August 1996

The Net Lowdown

by John December

Book Review: Rules of the Net
Online operationg instructions for human beings
by Thomas Mandel and Gerard Van der Leun
New York Hyperion, 1996
ISBN 0-7868-8135-6

When I picked up this book in the new arrivals section of my public library, its cover worried me. It was black, with the word "Net" printed slickly across its front. Sure sign of a hyped-up Net book, I thought. And the pictures of the authors on the back didn't help--they looked too cool--and one of them writes for Penthouse. My estimate of the book's value dropped.

Well, not wanting to judge a Net book by the slickness of its cover, I opened it up and started reading pithy statements of how the Net's culture works, like:

"The maximum length of a .sig file should be no more than four lines" (p. 90)


"Never ask the Net which computer is the *best* computer" (p. 119)

Hey, I thought, this isn't stupid. This is actually accurate and useful.

But paging through the book, I got nervous again. No commands. No syntax. No screenshots. No URLs. I began to worry that this was a book about the Net by people who thought that America Online was the Net or that the writers were philosophers/technologists who would soon be talking about the wonders of "technologies of the future"--endless blathering about video phones, intelligent agents, and other hype and garbage.

But I read a few more paragraphs:

"The Net is not the world, but it plays one one television. Did you see "The Lawnmower Man," "Sneakers," and "The Net"? You did? It's too late for you then. You didn't? Good. You may live." (p. 144)


"The hard currency of cyberspace is attention." (p. 155)

I felt better, so I checked out the book and spent the rest of the afternoon reading the book. I laughed:

"Why use Microsoft Network when you can just mail Bill Gates your check for $100 every three months and save a lot of time and disappointment?" (p. 166)
I learned:
"Realize that Anarchists Libertarians are the dominant political parties on the Net" (p. 214)

I didn't cry, although the story, related at the end of the book, about the coauthor Thomas Mandel's death by cancer, did touch me. He participated in the WELL and shared the last days of his journey with his online community.

This is a worthwile book. There is exactly one Unix command in the main text of this book--and this is enough. An appendix, "The Annotated HappyNet," by James "Kibo" Parry is hilarious. This is the rough guide to the real way the Net is, not how it should be, could be, or would be in some grand plan or theory. I recommend it for anyone wanting to (or needing to) get a clue about the culture of the Net.

John December is a Ph.D. candidate in Communication and Rhetoric at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, N.Y.).

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