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<nettime> grossmann's net.war

Net.Wars by Wendy M. Grossman
Published by nyu press, 1998

See for the entire on-line version of the book:

Table of Content:

1. The Year September Never Ended
2. Make.Money.Fast.
3. The Making of an Underclass: AOL
4. Guerrilla Cryptographers
5. Stuffing the Genie Back in the Can of Worms 
6. Copyright Terrorists
7. Exporting the First Amendment
8. Never Wrestle a Pig 
9. Unsafe Sex in the Red Page District
10.The Wrong Side of the Passwords   | notes 
11.Beyond the Borderline
12.Garbage In, Garbage Out
13.Grass Roots  
14.The Net Is Dead  
15.Networks of Trust 
16.Dumping Tea in the Virtual Harbor

Wendy M. Grossmann 
Introduction for net.wars

The idea for net.wars came from three things. The
first was repeated exposure to theories that the Net
would wipe away the world as we know it (with the
corollary that this would be a Good Thing). I think this is
far from certain, if only because I learned about inertia
in high school. The second was John Perry Barlow's
declaration that cyberspace should be its own
sovereign state. It seems unlikely this will be allowed to
happen, but it's an interesting idea. The third was
watching the Net's convulsions over the years 1993 to
1996 as it tried to assimilate huge numbers of new
users who didn't share the culture that had been
developing over the previous decade. Around the time
that I finished writing up a year's worth of observing
folks duke it out on alt.religion.scientology for Wired, I
decided there was a book in the wars along the border
between cyberspace and real life, a metaphor that
was inspired by discovering that a few years after
Ireland was partitioned in the early 1920s there were
riots along the border when an outfit called the
Boundary Commission proposed to change it slightly
to bring more Protestants into the North and more
Catholics into the South. 

Around the time the book was commissioned, in June
1996, I went to Cornell University for a science
workshop and found myself staying in roughly the
same area of North Campus I had lived in my first
summer there in 1970. Walking down the path through
the empty landscape around Clara Dickson Hall and
its courtyard, I finally understood the meaning of the
word timeless: shorn of students and their changing
fashions it looked the same when I was forty-two as it
had when I was sixteen. Doubtless it looked the same
before I was born, and it's easy to imagine that
generations of alumni will help ensure that it will look
the same a century hence. 

The Net is not like this. The oldest area I visit regularly
didn't exist before 1985, and while it will probably exist
ten years from now, I have no idea whether it will look
or behave the same. For a hundred years from now all
bets are off, although it's nice to think that future
generations might not only tread in my path but relive
my interactions in cyberspace. Reading what new
friends said in old, stored topics and conferences is
the nearest we come to time travel and the ability to
see our friends and lovers as they were before we
knew them and altered them subtly, as knowing people

I used to say that a key crossroads in an expatriate's
life comes at five years after emigrating. Before then,
going back is still easy: your friends' kids remember
you, your career is retrievable, your life is still there.
After five years, it gets hard: your friends move, your
work contacts change jobs or even professions, and
you lose touch with the common culture. I mean, you
don't get the jokes. (After ten years, there is no longer
any such thing as going back. There is only starting
over in a new place that's partly familiar.) 

Having now been online for more than five years, I note
a similar watershed. It became clear to me around the
same time as that Cornell trip, when I suddenly found it
difficult to feel a sense of shared community with a
large group of people, many of whom I knew, who
shared some of my long-term interests. They were not
on the Net, you see. These are people who make their
lives with ideas, and yet their primary perception of the
Net was negative: they didn't see it as a tool they could
use to spread information or counter misinformation,
or interact with like- minded others. Instead, they saw it
as a new danger. And I reacted as any typical Nethead
might--protective instincts to the fore, along with a sort
of exasperated alienation: they didn't get the jokes. 

This all leads up to saying that I'm not sure how
objective any journalist is about the Net. Journalists
who don't use the Net themselves routinely make such
egregious technological and cultural errors that you
can only compare the results to what would happen if
they were assigned to write about the interstate
highway system based on their experiences at sea.
With that lack of context, if the police told you that
prostitutes routinely and openly solicited truckers and
other visitors to roadside rest areas and that therefore
they were risky places for families to visit, you would
probably believe them and write the story. 

At the same time, after a while it's easy to lose
perspective and forget that behavior which is common
and tolerated on the Net seems shocking to
newcomers. If you hang out, for example, in the
newsgroup alt. showbiz.gossip for more than a week
or two, you begin to realize that the participants are
simultaneously gossiping about celebrities and
making fun of celebrity gossip from their virtual "trailer
park." This is a level of irony that completely by-passes
the casual visitor; my own first thought on seeing that
group was that it was a lawsuit waiting to happen.
Now, months later, I think the alt.showbiz.gossip list of
fifty ways to tell if a star is gay is one of the funniest
things I've ever read on the Net and feel sorry for
anyone so humorless as to think there oughtta be a
law against it. 

This warping is so common among the Net-savvy
journalists I know that I've concluded that the best
objectivity I can offer you is to declare my biases up
front: I love the fact that in this age of polite political
correctness there is a place in the world where people
feel free to speak their minds, even offensively; I love
the fact that others can tell them off for it and poke
holes in their reasoning. I admire the courage of at
least some of those who defend those rights, even
though I don't always agree with their methods or their
behavior. I would like to see the freedom of the old
net.culture survive in the face of the many competing
commercial and regulatory interests that might prefer
to limit its reach and openness. I am less confident
than others that such survival is ineluctable and that
attempts at regulation will inevitably fail; they may
indeed fail, but there will be lots of boundary disputes
while we try to define the rules in the grey area where
real life and cyberspace intersect. Either way, the
stories should be told. 

Wendy M. Grossman 
March 1997 

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