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Life on the Screen.

By Sherry Turkle. Simon and Schuster. 347 pp. $25.

Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, meet Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Libby Hubbard--Dr. Hubbard, that is; she has a doctorate in futurism from the University of Massachusetts--has blended Christianity, socialism, feminism, vegetarianism, hedonism and New Age thought into a melange she calls Neutopianism, a new faith for a new era.

An on-line era, as it happens. Under the name Doctress Neutopia, Hubbard madly proselytizes on the Internet through her Usenet newsgroup alt.society.neutopia. She has already posted her Neutopian doctoral dissertation, plus a steady stream of philosophical musings and details of her daily routine in Amherst. "I don't like spending a lot of time in the kitchen," she revealed just last month. It's all Out There in cyberspace being archived for future historians and theologians.

For a time the Doctress posted her love letters, too. A South African named Geertjan sent her a fan note about Neutopianism; soon they were exchanging romantic manifestoes and engaging in on-line, real-time cybersex. Finally she flew to South Africa to meet him. Alas. "I had tried to be honest with Geertjan, this soul whom I had never seen before," she told us via e-mail. "I thought that we had grown to love each other's essences. But it turned out that Geertjan was really not interested in me. After having sex with me while I was in South Africa, he decided that he was no longer in love with me." Her assessment: "He had been too brainwashed in patriarchal mythology to possibly know anything about the creative nature of love."

Reality is something of a bummer for the growing millions who live on-line. "RL is just one more window, and it's not usually my best one," a computernik tells Sherry Turkle in Life on the Screen. He's a pale, male college kid--the dominant on-line demographic. As for Turkle, she's a licensed clinical psychologist as well as a professor at M.I.T.; computer people confide in her. One of her subjects plays the interactive, text-based computer game known as TrekMUSE. Offscreen, this TrekMUSER turns out to be a man playing a woman who is pretending to be a man. The game "is more real than my real life," s/he tells Turkle. A second Turkle informant, an 11 -year-old girl, spends her time on-line playing LambdaMOO, one of the freakier multi-user games. The kid has created a "condo" on her screen and invites her cyberfriends to join her there. "She chats, orders a virtual pizza, and flirts," according to Turkle, who remains maddeningly non-judgmental about the idea of prepubescence making the cyberscene. (LambdaMOO is more likely to involve S&Ms than M&Ms.)

TrekMUSE and LambdaMOO are MUDS, for Multi-User Domains, or as some prefer, Multi-User Dungeons (in homage to the Dungeons and Dragons craze of the Reagan years). MUDhuts, condos and electronic cottages float in and out of this hot shelf of new books bursting with technophiliac wet dreams. Here the recurring images of virtual space provide a key to the dream makers' real intentions. Out There, a whole new industry is prepared to sell us electronic shelter, and in the process sell out our cities, office jobs and other RL (real life) activities.

Turkle's M.I.T. colleague William Mitchell, for instance, also sees the future, and it works right there on screen. Thanks to his laptop, he can telecommute to his job as Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. For this dizzy dean, his personal Walkman foreshadows the day when he can bag club, concert hall and theater as well. Goodbye Broadway, Mitchell trills in City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn [see Andrew Leonard, "Blueprint for 'Cyberkhooey,'" October 23, 1995]. Why go to a show when new "sophisticated network navigation software" will beam low-budget entertainment directly into your brainpan? And, as long as you're up, send his last regards to Wall Street, too. "New and inexpensive" information-processing equipment has begun to weaken the adhesive power of that old standby, the office tower.

Bill Gates, for another, hardly pauses to mourn the salespeople and clerical staff who are the highway kill in his wet dream The Road Ahead. Like Mitchell, 7 million Americans now telecommute; millions more will soon join them and, says Gates ("the world's richest man"), "lots of companies will eventually be far smaller." Those workers who escape downsizing will be transformed into silicon-smart, telemanipulating nomads working in the brave new Gatesworld of disembodied communications--speech without actual speakers, performances severed from stages, meetings taken in the ether.

