology in Internet servers is RAID hard-drive systems -- a "redundant array of inexpensive devices" instead of a single large hard drive. Schwa has recently applied for a commercial lease on a RAID-5 server, in which any one of the five two-gigabyte hard drives can crash at any time but there is enough duplication in the whole system to account for the loss of data.This paradigm shift seems to be a great thing, the discovery of an eternal truth. It reminds me of a verse in the Bible used to describe the Christian church: "The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body .... If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?" (I Corinthians 12:12ff). Furthermore, if there were only one eye in the whole body, the body could not survive a loss of an eye. But the true body of believers has millions of eyes and feet and hands. There are thousands of prophets and preachers, carpenters and babysitters. The system can withstand the flickering and flaming-out of its troubled parts. Error, Kelly argues, enhances a life system. Living organisms thrive on mistakes and mutations. Attentive minds will recognize this as a Darwinian idea -- lose a leg here, sprout a fin there and the whole ecosystem benefits.But we don't need to go that far to redeem something from Kelly's excellent book. Out of Control teaches us something about the spirit of life which the Bible also wants us to learn: "But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, has God chosen, and things which are not -- to bring to nought things that are" (I Corinthians 1:27-28). In Christian belief, it is the swarm of saved idiots who will ultimately know God's glory -- not the "teachers of the law," full of human wisdom and educated in the best universities.Kelly also believes that the Internet, this vast collection of computers communicating in bursts of data, is an intensification of natural relationships and is neither good nor bad. World Magazine interviewed him in its July 12/19, 1997, issue:WORLD: You seem very excited about the potential for technology such as the Internet to advance the progress of the human race. But when you connect a bunch of fallen creatures, aren't you just increasing their capacity for evil? Kelly: The new technology means that there's a lot more power involved. So if the entity is disposed to evil there will be the potential for greater evil. It ups the ante throughout. But I say that is unadulterated good. It's like thinking -- the more you think the better. The kinds of thoughts you think are up to you ... WORLD: You seem overwhelmingly optimistic about technology. Is there no dark side? Nothing to be afraid of?Kelly: I think technology is like the life we see outside in nature. We have a very curious response to nature. We think of it as very benign and harmless and beautiful. But 100 years ago anybody would have told you that nature is something you have to battle. I think the proper approach is a balance between controlling nature and cooperating with it. It's the same with technology: Sometimes it has its own agenda and we have to work with that. Other times we have to say, "No, we have to control this."I think, at this point, that I agree with Kelly. The Internet, like most other technological advances, is part of what ancient Greeks referred to as the adiaphora -- the category of "indifferent things" or "middle matters." The Internet is a tool, inherently neither bad nor good. It is a giant, intense mirror of us as individuals and of our society as a whole. It would be ridiculous to curse or condemn print magazines as a medium. Comprising everything from Christianity Today to Hustler, they are merely a reflection of our society. The Internet performs the same function, only with greater intensity.IV.Here are four specific ways, personal and public, that the Internet has been a means of grace in my community.Example 1: Miscarriage. In January of this year, Becca became pregnant. An Internet hound, she immediately tracked down a maternity website that showed each phase of a baby's development and created a custom calendar for her term. She e-mailed me the Web site's address, and I bookmarked it in my browser.Three weeks later she began to bleed, and she got scared. She called her gynecologist and was consoled that this might not be bad. By the next day it was all but confirmed that she had suffered a miscarriage; a doctor's appointment on the third day confirmed it. We were heartbroken, and confused; Becca was afraid she might not be able to get pregnant again. I have told friends that it was the blackest time in our marriage so far.After taking a couple of sick days, Becca returned to her computer and began to dig for Internet-based support groups for women who had had miscarriages. She found several. She joined one called Pregnancy After Miscarriage and shared her story with the other women; six months later she is still a member of that group and has learned a wealth of information from the other participants.Becca heads up the community garden at our inner-city church and is also a member of a discussion group called Gardenweb (http://www.gardenweb.com). One day she shared the story of her miscarriage privately with her virtual friend, Janet, one of the other Gardenweb participants. One evening a few weeks later, Janet called Becca from Maryland and talked with her for more than an hour. Becca says Janet was very kind and that the phone call meant a great deal to her emotional recovery.Example 2: Marriage. This month, a college friend of mine, Skip Gienapp, will marry a woman he met in an AOL chat room. She's from Milwaukee. I've met her, and she's wonderful. She seems to be perfect for Skip, who has been the archetypal bachelor in our community.Example 3: Research. Internet-wise researchers can find out anything on the Web. Detailed information is available about every person, from current celebrities to ancient leaders, even to the most minor figures. I performed an AltaVista search on my distinctly nonfamous uncle Al Lutz and learned that he lives in Louisville, Ky., where he pastors a church in the Great Lakes Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and that he hasn't registered his e-mail address with the TULIP index (http://www.tulip.org). One link away is background information about the PCA. If Al, who's in his 50s and definitely not a computer geek, can be tracked down on the Internet, how much more information can I find on Joan of Arc's mother, or a commander in the Civil War? More people, events, and histories than could be contained in 1,000 encyclopedias are recorded somewhere on the Internet. I wrote and researched this whole paper using the Internet, a hard copy of Kelly's book (though the whole thing is online at http://www.absolutvodka.com/kelly/5-0.html) and a pile of magazines I culled from my coffee table at home.Example 4: Corporate use. The company I work for, Schwa Digital Design, is founded on the principle that digital media offer a much more efficient way for companies to share their information. You can read all about it at our Web site (http://www.schwa.com). The long and short of it is that digital media are flexible, republishable and editable and can relay live information to the user.For instance, one of our clients, World Magazine, is beginning to archive all its issues at its Web site (http://www.worldmag.com); these archives are searchable and printable for all users, and the growing database is sortable by any number of given parameters. We strongly advocate databases to our clients, for the reason that they centralize, organize and eliminate redundancy. We enjoy empowering corporate databases with Internet connectivity because it allows them to more efficiently share information with their constituents.V.Even so, in the last two months I've been losing my sanity working for Schwa. As I mentioned earlier, I have felt as though I've been handling ghosts. I was complaining about all this to a friend, Conrad Bakker, sitting on huge concrete turtles in the park near my house, smoking cigarettes (a habit I gave up four years ago and picked up again this spring). He recommended a book called Slowness by Milan Kundera (author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and gave me a copy.Kundera writes, "Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man. As opposed to a motorcyclist, the runner is always present in his body, forever required to think about his blisters, his exhaustion; when he runs he feels his weight, his age, more conscious than ever of himself and his time of life. This all changes when man delegates the faculty of speed to a machine: from then on his whole body is outside the process, and he gives over to a speed that is noncorporeal, nonmaterial, pure speed, speed itself, ecstasy speed. A curious alliance: the cold impersonality of technology with the flames of ecstasy."I believe Kundera is deeply insightful, and that if man is going to live he must live in his body. Jane Healy may be right to advocate students hammering boards together as a way of learning "real-world intelligence." If we are to truly know, we must know with our bodies. The biblical definition of the word meaning "to know" is "to experience carnally"; Adam "knew" Eve, and she gave birth to a son.Three years ago, I was a pedestrian student and poet in New York, all but unconscious of the Internet. I was distracted by the pace and mechanization of modern life, as were my peers -- by television, mass media and soundbite politics. Now, in the summer of 1997, I have reached grave levels of frustration and detachment from my own world, partly, I believe, as a result of my involvement with the Internet.At the same time, I have seen information technology benefit my community. I feel as though I have just been bitten in the hand by a dog that could either protect or kill me. It is my responsibility to proceed with caution.

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