Tag Archives: cyberspace

Kindle Notes: The Passage

1 Jul

I heard about a month ago that Amazon was beta-testing their new software for the Kindle (Kindle 2.5), and waited eagerly for the wireless gift to appear on my Home screen.

It happened in Greece.

After a long day of hiking the Theran acropolis on Santorini, I picked up Mr. Linus to find strange dotted lines appearing under random passages in Justin Cronin’s The Passage with comments like “5 highlighters” or (as the book, which was already #6 on the Amazon bestseller list at the time I purchased it, grew more popular) “22 highlighters.”  With mounting excitement, I realized that this was the new Popular Highlights feature, which shared the most-saved passages of the Amazon Hive Mind.  Additionally, I could group my books into “Collections,” folders by genre or subgenre (it took a while for me to finally organize into Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Slipstream).  But best of all was the social networking feature, which uses Kindle’s global wireless to share notes and highlights from a book straight to Facebook or Twitter.  All of which meant, a tad ironically, I could share notes from the bus but only got on a computer twice the entire trip.

So in honor of Kindle 2.5, here’s a passage from The Passage I posted–one that reminded me of those 6 hours crossing the Peloponnesus on the bus when ginseng tablets didn’t exactly work the wonders they’d promised:

A Highlight and Note from Isabela Morales

Book

After the initial confusion of their capture, a situation compounded by the fact that neither group would agree to say who they were until the other blinked first, it was Michael who had broken the stalemate, lifting his vomit-smeared face from the dirt where the net had disgorged them to proclaim, “Oh, fuck. I surrender. We’re from California, all right? Somebody, please just shoot me so the ground will stop spinning.”
Note: I’m pretty sure this would have been me

Thou Shalt Have No Other Blogs Before Me

19 Feb

Tonsured saints poring over Scripture share space with smiling teens pecking away at laptops on the Vatican’s new online home, Pope2You.net.  Considering its ancient roots, tomes of canon law, and secret archives of dusty manuscripts, the Roman Catholic Church’s recent emphasis on an increasing Internet presence seems almost anachronistic.  But as disorienting as photo galleries of the beatifically-smiling Benedict XVI may be at any URL, the Vatican’s Facebook fan pages and new iPhone apps have been in the works for centuries—theologically, at least.

The Catholic Church is not only the largest Christian church, but one of the world’s longest-lasting institutions in general—something that hints at a strategy of more than inertia at work.  Though rigid in matters of doctrine (there’s no arguing a priest out of transubstantiation), throughout its history the Vatican has shown itself to be surprisingly flexible in matters of practice:

St. Paul convinced the Council of Jerusalem, way back in the first century, to accept non-Jews into the infant Christian community without requiring that they follow the strictures of Mosaic Law.  Pope Gregory the Great’s extant letters to 7th-century missionaries, entrusted with converting the pagan bretwalda of southern England, instructed them to be practical more than zealous: no burning temples or banning pagan holy days—just re-name them.  Even the Protestant Reformation, which is often used today to highlight the corruption and abuses of the medieval Catholic Church, was a break based on doctrinal differences—criticizing indulgence sellers was perfectly orthodox; rejecting the consecration of the Eucharist was not.

Historically, this tendency to adapt on matters of practice has been used to make Catholicism accessible to more people; today, the Vatican is continuing that pattern by embracing the use of the Internet in evangelizing.  St. Paul had his Gentiles; Benedict gets the bloggers.

In the last year alone, the Church under Pope Benedict XVI has worked to disseminate Vatican news with a YouTube channel (updated daily) and an officially-sponsored Facebook, iPhone, and iPod Touch application: iBreviary, essentially a digital prayer book.  (All of this, of course, can be shared with friends via “virtual postcards” from Rome.)  The Vatican has also recently called for more use of the Internet at the local level, encouraging parish priests to learn how to blog, Facebook, or use multimedia tools in how they communicate with their flocks.

The Pope made his position clear on January 24, 2010: the 44th Annual World Communications Day, at which he called the Internet “an opportunity for believers,” cited a “challenge to employ the Gospel” with these new resources, and commented that the Internet “can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis.”

