BRAVE NEW WORLD DEPT.
My First Flame
It was love at first E-mail for the author. Then came the bitter realization that on-liners can behave just as badly as people in the real world–and sometimes worse.
From The New Yorker
June 6, 1994
I got flamed for the first time a couple of months ago. To flame, according to “Que’s Computer User’s Dictionary,” is “to lose one’s self-control and write a message that uses derogatory, obscene, or inappropriate language.” Flaming is a form of speech that is unique to on-line communication, and it is one of the aspects of life on the Internet that its promoters don’t advertise, just as railroad companies around the turn of the century didn’t advertise the hardships of the Great Plains to the pioneers whom they were hoping to transport out there. My flame arrived on a windy Friday morning. I got to work at nine, removed my coat, plugged in my PowerBook, and, as usual, could not resist immediately checking my E-mail. I saw I had a message from a technology writer who does a column about personal computers for a major newspaper, and whom I knew by name only. I had recently published a piece about Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, about whom this person has also written, and as I opened his E-mail to me it was with the pleasant expectation of getting feedback from a colleague. Instead, I got:
Crave this, asshole: Listen, you toadying dipshit scumbag . . . remove your head from your rectum long enough to look around and notice that real reporters don’t fawn over their subjects, pretend that their subjects are making some sort of special contact with them, or, worse, curry favor by telling their subjects how great the ass-licking profile is going to turn out and then brag in print about doing it.
Forward this to Mom. Copy Tina and tell her the mag is fast turning to compost. One good worm deserves another.
I rocked back in my chair and said out loud, “Whoa, I got flamed.” I knew something bad had just happened to me, and I was waiting to find out what it would feel like. I felt cold. People whose bodies have been badly burned begin to shiver, and the flame seemed to put a chill in the center of my chest which I could feel spreading slowly outward. My shoulders began to shake. I got up and walked quickly to the soda machines for no good reason, then hurried back to my desk. There was the flame on my screen, the sound of it not dying away; it was flaming me all over again in the subjective eternity that is time in the on-line world. The insults, being premeditated, were more forceful than insults spoken in the heat of the moment, and the technology greased the words–the toads, scum, shit, rectums, assholes, compost, and worms–with a kind of immediacy that allowed them to slide easily into my brain.
Like many newcomers to the “net”–which is what people call the global web that connects more than thirty thousand on-line networks–I had assumed, without really articulating the thought, that while talking to other people through my computer I was going to be sheltered by the same customs and laws that shelter me when I’m talking on the telephone or listening to the radio or watching TV. Now, for the first time, I understood the novelty and power of the technology I was dealing with. No one had ever said something like this to me before, and no one could have said this to me before: in any other medium, these words would be, literally, unspeakable. The guy couldn’t have said this to me on the phone, because I would have hung up and not answered if the phone rang again, and he couldn’t have said it to my face, because I wouldn’t have let him finish. If this had happened to me in the street, I could have used my status as a physically large male to threaten the person, but in the on-line world my size didn’t matter. I suppose the guy could have written me a nasty letter: he probably wouldn’t have used the word “rectum,” though, and he probably wouldn’t have mailed the letter; he would have thought twice while he was addressing the envelope. But the nature of E-mail is that you don’t think twice. You write and send.
When I got on the net, it seemed to me like a place where all the good things about E-mail had been codified into an ideology. The first thing I fell for about the medium was the candor and the lack of cant it makes possible. Also, although the spoken word can be richer and warmer than the written word, the written word can carry precision and subtlety, and, especially on-line, has the power of anonymity. Crucial aspects of your identity–age, sex, race, education, all of which would be revealed involuntarily in a face-to-face meeting and in most telephone conversations-do not come through the computer unless you choose to reveal them. Many people use handles for themselves instead of their real names, and a lot of people develop personae that go along with those handles. (When they get tired of a particular persona, they invent a new handle and begin again.) On the net, a bright twelve-year-old in a blighted neighborhood can exchange ideas with an Ivy League professor, and a businesswoman who is too intimidated by her male colleagues to speak up in a face-to-face meeting can say what she thinks. On the net, people are judged primarily not by who they are but by what they write.
My flame marked the end of my honeymoon with on-line communication. It made me see clearly that the lack of social barriers is also what is appalling about the net. The same anonymity that allows the twelve-year-old access to the professor allows a pedophile access to the twelve-year-old. The same lack of inhibitions that allows a woman to speak up in on-line meetings allows a man to ask the woman whether she’s wearing any underwear. The same safe distance that allows you to unburden yourself of your true feelings allowed this guy to call me a toadying dipshit scumbag. A toadying dipshit scumbag! I sent E-mail to the people at CompuServe, which was the network that carried my flame to me, to ask whether their subscribers were allowed to talk to each other this way.