As the twenty-first-century office-in-alaptop displaces present-day cubicles of commerce, the mental work done in traditional city-center locations will be shifted to networked, computer-equipped, suburban or rural homes. The technophiliacs can't wait; they don't like cities or city people. There are too many of us in the streets, of far too many colors and shapes, jostling, making eye contact, maybe even speaking to one another. Telecommuting is Gates's solution to "many of today's major social problems [that] have arisen because the population has been crowded into urban areas." Just decrease the number of New Yorkers by 10 percent, Gates figures, and property values will rise for those who stay.

Ah, yes, power to the suburbs. Alvin and Heidi Toffler, the onetime Greenwich Village Marxists who've become the First Couple of Futurology, first got off on work among the rhododendrons in The Third Wave and Creating a New Civilization. In the cyburbs, husbands and wives and perhaps their children will work together churning out information-age products, not unlike families in First Wave agricuttural societies, before the dark satanic mills of the Second industrial Wave. The Tofflers are the darling gurus of Newt Gingrich, whose down To Renew America is also a paean to the transformative powers of technology. Like the Tofflers (and Marx) Gingrich sees history as a succession of stages shaped by the way people produce goods and services.

But the cozy, colorized vision of loom and living room, piecework and rec space, bed above the store, Ozzie, Harriet, Ricky and Dave at their processing-play stations, is only the beginning. The onanists are full of millennial plans for our leisure, too. When we're not pushing out info product at home--@home--in our gated cyburg communities, we can take off. . .to the planets. A recent issue of American Civilization, a publication of Gingrich's allies at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, front-pages news that earthlings could be levitating about on "A New Martian Frontier" within a decade. No one has to be left behind. After Gingrich proposed that poor people be given tax credits so they could buy laptop computers, the headlines made him back away-but only a little. "Maybe I'm a bit nutty in my populism," he conceded.

Also a bit slutty. While Gingrich was talking up a mouse in every house, the Progress and Freedom Foundation produced a grandiose document titled Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age. The Magna Carta seeks "liberation in cyberspace," a goal that, as it happens, requires "repealing Second Wave laws and retiring Second Wave attitudes." Because "regulation. . . can be tantamount to confiscation," Third Wave government must be cut to half the size of the present liberal-leftist welfare state. The new Ging state will adjust federal tax rules to permit quicker depreciation of Knowledge Age technology. It won't interfere with collaborations between phone companies and cable companies; doing so would be "socially elitist." It promises, in short, bumper sticker libertarianism (the Magna Carta actually quotes Ayn Rand). Not so incidentally, among the major contributors to the foundation are drug manufacturers and telecommunications companies--precisely the corporations that stand to gain when liberated once and for all from the already droopy gaze of the F.D.A., F.C.C. and other "watchdog" agencies.

The Tofflers, Gingrich, the P.F.F. et al. natter on about a world where, to borrow from Nabokov, "reality" is always embedded in quotation marks. Shrewdly, the Third Wavers have appropriated all the good words: freedom, future, frontier, opportunity, individualism, democracy, prosperity. According to the P.F.F. Magna Carta, "the central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter. . . . The powers of mind are everywhere ascendant over the brute force of things."

What the cyberhypesters have overthrown is the idea of durable goods. The electronic cottage is not just chockablock with enough cool new gear to stock the display windows of The Wiz; the stuff must constantly be replaced--upgraded. Talk about nostalgia: Third Wavers are bringing back the planned obsolescence foisted on consumers by the avatar of smokestack America--the Detroit car-makers and their 1950s gas-guzzlers. For all the bloviating about caring, craftlike cottage work, the new information ecosystem is more ferocious Darwin than pastoral Ruskin or Morris.