Nevertheless, this progressive outlook on technological culture contrasts sharply with the Vatican’s increasingly conservative stances on other cultural topics.  In the early 1990s (just a few centuries late), then-Pope John Paul II officially acknowledged that the Earth does, after all, orbit the sun—but Benedict XVI still calls the unfortunate Galileo Galilei’s trial and house arrest “rational and just.”  Ironically, it’s those same college students who, after this statement, protested His Holiness’s planned lecture at LaSapienza University in Rome, are now the targets of the Vatican’s recent cyber crusade.

Benedict XVI has shown himself to be more than conventionally traditional on issues closer to the modern day, as well.  His support for distinct gender roles and comments on homosexuality, for example, has proven particularly controversial: his statement that homosexuality “is a more or less a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder” goes just a little beyond John Paul II’s hate the sin, love the sinner sort of outlook.

And the Church has shown itself as implacable on contraception as it is on abortion.  Benedict XVI crushed the rumored Vatican council on the use of contraceptives that made headlines some years ago, and had chastised those rebel priests who claimed condoms might be permissible when used for family planning.  The notion is simply unacceptable—even within the bonds of marriage.

If these reactionary doctrinal positions seem incompatible with his strong support of Internet preaching, it may be because this latter stance is a very recent change in policy.  The 44th Annual World Communications Day may have been a triumph for the Internet, but this same Pope Benedict XVI had less flattering things to say about the online world at the 43rd.  To take one excerpt from his vitriolic speech, Facebook was accused of “degrading human beings.”  The mass media in its entirety was denounced as “poison.”

These previous statements indicate the real purpose of this Internet policy turnabout: a shrewd attempt to spread a conservative message and make it accessible as practically as possible, not the hint of a more progressive outlook on modern culture in general.  For Pope Benedict XVI, the Internet, it seems, is just one more barbarian temple to re-purpose.

Conquering time and space with a Facebook app

28 Dec

This might surprise some people, but Farmville and Mafia Wars aren’t the only games on Facebook these days.

This winter break, I had the good fortune to visit with John Bergmans, a long-time friend of my aunt and uncle (Dr. John Bossard of Plasma Wind, by the way–see sidebar).  Along with being an engineer and entrepreneur, owner of Bergmans Mechatronics LLC, John Bergmans is also of late a Facebook app designer, the creator of the game EarthControl. According to the Facebook fan page:

EarthControl is a real-time, multi-player Facebook game in which players fly ships into space to pick up oil and bring it back to earth. Now includes sound effects and music, keyboard control, in-game chat support for Internet Explorer 7!

Here’s a short demo:

Bergmans describes the premise as a “cynical commentary” on our seemingly never-ending dependence on oil for energy; in his animated universe, oil barrels float around outside orbit and rival factions or space pirates can shoot your ship down with “plasma balls” to steal that precious black gold payload.

It’s surprisingly addictive—after a couple hours playing against some family members in a very intense competition filled with black looks shot across the room as we sat at our own laptops and opened fire on each other online, I was ranked 9th top player overall.  I do not intend to give up that position.  Ever.

Bergmans commented that working on the game put him in his own little world, and was pretty enjoyable.  But he seemed at no time more animated (pardon the pun) than when discussing the Kaazing Communications Gateway’s WebSockets, the web communication system that allows for real-time updates to the game.

WebSockets allows the game to “push data,” update the content without constantly pinging a server to resend data (in other words, no hitting the refresh button).  Earlier this month, EarthControl even hosted a transatlantic tournament, simultaneous with Peter Lubbers’s (of Kaazing Corp.) HTML5 Communication Systems seminar all the way across the pond, in London.

This is all the more impressive considering that every command sent to the game—shooting a plasma ball at my uncle’s ship to steal his payload, for example—gets routed through Bergman’s server in San Jose (that’s a pretty long way from England).  Even two months before the tournament, the technology was performing flawlessly at long distances.  Bergmans posted this on Facebook in early October:

I played the first-ever trans-Atlantic EarthControl game today with Peter Lubbers of Kaazing Corp. (Kaazing is the company which makes the WebSockets technology that enables web browsers to maintain continuous, real-time communications with servers.)