To: John Seabrook
Customer Service Representative
Since CompuServe Mail messages are private communications, CompuServe is unable to regulate their content. We are aware of an occasional problem with unwanted mail and are investigating ways to control such occurrences. If you receive unwanted mail again, please notify us of the details so that we can continue to track this problem.
If the net as a civilization does mature to the point where it produces a central book of wisdom, like the Bible or the Koran, the following true story might make a good parable. In 1982, a group of forty people associated with a research institute in La Jolla established a small, private on-line network for themselves. For about six months, the participants were caught up in the rapture of the new medium, until one day a member of the group began provoking the others with anonymous on-line taunts. Before long, the community was so absorbed in an attempt to identify the bad apple that constructive discourse ceased. The group posted many messages imploring whoever was doing this to stop, but the person didn’t, and the community was destroyed. Stewart Brand, who is a founder of the well, an on-line service based in San Francisco, and who told me this story, said, “And not only did this break up the on-line community–it permanently affected the trust that those people had for each other in the face-to-face world, because they were never able to figure out who did it. To this day, they don’t know which one of them it was.”
What would Emily Post advise me to do? Flame the dipshit scumbag right back? I did spend most of that Friday in front of the screen composing the most vile insults I could dream up-words I have never spoken to another human being, and would never speak in any other medium, but which I found easy to type into the computer. But I didn’t send these messages, partly because I had no way of knowing for sure whether the person whose name was on the flame had actually sent it, and since this person was a respected author, with a reputation to consider, I thought someone might be electronically impersonating him, a practice that is known on-line as “spoofing.” I managed to restrain myself from sending my reply until I got home and asked my wife to look at it. She had the good sense to be horrified, and suggested sending the message “Do you know where I could get a good bozo filter?” But I wasn’t sure I had the stomach for a flame war, so I settled on a simple, somewhat lame acknowledgment of the flame:
Thanks for your advice on writing and reporting. The great thing about the Internet is that a person like me can get useful knowledge from experts, and for free.
In a few days, I received a reply from the writer, asking when my new column, “Pudlicker to the Celebrated,” was going to start.
I was in a quandary that many newcomers to the net face. Newbies sometimes get flamed just because they are new, or because they use a commercial on-line service provider, like America Online or CompuServe, which shows up in their electronic addresses, just as Italian immigrants were jeered at because they had vowels at the ends of their names. Some people are so horrified by their first flame that they turn into “lurkers”: they read other people’s messages in the public spaces but are too timid to post themselves. (You see lots of evidence of the fear of getting flamed; for example, long posts that end, “Sorry so lengthy, please don’t flame,” and messages studded with smiley faces–“:)”-and grin signs-“<g>”–which remind you of the way that dogs have to go through elaborate displays of cringing around each other to avoid starting a fight.) For other newbies, getting flamed puts the taste of blood in their mouths, and they discover that they like it. They flame back, and then a flame war begins: people volley escalating rounds of insults across the wires. Now that there are an estimated twenty-three million users connected to the Internet–ten million of which have come on-line in the last nine months, in what amounts to a massive cultural upheaval, as though a whole generation of immigrants to the New World had come over all in one day–the “netiquette” that prevailed in its early days is breaking down. And many of the new users are not the government officials, researchers, and academics for whom the net was designed; they’re lawyers, journalists, teen-agers, scam artists, lonely hearts, people in the pornography business, and the faddists who were buying CB radios in 1975.
On Saturday evening, some friends came over for dinner, and I told them about my flame. They asked to see it, so I went down the hall to print out a copy. But when I opened the electronic file where I store my E-mail I noticed that the title of my reply had turned into gibberish–where there had been letters there were little boxes and strange symbols-and that the dates for when the message was created and modified said “8/4/72” and “1/9/4.” It occurred to me then to wonder briefly whether the person who flamed me had also sent some sort of virus into my computer, but I was cooking and didn’t really have time to think about it, and when our guests left it was late, and I turned the computer off and went to bed. Just before six the following morning, however, I awoke abruptly and sat up in bed with a sudden understanding of what the last line in the flame–“One good worm deserves another”–might mean. A worm, in computerese, is one of the many varieties of viruses that infect computers. “One good worm deserves another”: this guy had sent me a worm!
I got out of bed and went down the hall, turned on my computer, opened my E-mail file, and saw with a shock that the corruption had spread to the title and dates of the message stored next to my reply. The reply itself was still corrupted, but the gibberish and weird dates had mutated slightly. I tried to delete the two corrupted messages, but the computer told me it couldn’t read them. The icy feeling inside my chest was back. I copied the whole file onto a floppy disk, removed the disk from my computer, dragged the original file into the electronic trash can, emptied the trash, and then sat there regarding my computer with suspicion and fear. I had the odd sensation that my computer was my brain, and my brain was ruined, and I was standing over it looking down at the wreckage. In my excitement over the new medium, I had not considered that in going on-line I was placing my work and my most private musings only inches from a roaring highway of data (only the short distance, that is, between the hard disk and the internal modem of my computer), and, like most highways, it didn’t care about me. After thinking about this for a while, I noticed I was sitting in the dark, so I got up and pulled the chain on the floor lamp, and the bulb blew out. I thought, Wait a second, if my computer is connected to the outlet, is it possible that the worm could have gone into the plug and through the wall circuit and come out in the light bulb?
