|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
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
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
"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
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
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
The Last Viking<email@example.com>
We don't have to go around being racists like
those fascists in the real world! peace on the net!!!!
Michael Halleen <firstname.lastname@example.org>
As offensive as this is, I do not believe this should put this person
investigation." . . . He should get hate mail, censure (not censors),
versal condemnation. There should be open debate and discussion,
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
Insert finger in appropriate orafice and shove
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
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<email@example.com>
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:
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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