For this event, Peter was in Amsterdam, as part of a trip to Europe, while I was in Newport Beach, CA. Of particular significance is that, although the distance between Peter and the EarthControl server in San Jose, CA is about 5500 miles, Peter reported no apparent change in his ability to control his ship in real-time within the game. I noticed no difference either in my interactions with Peter from my location 340 miles south of San Jose. We were also able to easily carry on a conversation using the new in-game chat function of EarthControl.

This real-time, multi-player aspect is what makes EarthControl most fun—particular since the game has a Twitter account that tweets whenever a new player logs on (you’ll never have to play alone, and hey, that competitor could be halfway across the world).  Let the grudge matches begin.

So if you’re on Facebook and killing time (and let’s admit, that’s what Facebook’s all about), check out EarthControl: it’s a lot better than chasing lost cows.

Democratizing Technology, again

14 Dec

The more we control our technology, the better we like it.

This weekend I took the advice of 17-year-old Marcus, hacker protagonist of Cory Doctorow’s young adult novel Little Brother (2009’s Prometheus Award winner for Libertarian SF, by the way):

A computer is the most complicated machine you’ll ever use. It’s made of billions of micro-miniaturized transistors that can be configured to run any program you can imagine. But when you sit down at the keyboard and write a line of code, those transistors do what you tell them to.

Most of us will never build a car. Pretty much none of us will ever create an aviation system. Design a building. Lay out a city. Those are complicated machines, those things, and they’re off- limits to the likes of you and me. But a computer is like, ten times more complicated, and it will dance to any tune you play. You can learn to write simple code in an afternoon. Start with a language like Python, which was written to give non-programmers an easier way to make the machine dance to their tune. Even if you only write code for one day, one afternoon, you have to do it. Computers can control you or they can lighten your work — if you want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write code.

It’s less a subtle suggestion than a call to arms, but I was inspired anyway and messed around with Python for an afternoon—because I’m a Humanities student and very proud of the fact, I used my very limited skills to write a program that quotes Hamlet at you, substituting your name for Ophelia’s (user_reply = raw_input (“Get thee to a nunnery!”)).

It was amazing.  And Cory Doctorow/Marcus was absolutely right: every time that little program carried out a command I typed, I shouted very loudly and very excitedly with the astonishing power of even my limited abilities (very, very limited abilities).  Doctorow’s call to arms is something almost as cool as my hamlet.py program: computers are complicated, and the Internet can be frightening, but we don’t have to be passive users.

It’s democratization of technology.

We’ve probably all heard the faux-Chinese curse once or twice before: May you live in interesting times.  Interesting being dangerous, of course.  Well, this is an interesting time (Cory Doctorow: it’s one of the “best and weirdest” times in human history), and what makes it interesting—the powers, good and bad, of technology—are shared by some of the other weird and best periods in history.  Take 1850 to 1900:

Historians have a lot of names for these mid to late-1800s—Mark Twain’s designation of the period as the “Gilded Age” is probably the best known.  The second half of the 19th-century, Twain believed, demonstrated unprecedented superficiality, decadence, and extravagant displays of wealth.

But Twain seems to ignore where that wealth came from—the growth of industry in the northeast, so productive that we call it the “Second Industrial Revolution.”  This was the time of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Michael Faraday, among many, many others.  Advertisement, commercialization of the automobile (Henry Ford), and the mass production of consumer goods all began at this time.  Not to mention its affect on communication: for the telephone alone, this half-century has even been labeled the “Technical Revolution.”

Technology was changing lives, making the world smaller, and spreading ideas like never before.  Great inventors may stand on the shoulders of giants—no one’s disputing Newton here—but there are clear periods of time in which our gradual technological snowball triggers an avalanche, and everything shakes up.

The later 1400s were one of those times, with the invention of the printing press and movable type (in Europe, at least).  It was the first major democratization of knowledge in human history, and led to one of the greatest social upheavals in Western Civilization: the Protestant Reformation.

Another one of those inventive periods was the latter half of the 19th-century, the scientific and technological “revolution” that Mr. Twain called the Gilded Age.  And—in this case, I think unjustly—the quips of a great satirist like Clemens tend to stick.

There’s a competing name for that epithet, however: the Age of Optimism.  Hearing a friend or family member in your ear across thousands of miles must have seemed like magic.  Confidence in the power of technology skyrocketed.