The worm had entered my mind.
I waited for my computer to die. Even though I had removed the two corrupted messages, I was worried that the worm might have infected my hard disk. At my most paranoid, I imagined that I had received a “logic bomb,” which is a virus that hides in your computer until a timing mechanism triggers it. (A few years ago, a rumor went around the net that a lot of computers had been infected with a logic bomb that was set to go off on Bill Gates’ birthday, October 28th, but the rumor turned out to be false.) I felt creepy sitting in front of my computer, as though I weren’t sure whether it was my friend anymore. Every time my software did something peculiar that I couldn’t remember its having done before, my heart turned over a little. I’d think, It’s starting.
When I tried to explain this feeling to a non-computer-using friend of mine, she said, “Yeah, it’s like when someone breaks into your car,” but actually it was more like someone had broken into my head. I sent E-mail to my computer-literate friend Craig Canine, a writer and farmer who lives in Iowa, asking what he knew about worms, and he E-mailed me back:
Coincidentally, I just gave our goats their worm medicine. It’s called Valbazen, and it seems to work pretty well for ruminants–I’m not sure about computers, though. What does this worm do? Should I be communicating with you–might your e-mail be a carrier? Jesus, I’ve got my book on my hard disk. If your worm zaps it, I’ll kill you first, then go after the evil perp. (then plead insanity, with cause).
I was a pariah.
On the Wednesday following my flaming, I took my floppy disk to work to show it to Dan Henderson, who set up the network here at the magazine. Every office where computers are networked together has a guy like Dan around, who is usually the only person who really understands the system, and is terrifically overworked, because in addition to doing his job he has to deal with all the people like me, who are mystified by their computers. Shelley said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world; system administrators are the unacknowledged legislators of the net. Sysadmins are really the only authority figures that exist on the net. In small electronic communities, the sysadmin often owns the equipment that the community runs on-a personal computer, a modem, and a telephone line are all you need to run your own bulletin board-and therefore he has absolute power over what goes on in the community. If a sysadmin wants to read someone’s mail, he reads it. If he wants to execute someone, electronically speaking–by kicking that person off the network-he doesn’t need to hold a trial. A benevolent sysadmin can make the network a utopia, and a malevolent sysadmin can quickly turn it into a police state.
I sent Dan a QuickMail, which is the brand of interoffice E-mail we use, and told him that I thought my computer might have been infected with some sort of worm. I asked if he had time to see me, expecting that maybe he’d get to me before the end of the week. I was surprised when Dan appeared in my doorway within ten minutes.
“You QuickMailed me,” he said. I noticed he was looking at me strangely.
“Yes . . . “
“You sent me QuickMail.”
I was slow getting his drift. “So?”
Then I got it. “Wait. You mean you think I infected The New Yorker’s network?” Dan was just looking at me, his eyebrows up around his hairline. “But I took the worm off my hard disk and put it on here,” I said defensively, holding up the floppy disk.
Dan has that intense energy you often see in guys who are really into computers; the speed at which he talks and moves always makes me think of the clatter of fingers over the keyboard. He sat down at my computer with a couple of different kinds of software that looks for worms and viruses. After about ten minutes of probing my hard disk, he announced that he couldn’t find any evidence of infection. He checked the floppy and found nothing there, either. The gibberish and weird dates had gone away. Dan explained that he didn’t understand how I could have received a worm via E-mail, because worms are programs; most E-mail carries only text. A file containing a program can be sent over E-mail, but in order for it to infect your computer you’d almost certainly have to open the file and run the program.
Was it possible that my worm was just some weird software glitch I had never seen before, and that it just happened to choose my reply to the flame to make its first appearance, and that the line “One good worm deserves another” was just a coincidence? After thinking about this for a couple of days, I came up with a little experiment. My hypothesis was that perhaps the worm could have burrowed into the program I was using to set up a reply to the original message, and my experiment was to perform the reply operation again, in order to see if the worm would come back.
The next morning, my new reply and the message stored next to it were corrupted again. I tried to print out the gibberish, but again the machine couldn’t read the characters, so I copied them down. I also got my wife’s camera and took a picture of my computer screen. Then I called Dan at home.
“Dan? This is John. Dan, my worm is back. I’m looking at it now.”
