Changing Everything, a Bit at a Time

By Jeff Schult

[Jeff and Nicole, B&W]

(Note: This was written in the summer of '95. Years later, I'm pleased with how it stood up. It was a cover story in the New Haven Advocate. -- Jeff)

We even met out here ...

Never have so many written so much about something of which they know so little, present company included. Anyone paying only casual attention would think that the popular press discovered the Internet in the last year or two and has been trumpeting its arrival, with attendant glories and evils, good guys and bad guys, gurus and disciples as they are identified and categorized.

In fact, check out Time, February 5, 1993. "CYBERPUNK," screams the headline. "Virtual sex, smart drugs and synthetic rock 'n' roll! A futuristic subculture erupts from the electronic underground." By 1995, Time had advanced to "Cyberporn!" on the cover. This is the country's foremost news weekly, covering the Internet. Cheap shot, but true.

Journalists have a habit of reporting things as though they discovered them, which is fine when they do; uncovering misdeeds and raising unsung heroes to common attention are noble pursuits. But the Internet and cyberspace in general are not things or concepts that lend themselves to journalistic cubbyholing: "Look what I found!" doesn't mean as much when the finder is the millionth visitor to a "new" World Wide Web site.

Time was right in the forefront of scaring a lot of people, most notably U.S. Sen. James Exon, D-Neb., who succeeded in getting the Senate to pass a bill ostensibly making it illegal for people to transmit pornography in cyberspace. With its superficial, "Hey, look what we found" reporting, Time also earned the ridicule of millions of pretty bright people who use computers frequently, and put a lot of journalists who spend time on-line in the unpleasant position of having to explain that most of their peers, even (and sometimes especially) the well-paid famous ones, don't have a clue about what's going on out there. Connie Chung pronounced DOS with a long "O" in an interview with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates; this is incredibly funny to a lot of people, and makes journalists look really stupid.

There really isn't an excuse for it anymore. The Internet is no longer a cultural appendage, a "thingie" for scientists and engineering geeks and students with too much free time. Increasingly, cyberspace does not even have a cultural identity of its own. We live in it; it is what we make of it, like everything else.

The BIG news on the Net is the same as the BIG news used to be regarding telephone companies or the television cable networks _ how many new people have access, how good is reception, what does it cost.

This is not "sexy," to use a highly technical journalism term. People who run newspapers and and television stations mostly don't know what to do with cyberspace. It is competition; but when newspapers join cyberspace, are they competing with themselves or evolving? Journalists don't know; all they know is that it seems like more and more people care less and less about newspapers and network news and, any minute now, "more and more" is going to mean "most." People can get their news in cyberspace, along with anything else that can be put on a printed page. They have options. They're using them.

The same that is true of news is true of personal relationships _ people with computers can cast their net for friends a lot further than the neighborhood, the workplace, the school system, the corner bar. It is true of the marketplace _ the suburban mall is immediate and convenient, but it is tiny compared to cyberspace.

And it is true in politics, where more and more people think that prescriptions offered that are best "for most of us" are not any good at all. "Common good" is still good; but now we want solutions that are good for each of us, not "most of us." This is one of the reasons there is no national health care plan.


Lorraine Sautner, a 30ish administrative assistant and graduate student in Danbury, peers dubiously at the video display in front of her. "What IS all this?" she asks her chosen escort into cyberspace, who helped her decide to buy her first home PC, a Pentium with everything, only days before, in early August. She uses a computer at work as a word processor only. But her friends are in cyberspace; she wants to go, too. Now. But she's worried.

"People are going to think I'm stupid," she speculates. "I don't really know what I'm doing."

Hours later, Lorraine has joined a Connecticut Singles mail network, mastered the use of an offline reader, traipsed through the minefield of "Chat" rooms on America Online with her new name and resisted a shopping spree.

"I can't go in there," she comments, surfing past an on-line mall. "You mean I can use my credit card? This is dangerous."

She didn't need an escort anymore. New friends offered advice, pointed directions. She spent a night in "chat" with the sysop of a local bulletin board; she was invited to parties; she hung out with pet lovers from California, Victoriana aficianados from Minneapolis.

"It HAS changed my life," says Lorraine, a month later. She doesn't know the names of most of her neighbors; it does not matter as much to her anymore. She is connected to the world from her bedroom, and she is happy about it.