But power can go the other way too—and when WWII’s atomic bomb proved, as Carl Sagan writes, that “scientists knew sin,” faith in technology waned a little low.  In the 1970s, Vietnam War protestors burned their draft cards in napalm, another contribution of science to the destruction of humankind.

No wonder our history books never mention that the “Gilded Age” optimism might have been warranted.

But I increasingly think that we’re in one of those technological avalanche periods—like the printing press and the telephone, the Internet has only further democratized knowledge and communication.  (Remember Bruce Sterling’s comment?  The Internet is the world’s, history’s, only “functional anarchy.”)

Newsweek shocked me this week with their feature: The Decade in Review.  At #8 on the happy endings list was the story of Martin Takleff, convicted in 1990 for murdering his parents—as it turns out, he didn’t.  It’s a brief story, literally six lines, and half of them are these:

Because of new technologies, we can prove that mistakes were made.  Technology is neutral.  It is dispositive proof of objective fact, and it brings us closer to truth.

So it’s not unbridled optimism, but that’s a pretty confident assessment of the benefits of technological advances—and the talk about “objective fact” makes me grin with the thought that postmodernism might be falling out of favor.

I think we’re starting to trust technology again.

That can be dangerous—more than ever, there’s the risk of this ubiquitous, ever-more-powerful technology being twisted to watch us, track our movements, and surveil ordinary people’s activities in the grand tradition of an Orwellian-dystopian nightmare.  But like Cory Doctorow writes—and Newsweek, surprisingly, echoes—technology is neutral, objective, and it does our bidding.  Like the printing press, the Internet has democratized information to a greater extent than ever (ever) before; it’s our technology, and if we can learn to control it, maybe that 19th-century confidence can overwhelm the cynicism.

Just mess around with Python for a couple hours.  It’s painless; I promise.

Anarchy on the Internet (and why it’s good)

24 Nov

Everyone knows that middle-aged sexual predators lurk in chatrooms, posing as insecure tweens looking for a friend; or friend other insecure tweens on MySpace; or that if you don’t lock up your wireless network tight, terrorists are going to tap into it and turn your naivete into massive-scale crime; or that that email with the suspicious subject line is a virus that’s going to delete all your files (even if you do have a Mac); and that if you don’t forward this message of holiday cheer to 42 people by midnight, an axe murderer will sneak into your room at 3 am and— ZZSWAR9ARG7Z

You get the point.  There are dangers hiding behind every hyperlink.

I don’t mean to be flippant (no, that’s a lie; I do, but it’s strictly rhetorical)—the Internet can be a scary place, and scary people use it.  I’m all for parental controls and spam queues.  What I’m not for is the underlying premise beneath Internet fear-mongering—because it’s not always just “Stranger Danger.”

Some of the outcry against danger (or obscenity, or perversion, etc, et al) comes with a call to action that frightens me more than any technological boogeyman—if the Internet is dangerous because it’s so open, because anyone can do, really, anything, why not regulate?

In 1993, SF author Bruce Sterling (“Junk DNA,” remember?) wrote an article called “A Short History of the Internet,” which you can find in its entirely online, and which I highly recommend.  For my part, I’ll focus on just a few key facts, some of the points from the reading assignment for today’s American Studies lecture on “The Internet Revolution.”  So:

1. The very openness and decentralization of the Internet that makes it “dangerous” was built into its most basic structure—from the perspective of a Cold War scientist, you see, a communication network would have to be as decentralized as possible in order to still function after a nuclear holocaust wiped out God-knew-where in the United States.  With this in mind, the less authority—the better (sounds strange for a military-government program, doesn’t it?).

2. And after decades of evolution, that’s what we still have: no authority.  Sterling asks:

Why do people want to be “on the Internet?”  One of the main reasons is  simple freedom.   The Internet is a rare example of a true, modern, functional  anarchy.   There is no “Internet Inc.”   There are no official censors, no bosses, no board of directors, no stockholders.  In principle, any node can speak as a peer to any other node, as long as it obeys the rules of the TCP/IP protocols, which are strictly technical, not social or political.

Sixteen years after those words hit shelves in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and that’s still true: it’s simple science fact, and no less amazing for it.