Dan was polite about it, but he made a sound that suggested he did not consider himself my sysadmin right now, at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning, and said, “Could we talk about this on Monday?”
I wanted to talk about my flame with someone else who had been flamed, but I didn’t know anyone in my real-world life who had been. Then it occurred to me that I could use the net. This is one of the great things about the net: the spaces are organized around topics, so it’s easy to find people who think like you and who share your interests. People who gather on the net to discuss a specific topic are called newsgroups, and each newsgroup has its own “site.” In a literal sense a site is just a small amount of storage space in a computer somewhere in the world, which you can reach by typing its address, but it feels like an actual room. So, for example, if you think you might be a pagan, but you’re still in the closet, you can go to the newsgroup “alt.pagan” for enlightenment. When you arrive there, the best thing to do first is to read the faq, the list of Frequently Asked Questions. faq files are more than the prosaic things they sound like; they are the repositories of the useful knowledge that has been exchanged and meaningful events that have occurred in that particular site since it was established. The table of contents for the alt.pagan faq reads:
1) What is this group for?
2) What is paganism/a pagan?
2b) What is Paganism? How is it different from paganism?
3) What are different types of paganism?
4) What is Witchcraft/Wicca?
4b) Why do some of you use the word Witch? Wiccan?
5) What are some different traditions in the Craft?
6) Are pagans Witches?
7) Are you Satanists?
8) What kinds of people are pagans?
9) What holidays do you celebrate?
9b) How do I pronounce . . . ? What does this name mean?
10) What god(s) do you believe in?
11) Can one be both Christian and pagan?
12) What were the Burning Times?
13) How many pagans/Witches are there today?
14) Why isn’t it soc.religion.paganism instead of alt.pagan?
15) Is brutal honesty or polite conversation the preferred tone of conversation around here?
16) What are the related newsgroups?
17) Are there any electronic mailing lists on this subject?
18) I’m not a pagan; should I post here?
19) How does one/do I become a pagan?
20) What books/magazines should I read?
21) How do I find pagans/Witches/covens/teachers in my area?
22) What’s a coven really like?
23) How do I form a coven?
24) What does Dianic mean?
25) Aren’t women-only circles discriminatory?
26) Can/will you cast me a love spell/curse my enemies?
27) Is it okay if I . . . ? Will I still be a pagan if I . . . ?
28) I am a pagan and I think I am being discriminated against because of my religion. What should I do?
29) What one thing would most pagans probably want the world to know about them?
Then you can scroll though a list of hundreds of discussion topics and see what people are talking about. Some are:
14) European paganism (16 msgs)
15) Statement (6 msgs)
16) College Pagan Groups
17) pagan federation gig: Thanks (3 msgs)
18) Broom Closet Pagans Hurt Us All (3 msgs)
19) Pagan funerals? (27 msgs)
20) nigger jokes (18 msgs)
21) Necromancy (2 msgs)
22) Another campus Pagan group (4 msgs)
23) When the Revolution comes was Re: New Forest Service . . . (6 msgs)
24) Looking for invocations to the following . . . (4 msgs)
25) New Community Pagan Group? Need help.
I suppose you could choose not to double-click on nigger jokes, but it’s harder than you think. This is the biggest drawback of the way newsgroups are set up: a really interesting post that enriches your understanding of a subject is next to a post that is appropriate only for the space above the urinal. There’s nothing to stop someone in alt.misanthropy or alt.tasteless from coming into rec.pets.cats and posting a graphic account of what it’s like to behead a cat or drink its blood, and although you can bozo-filter that person after his first post, so that you never have to read a message from him again, the horrible words tend to stay in your memory for a long time.
Nigger jokes turns out to be a collection of racist jokes and limericks about killing African-Americans, which was posted on April 5th. The name and address on the jokes is that of a student at the University of Michigan. The post has been “spammed,” as they say on the net, which means that the student has spread it around to many different newsgroups, thus insuring himself an audience of hundreds of thousands, and maybe millions, since the jokes are still making their way through the net. (Some employees of Fortune 500 companies have recently reported finding the jokes on their office networks.)
When someone posts a message that offends the other participants in a newsgroup, the group metes out the only punishment at its disposal, which is to flame the offender, and in this case the student who posted the jokes has been getting flames by the thousand. Also, in typical net fashion, there has been much soul-searching in the newsgroups about the character of the net itself:
The Last Viking<firstname.lastname@example.org>
We don’t have to go around being racists like those fascists in the real world! peace on the net!!!!
Michael Halleen <email@example.com>
As offensive as this is, I do not believe this should put this person “under investigation.” . . . He should get hate mail, censure (not censors), and universal condemnation. There should be open debate and discussion, but leave his right to speak alone. He may use the net for other constructive purposes and taking it away may hurt him, and he needs help.
