Masthead CMC Magazine November 1, 1995 / Page 6


Thoreau Takes to the Internet

by Kevin Hunt (

The Emperor's Virtual Clothes: The Naked Truth about Internet Culture
by Dinty Moore (
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1995
ISBN: 1-56512-096-5
219 pages
$17.95 (US)

It's too bad that Senator Exon didn't also pass around a copy of Dinty Moore's The Emperor's Virtual Clothes while he was showing his colleagues on Capitol Hill his now infamous "little blue book" of pornographic pictures purportedly gleaned from the Net. From the way the Senate voted on the Exon bill, it's apparent that most of our elected officials have the same sort of technological sensibility that Moore had in the middle of 1994: very little.

It was at that time that, finding himself confused (and presumably a little intimidated) by all the hoopla about [insert your favorite Internet cliche here], Moore began a self-imposed "walk in the electronic woods" in a move loosely styled after Henry David Thoreau's retreat to Walden Pond. Moore's mission: to get a sense of what the Internet and all the other manifestations of network communications technology are all about. Here's how he describes it in his introduction:

"I hoped to learn exactly how the coming Information Superhighway might affect people like myself: the technologically innocent, the everyday souls who use a phone, perhaps a computer, maybe even a fax machine at work, but don't particularly care how those machines are assembled, who builds them, or how many gigabytes of data can fit on the head of a pin" (page xvi).
The result of Moore's excursion is a read that is refreshingly, deceptively simple. In researching his book, he asked obvious questions. And in a style that would make Thoreau proud, in the book he presents simple answers. Take, for instance, the sentence that Moore uses to open Chapter One: "Here is the truth: there is no Information Superhighway, though it pretty much already exists. Consider that a Zen koan." Moore then continues by examining how the term has been applied with "stunning abandon," leading to apprehension on the part of those who find the term so elusive (which is all of us, really). Thank God someone has finally, eloquently drawn attention to the vacuity of the metaphor, and in so doing has taken steps to eliminate some of the apprehension it has caused.

While most of us have long since familiarized ourselves with the technical details that Moore covers, few of us care to admit that we don't have a good idea of how it all fits together. It is here that, as a neophyte, Moore provides a valuable service to both the uninitiated and the experienced alike. For instance, Moore devotes an entire chapter to sketching out the Big Picture--taking time to describe the equipment necessary to access the Net, to explain the role that access providers play, to decipher the relationships between AOL, Compuserve, the Internet, bulletin board services, etc.

Think of how useful this Big Picture would have been to those who reviewed the Rimm study, in which the findings from data collected almost entirely from private BBS's were used to paint a picture of the Internet as a den of pornographic iniquity. Had those familiar with the workings of the Net sufficiently prepared the editors at the Georgetown Law Journal, members of Congress, etc. in the manner that Moore does in his book, perhaps someone early on would have called Marty Rimm's bluff before it escalated into the hysteria we witnessed this past summer.

Just as most of us have long since familiarized ourselves with the technical details that Moore nicely lays out, we have also been steeped in the lore of the Net that he describes with great wit--the seriousness and silliness of Usenet news, the phenomenon of flaming, the commraderie of community freenets, and of course sordid tales of love, sex, and group therapy online. Yet Moore goes beyond the cliches to locate a depth of human experience that is missing from the two-dimensionality of characters flashing on the screen.

How does he do it? Moore easily could have gathered material for his book entirely online, through observation, participation, and email interviews. Yet he ventured out to catch a glimpse of the faces in front of the computers wired to his own. He describes meeting Rob, the ninteen-year-old college student addicted to MUDs and MUSHs; Jim, another student who actively uses the Net for group therapy; and Terry, an online freedom fighter who drums up support for Northern Ireland via modem by day while singing pub songs of British oppression at night. The list goes on. Although Moore approaches the exploits of his subjects with humor, he rarely trivializes what it is that each finds online. Instead, he tries hard to glimpse the value that these people derive from their electronic interactions.

The only drawback to the book is one that was out of the author's control. Moore started researching the book while the Web was still relatively untapped. But in the midst of his project, the commercialization of the Web began in earnest. Perhaps realizing that the Web would soon be the primary draw of the Internet, Moore takes an uncharacteristically half-hearted look at it in the final chapter, a chapter that appears to be hurriedly tacked on. As a result, it is the only place in the book where he makes a few slight errors in technical details. (For instance, he describes the Web as a "graphical user interface," and then in the same paragraph calls it a "browser").

And while to his credit Moore steadfastly refuses throughout the book to dwell on some of the hype surrounding the direction the Net is heading in, he chose to finish the book by considering at some length a vision of the human mind literally wired into computer networks. Given the light tone and level-headed consideration of his material throughout the book, we're left unsure about how to respond to this somewhat disturbing image at the end.

In the end, Moore's book is a reminder that the Net and all the other networks and technologies are devices that we human beings have shaped to extend the range of our senses. Perhaps the naked truth about the Internet is that, when you strip away the Net's technological dressing, you catch a glimpse of human nature, weird and wonderful. [CMC TOC]

Kevin Hunt is an assistant editor at CMC Magazine.

Copyright © 1995 by Kevin Hunt. All Rights Reserved.

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