Online, you are what you type, upload, or post—identities are fluid.  It’s true that might mean a fifty-year-old man staring at a glowing screen in his basement could pretend to be a junior high girl on a some Edward Cullen fan site, but it also means that young Peter Wiggin can blog and be seen by the world as an elder statesman.

It’s freedom to be creative without the stigma of age, sex, race, or anything else that might lead someone to prejudge you before looking at your work or ideas: online, you are your ideas.

Blogger and SF writer Cory Doctorow’s name (which I feel I mention every other post) is almost synonymous with Internet freedom.  Publishing his novels under a Creative Commons license for free distribution online (DRM-free, I might add), Doctorow could almost be a character from one of his own books—Alan/Adam/Albert/Avi, for example, from Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, spends the time he’s not brooding about his troubled childhood as the eldest son of a mountain and a washing machine, setting up a free, open, wireless network for the people of his local town.

(I did say almost a character.)  In any case, he practices what he preaches, and in all his books shows just how cool our world is.  I’m going to have to quote Makers again– we’re living in the “weirdest and best time” in the history of the world.  Witness the astonishing success of modern anarchy:

“No one needed to draw a map of the Web,” Kurt said, “It just grew and people found its weird corners on their own.  Networks don’t need centralized authority, that’s just the chains on your mind talking.”

I have to give my professor credit—revolution was a good title for the lecture.  Even after our first Revolution, observers (read: Alexis de Tocqueville) noticed a tension in American society between liberty and equality, freedom and democracy.  Oftentimes, they clash (see any debate on social welfare programs—the object is equality of outcome, but at the expense of freedom to use and dispose of one’s property, money).

But no political arguments in this post about liberty and equality: the anarchy of the Internet is one of the only places where you don’t really have to choose.

Nostalgic, Prescient (and very, very memorable) Science Fiction

23 Nov

Somehow, without me noticing, the science fiction writers I remember from magazines of the early-2000s appeared on my bookshelf again.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been on a mission to find copies of the first SF stories I can remember reading—two of them I knew for sure came from an issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine; two of them might be in one of a number of old anthologies of my grandfather’s; and one of them might just be from a dream I had years ago and inflated into a dystopian epic (it happens).

In any case, after diligent Google searching and telephone inquiries with a used bookstore in Oregon, I was able to get a listing of the titles and authors of short stories in Asimov’s from 2002 to 2005.  The problem was that it’s a monthly magazine, and I couldn’t remember if my subscription had begun when I was a freshman in high school, or when my older sister first brought back those QSP-issued order forms for the annual magazine drive.

So: after nearly 7 years, I couldn’t remember the authors, or the titles (shoot, I couldn’t even remember the year).  This may have something to do with the fact that back in those halcyon days of yore, I was a very sweet, very impressionable middle-school girl who found herself horrified by the lurid cover illustrations and pulp fiction content of the publication—a semi-nude, iridescent faerie was not, after all, what Dune and Contact had prepared me for.

I read no more than two or three issues, tossed the rest out, and did not renew my subscription.  I would stick to the classics, I decided.

But for 7 years I’ve managed to vividly remember two stories—or at least, bizarre details from two stories—from one of the few issues I’d read.

The first was about a woman with some sort of genetically-engineered pets franchise: they had a strange name (ploompies?  ploofties?) and were globular, translucent, pulsing masses of the buyer’s own DNA.  And somehow, these creatures were so appealing that the owner could hardly help but bite into them—and get a taste of something sharp and metallic (in my orthodontics-oriented middle-school mind, that jagged pain you get from biting down on a piece of tinfoil with a filled tooth).

The second story had something to do with a girl and her dog; they lived in the “real world,” or rather, the physical world, because when she grew up, she would have to abandon her body and lived in a completely virtual world, like the Internet.  Some accident happens to the girl, and her body is lost—she herself is just barely uploaded in time, but the dog can’t be saved.

This isn’t much to go on.  But paging through lists of titles online, I spotted one called “Junk DNA.”  Alarms went off in the brainpan.  I bought a used copy of the January 2003 issue of the magazine, and checked my PO Box daily until it arrived.