Get a grip, man. Free speech is not and never has been an absolute right. There’s gotta be some limits. . . . This person abused his First Amendment rights and should face some consequences for it. Can’t have rights without responsibilities.
An investigation at the University of Michigan recently concluded that the student whose name was on the posts hadn’t made them; someone had spoofed him. The wrongly accused and now flame-broiled student had used a university-owned computer to log on to his account, and someone had tampered with the software in that computer so that it captured his password. This person had then logged on in the student’s name and posted the jokes. The day after the jokes went up, another student, who had used the same computer to log on, discovered that his identity had been used to send a message to the Islamic Circle, a campus organization, calling its members “Godforsaken terrorists.”
I went to alt.flame, thinking this might be the site where people talk about flaming, but it turned out to be a place where people go to flame each other. I saw that an intrepid writer from Wired magazine, Amy Bruckman, had posted that she was writing an article about flaming and was getting flamed for doing it.
Insert finger in appropriate orafice and shove off.
Sod off bitch, we don’t need your glamour here. . . .
what?!? Do you think I wanted to be publicated in your low-life-scum magazine??? . . . BTW, what kind of name is Bruckman? Are you kind of a German refugees’ daughter from the 2’nd world war? Kraut? a sauceage woman? Anyway go to hell.
I decided not to post in alt.flame myself.
I considered posting a query about my worm in the newsgroup comp.virus, and I lurked around there for a while, but didn’t post, because I was worried that my assailant might hear that I was posting queries about him in public spaces–it’s difficult to keep secrets on the net–and devise some even more elaborate torture to inflict on my computer, or begin spoofing me in some diabolical fashion. I had already seen how the net could be used to hurt someone’s reputation. One day, as I was wandering around inside the Electronic Frontier Foundation discussion space, which is one of the most interesting newsgroups on the net, I came upon a subject line that said, “Ralph Berkeley made homosexual advances toward me.” Ralph Berkeley (I’m not using his real name) is a regular participant in discussions of net policy, who appears, on the evidence of his posts, to be an articulate and thoughtful man, and often takes the position that completely unrestricted free speech on the net might not be such a good idea-a position that causes him to receive his share of flames. However, this post upped the ante a bit:
Ralph Berkeley made homosexual advances toward me when I visited him at his office approximately two weeks ago. As I went there just to chat with him and he’s not my employer or anything I don’t think I have any grounds for any legal action or anything like that. But I must say that prior to that event I had a lot of respect for him (not necessarily his opinions, but the evenhanded way in which he stated them). I am really disappointed.
This brought forth even more furious bursts of thinking and feeling over the nature of the net:
Dik T. Winter<firstname.lastname@example.org>
I think Ralph Berkeley has enough grounds for a suit on defamation of character. Ralph, I urge you, do sue. I do not agree with you but please, do sue.
No. Although we all assume the original post was homophobic sleaze, a suit is even more offensive. Such a suit itself constitutes “fag bashing,” because it continues the stigmatizing of gays by suggesting that homosexuality is abnormal or pathological.
Then, in the best spirit of the net, Dr. Berkeley posted this reply:
Thanks to readers whose responses showed such good sense. Of course it’s false.
Everywhere I went in the newsgroups, I found flames, and fear of flames. In the absence of rules, there is a natural tendency toward anarchy on the net anyway, and in some stretches I’d come upon sites that were in complete chaos, where people had been flaming each other non-stop, absolutely scorching everything around them, and driving all the civilized people away. Sometimes I’d arrive at a dead site long after a flame war broke out; it was like walking through what was once a forest after a wildfire. Sometimes I came upon voices that were just howling at the world; you could feel the rage and savagery pouring out through people’s fingers and into the net. Of course, you can hear this sound on the streets of New York City, but less often than you hear it on the net, and in the city it lasts only as long as the person who is making it has breath for it and is heard only by the people within earshot. On the net, it can be heard by millions and reverberate for a long time.
Sometimes I returned from these trips on the net feeling lonely, cold, and depressed. I would see the net less from the point of view of the acrobat and more from the point of view of the fish. Ironically, the net seemed most alive to me when I was off it and found myself using a word I had picked up in my travels. The net is a hotbed of language, because on the net language has to accomplish everything; the whole world is made of words, and people are constantly forced to coin new ones. And, because typing takes more effort than speaking, people are always inventing acronyms or abbreviations-“lol” for “laughed out loud,” “f2f” for “face to face,” “BTW” for “by the way,” “RTFM” for “Read the Fucking Manual,” which is a message people often send back to you when you ask them for technical help. There’s something wonderful about all this, but it’s also sad to go to a chat group and see the “lol”s scrolling by on the screen, sometimes with no other words attached to them, just people typing “lol” to each other. How much of the pleasure of laughter can you get sitting alone with your computer, typing “lol”?