Lorraine is not news. Millions of people are doing this, have done this, will do this soon. The obstacles have been removed. That was news, past-tense informational. Digital communication is not even growing fastest in the United States anymore; it is booming in Russia, exploding in what journalists are still calling the Third World. The technology is now trivial to use; children learn it faster than adults. And it is affordable enough that it can no longer be controlled. The government has a voice; Microsoft has a voice; I have a voice; you have a voice. Some voices are louder than others, but no one is silenced.

Sociologists can argue until they are blue of face and spirit that the technology is dehumanizing, that the method of communicating somehow debases the human spirit. The fashionable label for such people these days is neo-Luddites. They claim to carry the banner raised by the original Luddites, working people who opposed the Industrial Revolution almost two centuries ago. We know what happened to that movement.

People who embrace the technology don't give a damn what the philosophers think. They are too busy meeting people, exchanging ideas, sampling art, pornography, music, noise, great literature, pulp fiction ... learning, being connected to the world ... to bother listening to someone who thinks they're doing it all wrong.


It's late at night, in a quiet room; only three people left talking, the rest have gone to bed.

"Would you guys mind if I told you something personal?" "Sandy" asks. "Sure, shoot," says one; "No prob," says the other.

"I haven't told this to anybody ... but I'm pregnant. My boyfriend just left for Europe; I'm supposed to be going back to college. I don't know what to do."

Just another night on Prodigy.


There are that many more people to talk to. Somewhere, there is someone who understands. A gay teen-ager in the Bible Belt can find others like him; recovering alcoholics attend 24-hour AA meetings; shut-in Christians go to church; UFO believers gather in droves. This is not life as we knew it a few years back; but it IS real, and in some ways an improvement. There are more people we can reach who actually give a damn, who have a shared experience. After meeting on a local computer bulletin board, a carpenter builds a toolshed for a gardening cyberfriend in the next town. He's paid with a home-cooked supper and vegetables. This is a breakdown in community? They don't think so. Would this have happened without computers? No.

None of this is news of the "boy bites dog" variety anymore. It doesn't happen to "most of us." But there is no collective cyberspace experience, any more than there is a collective telephone experience. It is what anyone and everyone make of it. Again, there is no "most people."

Prof. Nicholas Negroponte, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, has made something of a second career out of writing about what's happening and predicting what will happen with all this, first as a columnist for cybertrendy Wired magazine and now as author of being digital. But he's mostly pretty good at pointing out what rapidly advancing communications technology can do; pretty soon, he says, everyone will be able to access pretty much anything they want, at a nominal cost. It is not science fiction; it is science now. Stuff that could happen with the technology we now have includes: The Postal Service won't handle anything but parcels. Television won't be broadcast but narrowcast; only the shows you want will get shipped to your house. Books and newspapers will be digital, printed on reusable paper or loaded into some convenient portable reading gizmo. Instead of little icons to click on to run programs, we might have eight-inch-tall holographic gnomes scurrying around our desktops doing our bidding.


Negroponte, at least, is dealing with practical "We can do this, we are doing that" type issues, as opposed to the "Wouldja lookit that!" approach of most of the media. But he shies from the big look as beyond his scope. What does it all mean? He doesn't know, though, from his lofty vantage point in cyberspace, he does acknowledge that a lot of people are probably going to lose their jobs in here somewhere.

That's the Science Point of View. "Cyberspace is there, and we have made it accessible to everyone. Use it as you will."

The Luddite Point of View boils down to a bunch of cranks saying to the scientists, "You shouldn't have done it. This is a Bad Thing." And saying to anyone who will listen, "Don't Go in There."

Can we expand on this a bit? Maybe there is a use for economics and political science, yet, both being more concerned with means than beginnings and ends.

Politically, cyberspace is the most important thing that has happened since television made it into every living room and helped John F. Kennedy get elected president. But so far it has demonstrated an opposite effect to that of television _ it sharpens and divides opinion rather than blurring and molding it.


BW ==> "The American public wanted a lying, draft-dodging, faggot-loving president who can't smoke dope right or keep his pants zipped, I guess. That doesn't mean we can't correct the mistake."

PR ==> "So what you're saying is that you'd rather have some guy who prefers giving mammoth tax breaks to corporations so they can finish off the environment and put barbed wire around the inner cities, is that it?"


No, this isn't hate radio. But it's fairly representative of the level of political discourse that can be found in some of the more popular forums on the Internet and some of the subnets where such things are discussed. Everyone talks. Not so many people listen. The Internet is not the reason there is no national consensus about what the government can or should do about anything. But it has contributed. Numerous single-issue groups, from the Christian Coalition to the Sierra Club, are finding the nets to be the single most effective political organizing tool yet invented by mankind.