The first story, about the bizarre pets (Pumptis, as it turns out), was indeed “Junk DNA,” by Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker.  And here’s the passage that had so stuck with me:

In a dizzying moment of raw devotion, Janna suddenly found herself sinking her teeth into the unresisting flesh of the Pumpti.  Crisp, tasty, spun-cotton candy, deep-fried puffball dough, a sugared beignet.  And under that a salty, slightly painful flavor—bringing back the memory of being a kid and sucking on the root of a lost tooth.

Why that particular imagery was so memorable, I don’t know.  More interesting is the fact that the genre of the story is one I’ve been raving about for the past few months:

“Junk DNA” is science fiction story about a business venture and all the backroom politicking that goes along with economics, invention, and the market.  Sound a bit like…?

(My post on) Cory Doctorow and Makers, his very recent epic of robotics, business, and the “New Work” (like the New Deal, but way more free market);

(My post on) David Louis Edelman and his Jump 225 series, for which “cyberpunk” hardly does justice as a classification—the corporate intrigue behind Bio/Logic and MultiReal (and how could there not be corporate intrigue with sociopathic entrepreneur Natch at the helm?) is just as intense as the science;

Charles Stross and Glasshouse, which won the 2007 Prometheus Award for “libertarian SF” (This, friends, is my life goal), or The Atrocity Archives, which is something of a spy thriller with a science fiction element closer to Lovecraftian horror than anything else (take a look at the January 2003 cover illustration and you’ll see where I’ve found a connection with Lovecraft).

Even one of the authors, Bruce Sterling, will be appearing on my bookshelf when The Caryatids arrives in the mail in a couple weeks.  And the last page of the January 2003 issue is a sort of preview of coming attractions feature, listing authors and stories for the next issue—one of them, by the way, is Charlie Stross).

To think, I thought these were new discoveries.

Mystery Story #2 also happened to be in the Jan. 2003 issue—“Pick My Bones With Whispers,” by Sally McBride.  This was a major lucky break, as I would never have remembered that the second story imprinted on my malleable brain had been the winner of the Pretentious Title Award for 2003.  (Is McBride trying to be ironic?  I sincerely hope so…)

And once again, the topics that fascinate me today, I discover, are absolutely nothing new.  The research I recently did on the millennial generation’s changing conception of the Internet (or, for them/us, Cyberspace)—from a tool to a place that has been increasingly explored since childhood—is all there in the saga of Lizbeth and her faithful virtual pup, Fritz:

Though I’m twelve, there’s still a lot I can’t do in the children’s Net areas, even if Fritz was letting me in deeper and deeper all the time.  There were dark places I couldn’t go, forbidden subjects I couldn’t get data on, tantalizing things I couldn’t see or join or do.  Sometimes it was humiliating to be a flesh-and-blood person.

This sounds so much like one of the responses I got from an interviewee for my paper that it’s almost shocking.  She doesn’t use the Internet to the same extent of her peers—and so (like Lizbeth, albeit less dramtically) resists absorption into Cyberspace.  She told me:

“Everyone talks about how big the Internet is, and I know, because I can go on for hours and hours and still feel like I’ve never gotten into the core of it.  If the Internet was real life, I would be non-existent.”

This interviewee in particular doesn’t care for science fiction—she enjoys borrowing my DVDs of Firefly, but that’s about it.  No 2003 Asimov’s Science Fiction for her.  And still, she easily could have spoken those lines from McBride’s story.

This—like the theme and subject matter of recent novels by authors like Stross, Edelman, and Doctorow—tells me that there’s something in the culture today stories like “Junk DNA” and “Pick My Bones With Whispers” (I’m sorry, I still really can’t type that without cracking up) picked up on in 2003: the increasing interconnectedness of technology and economics, and the transformation of the Internet into an environment rather than just a tool.

Getting that old magazine in the mail today was like a wave of nostalgia, but after reading through those stories again, the sentimentality was gone—the things I missed and remembered for 7 years are mainstream now.

Home Sweet Homepage: Growing Up in Cyberspace

2 Nov

“Have you ever played the Wikipedia game?”

After an exasperating few seconds struggling to articulate her mental picture of the Internet — “I can’t fit it into my head!” she protested — college sophomore Nicole Hugo landed upon one of her favorite exercises in procrastination as a suitable analogy for the greater World Wide Web.  To play, she explained, you need only think of a topic, any topic, and attempt to wind your way through the hyperlinked labyrinth of Wikipedia’s three-million-odd articles until reaching, at long last, a page dealing with the subject you’d originally chosen.  The “Wikipedia game,” she claimed, is the Internet writ small: “You can start off one place and end up where you want to go because everything is so interconnected.”