I sent a copy of my flame to someone I know only as Jennifer, a woman I met on the net and feel I know in a strange way, although in fact I know hardly anything about her. She replied:
I must say that I was shocked to read about your experience. . . . The magnitude of your assailant’s tirade rends my heart. I have been thinking about those graphic words, unbidden, for the last two days.
Here was another good thing about the net–that a woman I didn’t even know would be so concerned for me. I wrote to Jennifer that the net seemed to me in some ways a cold place, and she replied:
You are right about the coldness of the net. There is an air of pre-established hierarchy there–if you’re new to the net, or even to a particular group on the net, you don’t belong a priori. As a woman, I have encountered an additional barrier; the net is heavily male and women who want to play with the big boys either have to be ultra tough-talking-one of the boys-or else play off as coy, charming, “little-ol-me?”-feminine. (Even geeks have fantasy lives, I suppose.) Or use a male/neutral alias with no one the wiser. So part of the boys’ club, I imagine, is the smallness, the selectivity-the geek elite, if you will. For more than a decade these guys had their own secret tin-can-on-a-string way to communicate and socialize, as obscure as ham radio but no pesky FCC requirements and much, much cooler. . . . But then the Internet-their cool secret-started to get press. . . . Imagine these geeks, suddenly afraid that their magic treehouse was about to be boarded by American pop culture. It was worse than having your favorite obscure, underground album suddenly appear on the Billboard charts.
As my assailant had suggested, I also forwarded a copy of the flame to my mother, whom I had got wired for E-mail. She replied:
I deleted that thing you sent me immediately. What a terrible man. He must have been drunk.
When you link your computer, through a phone line, to the Internet, you turn your computer into a printing press and your phone line into a broadcast system. Anything you write on your computer screen has the potential to be read by millions of people. You don’t have to formulate your message in language suitable for publication in the letters column of the Times; you don’t have to go to the trouble and expense of buying time on a TV channel; you don’t have to pass out paper copies of your message on a street corner. And you don’t have to be responsible for what you say.
The great question for the future of the net is: To what extent will this extraordinary freedom be allowed to remain in the hands of the people, and to what extent will it be limited and regulated? The Internet is not the information highway, but it might become part of the information highway. In order for this to happen, though, the Internet will have to be “civilized”–a word that gives many net users the willies. The net is, fundamentally, about free speech, while the I-way is about commercial and civic transactions: it’s a route for delivering videos, newspapers, and catalogues into people’s home computers, for filing taxes on-line, eventually for voting on-line. Completely unrestricted speech, which is desirable in a free exchange of ideas and data, is less vital when you’re talking to a business competitor or to your congressman.
The net poses a fundamental threat not only to the authority of the government but to all authority, because it permits people to organize, think, and influence one another without any institutional supervision whatsoever. The government is responding to this threat with the Clipper Chip, a fingernail-size sliver of silicon that was designed by the National Security Agency and that the government hopes will eventually be installed in everyone’s phone, fax, and modem. (A.T. & T. recently began manufacturing telephone-security devices with the chip in them.) With Clipper, the government is attempting to regulate the net not at the level of content, which would probably be impossible in a network so diffuse, but at the level of code.
When you write into a computer, your words are turned into a code called American Standard Code for Information Interchange, or ascii, which is made out of a hundred and twenty-eight permutations of eight-digit strings of ones and zeros. Each zero or one is called a bit, and a bunch of eight bits is called a byte. The letter “A” is a byte made out of eight bits, and it looks like this: 01000001. The purpose of the Clipper Chip is to encrypt the ascii text as it leaves your computer and turn it (by using an algorithm) into a code so complex that it would take a hundred supercomputers a thousand years to break it. At the receiving end, another Clipper Chip converts the code back into ascii, which your computer in turn converts back into human language.
Encryption is like a slightly weird older brother of software who would have remained obscure if his younger brother hadn’t become the leader of the digital age, but because of their common ancestry in code, we have to reckon with the older brother, too. Both the net people and the I-way people recognize the need for encryption in the on-line world. Computer networks are insecure, because they are packet-switched; that is, after your message leaves your machine it is broken into bits and sprayed into a wire that is full of bits of other messages.
Sometimes bits from a single message get separated, sprayed into different wires, and squirted through different computers, and then the software in the computer at the other end reassembles the bits. This makes it relatively easy for someone to intercept your bits without your knowing about it, which is no big deal if there’s not much in your bits that people want to read. But if people are really going to live on the information highway-if bits containing their medical records, their credit-card numbers, their bank balances, and their intimate secrets are going to flow through the wires–then the general insecurity of the bit stream is going to be a problem, and encryption is the best way to solve it.
