NYU Press is pleased to present its first online book, net.wars by Wendy M. Grossman - free of charge to our readers. The online version is published simultaneously to the print edition which you can buy at your local bookstore or order from NYU Press. With the publication of free electronic titles, we intend to participate actively in the development of literature about the Internet, electronic media, and hypertext. As a publisher we are creating a forum for publication and discussion that will advance work in these new fields. We encourage you to send general comments to webmaster@nyupress.org.

   Suzanne S. Kemperman
   Electronic Publishing Manager, NYU Press

As the sponsoring editor for net.wars, I'm particularly excited at its debut as NYU Press's first ever online book. In allowing us to visit the actual fields of battle on which Grossman reports, the site provides a richness of detail simply not available in the print version alone (and will enable you to visit relevant sites without having to type in all those URLs!). I encourage readers to read the book and visit the original sites and then return here to give their own impressions (write to Feedback) and join the fray. This, after all, is what net.wars is all about.

   Timothy Bartlett
   Editor, NYU Press

Wendy M. Grossman:

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 does.

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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