An effortless activity for Nicole, who rated herself a modest 10.5 in Internet proficiency (on a scale of 1 to 10), the analogy suggests an interesting topological conception of the Internet — for cyber-navigators like Hugo, information retrieval is so simple as to be a game; the challenge lies in exploring the geography, covering the terrain from point A to point B in the most creative way possible (her example: from roadrunners to Japanese anime).  In the minds of these college-age students, raised to treat it less as a tool than an environment, the Internet has become a “place” — one they find as comfortable and natural as the world outside the computer monitor.

Leah Jacobs, perhaps the only member of the Millennial Generation to express the wish that the Internet had never been invented, is not one of those students.

“I was always behind on the Internet,” she confessed — “This is embarrassing, but if I heard a song I liked on the radio, I would go on the iTunes search engine and try to guess the name of the song until something came up; I didn’t know I could go on Google and just type in a couple lyrics and press enter.  I only realized this the other day.”

Leah, who sees the Internet predominantly as an instrument of time wasting (at one point she compared Facebook to a drug addiction), approved of the utility of only a select few Internet features: email and Mapquest, in particular, though she still prefers Rand McNally.  While she originally rated herself a 7 in Internet competence, about an hour after the interview Leah must have had second thoughts; she emailed me back with the suggestion that I change her self-evaluation to a 4.  Perhaps the drop to a below-average ranking has something to do with her shaky command of Digital Age jargon, in which she’s not quite fluent: over the course of our conversation Leah groped for the term “flash drive” — “those little things that you put in the USB and save stuff to and take them somewhere else?” — and, when referring to websites she frequents, commonly cited the full URL (“dot com” and all).

Leah attributes her limited proficiency online to a long series of technological deficiencies in the Jacobs household: “It’s definitely how I was brought up — I was a sheltered child,” she said, adding that her family’s falling “behind” extended beyond computers.  As Leah remembers: “It was this big exciting thing when we got one cell phone… until we realized we couldn’t call each other.”

Though she was, like most millennials, exposed to computers very young, these early experiences served mainly to establish the utilitarian view of the Internet she holds today — while her “mom was obsessed with buying computer games,” they were strictly educational programs, and online activity involved nothing but email until high school.  “I think of the Internet as a tool to help me do work,” she said; “Other than that, it’s better to actually do things with people, to see them and talk to them.”

That sentiment was echoed by another Internet detractor, Dana Cooper, who spends her time online in similarly practical pursuits: homework, research, email.  This too reflects a pattern forged in childhood: while Dana learned to type before she could spell her own last name, her earliest memories of the Internet emphasize the academic uses she puts it to today.  “I remember being eight years old, looking up stuff online to do a project for science, on manatees,” she laughed, “And I did it all on my own, like I knew how to look stuff up online” — ten years later, the pride in her voice is still audible.

But Dana, if more adept than Leah at what she termed “the tricks of the trade,” still deplores the amount of time her classmates spend on the Internet.  “I think it’s embarrassing,” she said, citing a recent visit to a friend’s house as an example of the excessive lengths her peers will go to in pursuit of the perfect social networking profile — “She was putting up her pictures online, and fixing them and changing them and cropping them here or there, and I felt like, you can find out way too much stuff about people.  It’s invasive.”

From here, Dana begins to diverge from Leah’s functionalism: while Jacobs considers face-to-face communication the only true form of human contact, Dana indicates that the Internet does provide a setting for real social interaction, even if she isn’t a participant.  “Sometimes I do feel like an outsider,” she lamented; “If I go on some site and see what other people are writing, it’s kind of strange, like, why am I reading this if I’m not a part of it?”

For Dana, reading the posts of an online forum, the comments on someone’s YouTube account, or the wall posts between individuals over Facebook is akin to eavesdropping — the content a person generates online, in this view, is an accurate reflection of the flesh-and-blood human being behind the HTML.  To Dana, you are who you are online, and she, without a virtual identity (even one as cropped and edited as her friend’s), is less than an outsider: “If the Internet was real life,” she mused, “I would be non-existent!”