The obvious danger in supplying people with encryption is that encryption makes it easier to keep secrets, which makes it easier for people to commit crimes. With powerful encryption, the net would become an ideal place for criminals to organize conspiracies. If John Gotti had planned his crimes on-line instead of in the Ravenite Social Club and he had been using good encryption, there would have been no bugs, and he wouldn’t have been convicted. Dr. Clinton C. Brooks, the N.S.A.’s lead scientist on the Clipper Chip project, told me, “You won’t have a Waco in Texas, you’ll have a Waco in cyberspace. You could have a cult, speaking to each other through encryption, that suddenly erupts in society–well programmed, well organized–and then suddenly disappears again.” Therefore, in an effort to balance the good and bad sides of encryption, the United States government has proposed that people use a brand of encryption that the government has designed, which is powerful enough to take care of everybody’s legitimate encryption needs but has an electronic “back door” that law-enforcement agencies could use, with a court order, to listen to the conversations of people they suspect of being criminals. This brand of encryption is inside the Clipper Chip.
On the net, where the single most popular topic of conversation is the net itself, Clipper is extremely unpopular, and President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore, both of whom have addresses on the net, have been getting royally flamed about it. It is easy to see why Clipper makes people nervous. You’re taking the N.S.A., an agency whose main activity for the past forty years has been electronic surveillance-an organization so secretive that for many years the government tried to deny its existence-and you’re putting it in charge of protecting people’s privacy. I’ve noticed that my level of paranoia is higher now than it was before I got on the net, but I’m not sure which I should be more afraid of-criminals or spies. My feeling about Clipper is that the government is swimming upstream, against history. You actually feel sorry for the government; in order to get people to use their brand of encryption, the government is reduced to invoking the spectre of on-line cults and conspiracies. Orwell’s idea of a totalitarian government using technology to subjugate the people was based on the technology of television, and you could argue that television has allowed large, centralized organizations to control and manipulate people. But the personal computer has transferred enormous power away from institutions and into the hands of individuals, and that trend is only accelerating with the exponential growth in computing power and the spread of the net. In the future, somebody will develop encryption that the N.S.A. won’t be able to crack, and smart criminals will be able to talk without being overheard. The Clipper Chip initiative seems like a vain attempt to reverse the way the technology is going. In the digital future, it isn’t just Big Brother we’re going to have to worry about.
One day at work, I asked Dan Henderson if he knew of someone I could go to for the final word on my worm–the top worm man in the country, as it were–and he gave me the E-mail address of John Norstad, at Northwestern University. Norstad is the author of Disinfectant, a popular brand of virus-protection software for the Macintosh, and probably knows as much as anyone in the world about the viruses and worms that affect Macs. I sent him E-mail saying I would be coming out to Chicago in a couple of weeks on business and wondered if I could have him examine my PowerBook. Norstad promptly E-mailed me back to say that he was in the midst of fighting a new virus that had just broken out in Italy, and didn’t have time to think about my problem now, but would be happy to see me when I came to Chicago.
We arranged, through E-mail, to meet at the Palmer House, where I was staying. Because my only contact with Norstad had been on-line, I had no clue what sort of man to expect, and as I waited for him in my room I tried to imagine what he would be like. I realized that I was envisioning Norstad not as a Western doctor but as a kind of tribal medicine man. Whether the corrupted messages in my computer were the result of a real worm or were caused by a software glitch, all my troubles seemed to me to be related to the general wizardry of software–the mysterious incantations of ones and zeros being whispered inside my computer. I felt as if someone had put a spell on my computer, and I was bringing it to John Norstad to have him heal it.
Norstad turned out to be about forty-five, not tall, with a beard that had some gray in it, glasses, and a shy, polite manner. He wore a flannel jacket over a loose gray shirt, and gray pants. He was carrying a PowerBook loaded with the dominant strains of all the nastiest viruses known to the Macintosh world; the viruses were safely corralled on his hard disk with Disinfectant, which he distributes free on the net to anyone who wants it. Norstad set his PowerBook next to my PowerBook and showed me his collection of infected programs. He moved his cursor over and pointed it at an icon, double-clicked on it, and said, “Now, if I didn’t have any protection this little guy would start erasing my hard drive right . . . now. But because we do-there, see . . . Disinfectant caught it.” It was awesome.