In the fast-forward future of Gatesworld, we'll all be expected to do our duty to commerce by stocking up on new appliances. The nineteenth century embraced those twin peculiar institutions, slavery and indentured servitude; in the millennium, according to Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital, they'll make something of a reappearance as software-intelligent agents and hardware robots. In twenty years we'll be talking to eight-inch-high holographic assistants; one of our electronic secretaries will prepare a personalized newspaper--Negroponte calls it the Daily Me--consisting solely of articles about subjects the master has previously specified. Moreover, "my VCR of the future will say to me when I come home, 'Nicholas, I looked at five thousand hours of television while you were out and recorded six segments for you which total forty minutes. Your high school classmate was on the 'Today' show, there was a documentary on the Dodecanese Islands. . . .'" Later he adds, "It would really be quite simple to brand your toast in the morning with the closing price of your favorite stock."

Negroponte is a likable guy: a grown-up--he's the director of M.I.T.'s Media Lab--with an undergraduate hacker's love of the technology. When he travels abroad, "a full 25 percent of my luggage volume is likely to be a combination of phone jacks and power plugs" so he can stay in e-mail contact with colleagues. From where he sits, perhaps the new technologies are indeed "creating a totally new, global social fabric." Perhaps the computer "can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony." Still, his Hallmark wisdom reminds us of Charles Briggs and Augustus Maverick's 1858 prediction about the new telegraph system: "It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for an exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth."

Reporters covering Nelson Rockefeller's bid for the presidency learned to know when the candidate's rote stump speech was coming to an end so they could race for the press buses. "Under the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God. . . " Rocky's peroration began. This quickly became known as the BOMFOG signal (I'm outta here, fella). In fact, beneath all the current bomfoggery about the new word order, there's a core of valuable RL services, utilitarian stuff like e-mail and file transfers that we'll all be using long after Negroponte's fantasies of newsy toast--toasty news?--are forgotten. Some of the more intriguing are elaborated by Richard Lanham in his witty, informed analysis The Electronic Word. Lanham is professor of English at U.C.L.A. and a scholar with an antic, humanistic imagination. The Pastists, Lanham says, think the computer means the end of the book and therefore the end of the world. Not so, he says; digital texts offer new ways to read and write.

What's wrong, he asks, with Paradise Lost on a CD-ROM? Wouldn't you play with it a bit? "Hey, man, how about some music with this stuff?. . . Add some graphics and graffiti. Print it out in San Francisco [typeface] for Lucifer and Gothic for God." Blasphemy perhaps, but also fun. And then what about some alternative plots and endings? As Lanham writes, experimental composers, serious musicians, have written pieces with alternative endings and branching sequences in so-called "aleatory compositions." So have rock musicians. Similarly, digitized films can be released on videocassette with both the outtakes and alternative endings. Renters could play director, assembling their own films, which means no "final cut." That would really be a blast from Blockbuster. Gates also endorses this idea, although he writes that he wouldn't fool with movie classics like La Dolce Vita or The Great Gatsby.

Gates and his ghostwriters must really live in another world if they think the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow turkey is right up there on the charts with Fellini. So exactly what is going on inside the minds of all those white boys on-line? To find out, check out the work of Lanham's cross-campus colleague, U.C.L.A. film scholar Vivian Sobchack. Professor Sobchack is one of the contributors to Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, a lively, lit-crit look at the prevailing weirdness of the new electronic culture. Sobchack analyzes the on-line heroes portrayed in the cybercult magazine. She finds a beau ideal who is "powerful, heroic, committed, and yet safe within his (computer) shell." In Sobchack's mordant phrase, the model on-liner lives a life of "interactive autism."

Her verdict is not too different from that of Martin Marty, the smart, sharp University of Chicago religion historian. The cult of media-on-demand, Marty argues, is intended to put the on-liner "in a solipsistic, narcissistic universe where you are God." Or, we would add, at least a film director or a Doctress.

Edwin Diamond teaches at N. Y U. and is the author of White House to Your House: Media and Politics in Virtual America (M.I.T.). Stephen Bates, a Senior Fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program, is the author of Battleground: One Mother's Crusade, the Religious Right, and the Struggle for Our Schools (Holt).
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Author:Diamond, Edwin; Bates, Stephen
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 5, 1996
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