Unwired: A millennial manifesto

Some people got up and made coffee on Jan. 1, 2000 –some of them in bunkers and bomb shelters — and were disappointed to note that Jesus had not returned to judge us, and that the world had not stopped in its tracks because millions of computers were created with the intelligence of, say, a putty knife.

If Jesus ever had high hopes for the human race, it’s a lucky thing he missed this travesty. I wish I had. The greatest blessing that will come my way in the year 2000 will be the rapid disappearance of the term “Y2K” from our media and our memories.

In the chronicles of human stupidity — the thickest book never written — Y2K would have a chapter all its own. I hoped, I guess, that something mildly dreadful would actually happen, just to chasten those arrogant clowns whose wizardry came down to nines and zeros and a drooling, slack-jawed techno-Goliath who hadn’t been wired to sort them out. You’d think the digital elite might have been embarrassed and worked on their little puzzle in secrecy. Instead, they inflated the whole thing into a comic apocalypse for the gullible and slow-witted (whose numbers seem to continually multiply).

What a lame, pathetic, limp-wristed excuse for an apocalypse we were offered. All over the Earth, the weather’s out of whack, and rapid global warming has been confirmed: Each year of the ’90s was among the 15 hottest years ever recorded. Lester Brown’s World Watch Institute has just issued dire millennial warnings of deforestation, overpopulation, falling water tables and mass extinction of species. Half the people I know have cancer, and astronomers confirm that colossal black holes are prowling the universe, eating galaxies. Some of these imagination-bending predators are in our celestial neighborhood already. And we frightened people into caves — nay, into millennial hysteria — over the specter of computer failures?

In any real context, we were dealing with a cartoon version of the Frankenstein myth: Create a defective android and entrust him with all your keys, so that when he short-circuits, he locks you in the bathroom. That’s Y2K in a nutshell — except for the $150 billion we spent to get out of the john.

I dismissed the Y2K scare from the start, because I knew the technocracy would never risk a such a widespread breakdown. I knew they’d commit all their resources to avoid an event that might wake up the hypnotized population — that might even provoke someone to question the sanity of committing an entire society’s future to unruly technology.

Years ago, I was puzzled to find print media — which seem to have so much to lose — functioning as marketing subsidiaries of the computer and Internet industries. But now I see. Big Money has bet the whole farm, the whole economy, on digital — and nearly every surviving medium now operates under the Big Money umbrella.

The merger of Time Warner and America Online is the symbolic apotheosis of the information explosion, a colossal union with more persuasive potential than the Second Coming (or the Third). At their fearsome wedding, the CEOs of these merging giants proclaimed no less than the dawn of “The Internet Century, a Digital Revolution.” AOL’s Steve Case reiterated his modest goal: “a wire into every home.”

If I’m reeling from future shock, who can blame me? Time Inc. was my first employer — a foster parent almost — rescuing me from an uncertain career teaching poetry. The magazine that hired me in 1967 was essentially a gentleman’s club for Old Blues who considered themselves too sensitive to work on Wall Street. There was even a joke about an underground tunnel to the Yale Club. But Time harbored, reluctantly, a few of us without New Haven pedigrees — so long as we could write clear (but not adventuresome) English prose and find the right fork for the salad.

On the road to media monsterhood and on-line omnipotence, however, this quaint institution has undergone a mind-wrenching metamorphosis. First, it merged with Warner, then with Turner, and now with AOL (who swallowed whom is no longer relevant), and somehow the quaint little kingdom of Harry Luce becomes The Evil Empire of 21st-century media — insatiable, milli-tentacled, and aimed resolutely at the lowest common denominator.

The Time Warner/AOL merger and the Y2K debacle have pushed me toward a personal decision of great consequence. As of Jan. 1, I’m out of the closet, casting my lot with a despised and persecuted minority. I’m joining the resistance, and I know there’s no turning back. I expect abuse. Among educated Americans, technophobia often provokes more hostile prejudice than homosexuality. Already I’ve heard, “So why don’t you get e-mail?” more than Ru-Paul ever heard, “So why do you wear a dress?”

I suppose I’ve had mixed feelings ever since Hal — the sinister computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — was named after me. Gadgets bore me; my generation of English majors finds technology almost as fascinating as turf farming. But I always considered myself moderate, almost neutral, on the subject of computers and computer culture. I was no radical like my friend and secret role model, Kirkpatrick Sale, who solicited defunct PCs and laptops from his friends so he could smash them with a hammer on TV shows. (Rebels Against the Future, Sale’s book about England’s original Luddites, carries the ominous subtitle “Lessons for the Computer Age.”) I was no purist like the poet Wendell Berry, a Luddite who writes only with a pen or pencil — by natural light — while his wife types the pages on an old Royal manual. I banished a computer “work station” from my office in 1986; I worked on a manual typewriter until 1993, when I realized that my reactionary work habits were creating an unconscionable amount of work for other people. I bought a Compaq laptop, now obsolete and Y2K-oblivious, which is still running fine. I’ve never owned a modem — though I’m grateful for the on-line services my sophisticated assistant provides. I’ve held my tongue in 100 conversations where cyber-enthusiasts bored me till I hemorrhaged. I think that’s a moderate’s cyber-resume.