I asked Norstad about the Italian virus he had been fighting when I first E-mailed him, and he said that it had appeared in an item of software posted on a bulletin board in late February. Because the software was copyrighted, and had been posted on the board illegally, there was some suspicion that the virus writer was trying to teach the pirates a lesson about copyright infringement. Norstad opened the E-mail log in his PowerBook and showed me the hundreds of messages he had sent and received between February 28th, when he received E-mail from three people in Italy which said that a new virus was erasing people’s hard disks, and March 3rd, when he and his colleagues produced vaccines. Upon hearing about the Italian outbreak, Norstad had immediately sent E-mail to a group of colleagues called the Zoo Keepers, a sort of on-line volunteer fire squad, to alert them to the existence of the new virus. The Zoo Keepers are a virtual community that live all over the globe–Australia, Germany, the United States–and could exist only because of the net. Norstad received a copy of the virus from Italy, made copies, and sent the copies out over the net to the Zoo Keepers. Keeping in touch over the net, the scientists reverse-engineered the virus and a number of effective vaccines for it. Norstad then updated Disinfectant–version 3.3 became 3.4–and posted it around the net, where people could download it for free. All this took fifty-six hours.
I asked whether virus writers were often motivated by politics, and Norstad said no, they were mostly relatively harmless hackers, at least in the Mac world. In the world of I.B.M.-compatible machines, which is much larger than the Mac world, there are many more viruses, and they tend to be deadlier. They are the stuff of legend. Norstad told me of an account he had once heard from a Bulgarian virus expert, about software engineers commissioned by the Communist government to crack the security seals on Western software. When the regime fell, the story goes, the unemployed engineers were said to have whiled away their empty hours writing viruses for I.B.M. compatibles.
I asked, “Is it possible that a terrorist could take down a large part of a country’s computer systems with a virus?”
“It’s possible. Of course, the problem with a virus that virulent is, How do they keep it from infecting their own system?”
I told Norstad the story of my worm, and asked whether it was possible for a technically sophisticated person such as I believed my assailant to be to send a worm through E-mail. This seemed like an important point to establish, because if it was possible to send a person a worm or a virus via E-mail, it would be like giving someone a cold by talking to them on the phone. I was thinking, If bad people can infect decent people’s brains just by communicating with them, this medium is not going to work.
Norstad said, “I will not say it is impossible. Anything is possible. I’m saying I don’t understand it and I’ve never heard of it happening before. I will say that the kind of symptoms you describe could be a software problem.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Who knows?” Norstad said. “It’s software. It’s weird stuff. People are always writing and calling me because they think they have some kind of virus, and in almost every case it’s a software problem, not a virus-but these people are fearful and need my help. For example, quite a few people have written me to say a shrieking death’s head appears occasionally in the top of their screens. You know what it is? If you have Apple’s Remote Access program, hold down the option key, and hit the shift key three times, your computer makes this funny trilling sound and an object appears in the corner of your screen that could, if you were sufficiently paranoid, look like a death’s head. It’s not a virus. It’s just a weird software thing.”
While Norstad was talking, I brought my flame up onto the screen and asked him to look at it. He leaned toward me and silently read through the litany of insults. When he had finished, he sat back and sighed and didn’t speak for a couple of seconds. Then he said, “I’m just so sorry when something like this happens.” He lowered his head and shook it sadly. “Gee, that’s terrible.”
I said, “I have to admit it was upsetting. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I ask myself, Do I recognize the right of this person to flame me? Yes, I do. Do I celebrate his right to flame me? I’m not sure. Do I recognize the right of this person to send me a worm? Definitely not. But at what point does a flame become a worm? I mean, can a virus be a form of free speech? In other words, could a combination of words be so virulent and nasty that it could do a sort of property damage to your head?”
I was rambling, and I could actually feel tears coming into my eyes, so I stopped there. But Norstad seemed to understand what I was talking about, and I felt better after I had told him. I realized that I would probably never know for sure whether my worm was real or just a software glitch. We chatted for a while longer, and then he said, “Don’t get discouraged. The net is a fundamentally wonderful place. Most of this work I do could be done only on the net. Look at the work we did on the Italian virus, working with colleagues all over the world to reverse-engineer it. Can you imagine trying to do this by fax? Phone? Fed Ex? It would not be possible.” He unplugged his PowerBook and began packing it up. “Of course,” he said, “the net allows people to spread viruses much more easily than before.”
“But that’s the thing about the net,” I said. “Each of the good things about it seems to have an evil twin.”
“Yes, but you could say that about all new technology,” Norstad said. “There is always going to be a dark side to it. That is why it’s so important to be decent on the net, because the dark side is always right there.”
As Norstad was putting on his coat, he said, “My thirteen-year-old daughter is a Pearl Jam fan, and the other night she asked me if there might be some Pearl Jam stuff on the net. So we logged on and looked around, and we were able to download some Pearl Jam posters, some music, some song lyrics–really neat stuff. But then we came to the Pearl Jam newsgroup, and there was a really terrible flame war going on in there. People were saying really awful things to each other, things I was embarrassed to be sitting next to my daughter reading.” Norstad shook his head. “Terrible things. After a while, my daughter looked over at me and asked, ‘Daddy, do these people have a life?’ And I said, ‘No, darling, most of them don’t have a life.’ “
Copyright (c) John Seabrook 2003. All rights reserved