A vote EITHER way on ANY polarizing issue can be an act of political suicide. Politicians in Washington used to worry about hostile editorials in the papers back home. Now they count e-mail messages by the thousands, phone calls by the hundreds. Who can tell what the public wants?

Netheads (defined here as people who think everything about the Internet is wonderful) love to point out that the Internet is inherently democratic and therefore, good. They pull up short when asked if a direct democracy is the best way to run a diverse, modern country with 250 million residents. Negroponte did not point out that communications technology will enable us to try this out. We could vote on lots of things at home, like who should be president. Do we want to? Bill Clinton was elected with 43 percent of the vote; the last two governors of Connecticut were elected with a smaller plurality than that. With the Internet providing an inexpensive, direct-to-the-voter forum for third-party candidates and single issue interest groups, it is possible to imagine no candidate for national office capturing 50 percent of the popular vote again for a long while.

The macroeconomics of changing communications are even less comprehensible than the politics, unless your name is Bill Gates, Ted Turner or Michael Eisner. The major telecommunications companies have no idea at all how this is going to shake out, so they protect themselves as best they can by owning a piece of everything _ phone and online, cellular, cable, broadcast, "content" providers, print "outlets." A company like Netscape Communications, which produces software for the World Wide Web, is worth a billion dollars overnight after offering its stock publicly. The company has 250 employees and sales of $16.7 million for the last nine months, making it about the size of a decent shopping mall. This is what is known on Wall Street as a crapshoot.

It's far easier to understand what's going on in this world by looking at it from a microeconomic viewpoint, from a consumer's eye. We are gobbling computers and software to run on them at an insatiable rate; Intel expects to sell 100 million computers in 1996, Microsoft hopes to sell 20 or 30 million copies of its new 32-bit operating system for IBM-compatible personal computers, the ubiquitous Windows 95, before Christmas. We are buying in; we are, individually, going online, changing the way we work, interact, play and spend.

Fifteen years ago I watched the networks, read at least one newspaper a day (usually two or three), subscribed to about five periodicals, tried to keep my telephone bill under $80 a month and hand-wrote most of my correspondence, using perhaps 30 stamps a month, and listened to the radio in the car.

About ten years ago, cable television was added to the mix.

About five years ago, I got my first decent home computer with a modem. Everything started to change, slowly at first. Now they change month to month.

It started in little ways; All letters were typed. New friends were made on local computer bulletin boards.

An online service, Compuserve, was added. It paid for itself; I cut back to one newspaper a day, purchased at the newstand; why buy several when I had the Associated Press updates in my living room? My phone bill dropped when I could more easily and casually correspond with distant friends. I dropped several periodicals for the same reason I dropped the additional newspapers; they were duplicating what I pulled in digitally.

Three years ago, I dropped cable TV. I did not watch it enough to justify the $30 a month I spent. I experimented with online service pricing plans and the Internet. My phone bill was climbing again; I used the modem long-distance more.

Today? I still buy one newspaper a day; I'm a journalist, after all. I subscribe to Internet World magazine; I read all other publications that interest me online or I download them to read at leisure. The television is used for rented or borrowed movies; I only missed it during the Gulf War. I need another phone line. My phone bill fluctuates wildly as I haggle with various service providers. You will not get my Internet business at that rate, I tell AT&T. Call me when you have flat rate pricing and we'll talk. SNET does not get my business, either. I pay $18 a month for unlimited Internet access; all my bills are paid electronically. I have used two postage stamps in the last six months. Much of the work I do is for people I have never met, just like Sandra Bullock in "The Net."

Unlike Bullock, however, I have a life; I met my girlfriend in cyberspace; I keep in closer touch than ever with family and friends through e-mail; I correspond regularly with an ever-widening circle of acquaintances around the world; I talk/type with strangers all the time on online services or Internet Relay Chat. My phone bill may drop to a sedate figure again when _ when, not if _ I start using Internet phone.

Obviously, my resources are allocated differently than they were; the only constant is that I still listen to the radio in the car. If someone wants to offer me narrowcast television, I will consider it; I want to receive only CNN, the Disney Channel, perhaps a movie channel and a regular listing of what is available, pay for view.

Multiply my choices by millions; our choices are changing the world.