Nicole Hugo and Britta Kilkenny, another college sophomore and Internet true believer, elaborated on this idea — “Everything I post is true,” Nicole said of her Facebook profile, “So I guess it is does show who I am, or at least who I think I am”; Britta agreed, speculating that “someone could get a pretty good idea” of her personality and daily life if she updated her status more often.

What Dana termed “invasive,” Nicole and Britta see as a means of accurately representing themselves in a new medium, online.  And for Nicole, even something as short and presumably impersonal as a YouTube video comment can extend meaningful human contact — because she sees content that may not include so much as the creator’s name as representing an actual person, Hugo tries always to be encouraging and supportive: “These are usually people that I really enjoy, that I subscribe to, and I think they appreciate it when you write something positive.”  Compare this to Leah, for whom “people” exist only in physical space.

But in cyberspace (at least for Nicole, Britta, and Dana), manifestation as a tangible, carbon-based life form isn’t necessary; one’s virtual identity, perhaps a thing of words alone, is just as real and just as capable of social interaction.  The germs of this mindset as well may have been planted in early childhood — when asked what website they most remember visiting during their first days of Internet travels, all but Leah answered without hesitation: “Neopets.”

Launched in 1999, Neopets was something of an early online community for kids; set on the virtual planet of Neopia, members chose their own pets from a wide selection of chimerical animals and then proceeded to feed, clothe, and entertain them.  Discussing Neopets, Dana’s description highlighted both the independent nature of her early Internet use as well as the sense that the website was more a virtual environment than a game: “You could have your own pet, and it was yours, and you cared for it.  Then I could make money and have all my own material possessions, but on the Internet, you know?”  Britta, too, agreed that “it was pretty intense,” recalling that the website allowed for messaging among “neofriends” and even “battles” between the pets of complete strangers, an online cognate of the then-popular Pokemon card game.

Though she played as well, Nicole Hugo found Neopets rather too tame for her tastes — her online communication with others, even with strangers, proved more direct: chat rooms.

“Now that I think about it, that was probably extra sketch,” she said of these first, daring forays into the online social environment — nevertheless, a fourth-grade girl in 1999 could hardly expect to maintain her reputation without participating in at least one Backstreet Boys chat room.  A self-described “bad kid,” Nicole very early developed a cool confidence on the Internet.  “Because we didn’t have a babysitter,” she explained, free time was spent on the computer in her father’s office; this informal, private practice — “click-click-click, that’s all I knew how to do” — gave Nicole the basic skills she needed to manipulate a mouse, keyboard, and search engine in order to pursue her personal interests as a ravenous fangirl.

It’s no coincidence that Nicole and Britta, who at a young age began to see the Internet as a medium for social interaction, today treat websites like Facebook and YouTube as settings for communication as comfortable and personal as any face-to-face conversation.  Dana too, a Neopets veteran, sees the Internet as a “place,” an environment with its own geography — “Everyone talks about how big the Internet is, and I know, because I can go on for hours and hours and still feel like I’ve never gotten into the core of it.”

Her use of the word “big” here, interestingly, refers neither to popularity nor extension across a physical expanse of space: Dana references the simply overwhelming number of websites, a dense virtual world she can’t penetrate because, without a Facebook profile or other virtual identity, she remains on the periphery, “non-existent.”  And while Dana can’t reach the “core” of the Internet, Leah Jacobs — who described her family as “technologically deprived” — seems constantly out of her depth, floundering with search engines and information retrieval processes digital natives like Nicole Hugo consider so familiar as to constitute a game.

Ultimately, these four millennials represent a continuum in their treatment of the Internet — from a practical tool and nothing more, to a virtual environment in which real human interaction can occur.  The determinant?  Who cut their teeth on mousepads and keyboards, and who had to settle for pacifiers.

 

This is a slightly re-tooled version of a paper I recently wrote for an American Studies course.  The research is original, though names of interviewees have been changed to protect their identities (especially that of “Leah” who really doesn’t trust the Internet).  Feel free to use my research—just cite your sources.  Because remember, kids: plagiarism will send you straight to the Gates of Hell with the inefficient, the indifferent, and Pope Celestine V.  Or so says Dante.