The Invisible Life

LIKE A REFORMED JUNKIE confessing at a 12-step meeting, Clifford Stoll now bemoans the amount of time he spent detached from the sensuous thicket of real life. Stoll has been online longer than most of us, and he wants out. In his heavily publicized 1996 tome, Silicon Snake Oil, Stoll unleashes a steady stream of reactionary invective against his former online obsession.

Not only does he believe that little of the information gleaned from electronic pub-crawls is genuinely useful, but he now finds that computer networks "isolate us from one another and cheapen the meaning of actual experience. They work against literacy and creativity. They will undercut our schools and libraries." Stoll even wonders whether our networked world isn't "a misuse of technology that encourages passive rather than active participation."

Famed for recounting his discovery of a German spy ring operating on the Internet in his bestseller The Cuckoo's Egg, Stoll admits that all his years of e-mailing, data-gathering, and keeping in touch with friends was "fun and challenging."

But now he's recanting.

"Oh, Stoll's mad all right," says longtime buddy John Perry Barlow, pioneer cyber cowboy, Grateful Dead lyricist, and co-founder of the information watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation. "He's mad as hell and determined to outdo his outrageous self."

But even Barlow is publicly airing second thoughts about the joys of inphomania.

The secret of e-mail is, sadly, that it's safe. I hope for a day when more people can feel safe while looking into one another's eyes and not merely while typing at each other.

On the other hand, that safety has been a godsend for the shy and disenfranchised, those whom Barlow calls "the Eleanor Rigbys of the world." Barlow leapt into the WELL about seven years ago, with its rich soup of conferences in politics, parenting, philosophy, and popular culture. And while he had a hell of a time e-mailing a worldwide virtual community, his personal romance with the medium has cooled. What's missing from cyberspace for Barlow is "the dense mesh of invisible life," he writes in Utne Reader. "It is at the heart of the fundamental and profound difference between information and experience." And as far as his social needs are concerned, Barlow has opted for experience.

So what are we left with as electronic communication reaches its awkward adolescence? Is this techno-tool a means of exercising passions and interests and a shuttlecraft to new town halls? Or a form of withdrawal, denial, and obsessive narcissism? And do we really need to trivialize this brave new world as a Manichean either/or struggle? Like every new world, it mirrors the strengths and weaknesses of its colonizers. It contains what we want it to.

Everything, that is, except nuance, diversity, and eye contact.

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From the Dec. 18-24, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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