If you think my ideas are absurd and Neanderthal, you’re part of the reason I’m developing a bad attitude. I sense coercion all around me, and there’s nothing like coercion to back me into my hole, with fangs bared and claws extended. Hear Dan Rather, who was once a journalist (and who now boasts that he owns three home computers): “In journalism, as in business and education, if you’re not into dot-com, you’re dying.”

Amid all this repulsive, ratlike scrambling to get rich before the bubble bursts, we forget that the preposterous fortunes of the Steve Cases and Bill Gateses depend entirely on individual Americans making decisions about what they need or don’t need. The digital “revolution” occurred when corporate America hauled out, for the first time, its full arsenal — its shiniest technology; its most cynical, live-animal-tested advertising; its most intrusive marketing strategies; its bewildering network of alliances — to take this passive nation on a forced march into the future.

Americans have never been too discriminating about technology, but this revolution was more like a cattle drive. Coercion manifested itself all along the trail. Naturally, the multitudes streaming toward the big corral resented any stragglers, any wayside cud-chewers who might be sneering. Peer pressure was part of the master plan. Because the stakes were so high, every stray, every slacker, became a threat to the trail bosses’ vision of a securely wired world. There aren’t many slackers left. Only, as Sven Birkerts writes in The Gutenberg Elegies, “the poor and the self-consciously atavistic.” We are few, but articulate.

Let me argue — against the grain of history and the sovereign will of the would-be masters of the universe — that electronic connectedness is actually one of the most overrated, overhyped and underwhelming achievements of late-20th-century technology. What began as a welcome convenience — an incremental improvement over previous appliances along the lines of the sub-zero refrigerator — was sold and oversold until it became, for many zealots, a secular religion and a way of life. A way of life, Birkerts argues, inimical to “inwardness,” to individual autonomy, to the sacredness of undisturbed personal reflection, on which any sincere democracy is founded. “The expansion of electronic options is always at the expense of contractions in the private sphere,” he writes. “We are already captive in our webs. It is getting easier and easier to accept the idea of electronic tribalism — hive life.”

For Birkerts, privacy is the foundation of any life worth living. He writes on behalf of the minority for whom “the prospect of a collective life in an electronic hive” seems terrifying — a drastic reduction in the range of human choices and human responses. I find his arguments eloquent and compelling; The Gutenberg Elegies should be required reading for anyone contemplating life in the 2lst century.

But it shouldn’t take a big dose of philosophy to generate misgivings about this vaunted Internet, which nearly every American (except me) has apparently now experienced. (Actual participation is less than 50 percent, but most figures ignore “the poor” — who, presumably, would be on-line if they could afford to.) There’s nothing philosophical about the Internet’s rapid erosion of privacy, or its limitless possibilities for cybercriminals. Kirk Bailey, a computer-security expert, recently challenged hackers to penetrate his personal security shield. In their spare time, at a cost of $100, they came up with enough information (including his cat’s diet) to “close his bank account, turn off his lights, refinance his house” and buy a Mercedes with his signature.

My own resistance to the Internet was strengthened when a reporter asked one on-line entrepreneur how we might protect our vanishing privacy, and the pig answered, “Just get over it.”

In November, Amy Boyer, a dental technician, was murdered by Liam Youens — a stalker who tracked her down through Internet “research services.” Last month, a hacker who calls himself Maxus pirated 300,000 credit-card numbers from an on-line merchant and tried to extort $100,000. Rebuffed, he set up a Web site where he offered 25,000 card numbers for free.

The negative capabilities of the Internet are awe-inspiring. It has become a thriving black market for drugs, liquor, pornography, firearms, bomb manuals and hate literature — and a business address for an army of perverts, sexual predators and sleaze merchants who once frequented bus stations and used pay phones. It exposes pre-adolescent children to sexual phenomena that few of their parents encountered before they were 30, and that no one deserves to encounter at any age. Only the religious right seems to have the guts to attack the so-called First Amendment rights of this scum, who’ve been empowered to peddle their wares in your basement.

In the words of Kirkpatrick Sale, “So what’s the upside?” One obvious upside is speed — but not everyone’s in such a hurry, and Americans don’t seem to use the time they save for anything other than more work and more acquisitions. Another upside is interconnectedness — but not everyone needs, or wants, more connections than they already maintain. Another is abundant information — Niles and Amazons and Mississippis of information — but its sheer volume bewilders even loyal Web surfers.

If any of these things troubles you (or even catches your attention), consider joining us. We’re not fanatics like the soldiers of the Butlerian Jihad in Frank Herbert’s Dune, who destroyed every computer in the known universe. Technology has its place, and no medium is smarter — or nicer — than the human beings who set it in motion. But most of us agree with Wendell Berry, who writes, “I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that matters to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work.”

At the end of Elegies, Sven Birkerts has decided that there’s no sane compromise with cybertechnology. “Refuse it,” he concludes. Easier for him, perhaps, than for someone who earns his bread in the Belly of the Beast. But your mind can still be free, even if your mortgage and your mortal remains belong to Microsoft. Let me offer a more conservative prescription for your survival: First, voice no absurd enthusiasm, lest you be mistaken for one of those zombies who reads Wired magazine. Choose technology judiciously, and accept no new cyberwonders until you’ve calculated the true cost. Spend all your free time outdoors. Interact warily with your computer. Finally — if you find you’re losing interest in everything else — smash that screen to pieces, and run for your life.

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