This HTML version of "The Usenet Oracle" appears as it was originally published in EJournal; the only alteration is the addition of anchor links from text to endnotes. --D.R.S.
Go to the dsew Netwriting page


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December(2), 1992        EJournal  Volume 2 Number 5          ISSN# 1054-1055
                      There are 984 lines in this issue.

                   An Electronic Journal concerned with the
                implications of electronic networks and texts.
                       2787 Subscribers in 38 Countries

              University at Albany, State University of New York

                            EJOURNAL@ALBANY.bitnet

CONTENTS:

   Editorial Note                                         [ Begins at line 53 ]

   THE USENET ORACLE:                                     [ Begins at line 66 ]
   Virtual Authors and Network Community

      by David Sewell
         English Department
         University of Rochester

   Information -                                         [ Begins at line 873 ]

      About Subscriptions and Back Issues
      About Supplements to Previous Texts
      About Letters to the Editor
      About Reviews
      About EJournal

   People -                                              [ Begins at line 946 ]

      Board of Advisors
      Consulting Editors

*******************************************************************************
* This electronic publication and its contents are (c) copyright 1992 by      *
* EJournal.  Permission is hereby granted to give away the journal and its  *
* contents, but no one may "own" it.  Any and all financial interest is hereby*
* assigned to the acknowledged authors of individual texts.  This notification*
* must accompany all distribution of EJournal.                              *
*******************************************************************************

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Editorial Note -

David Sewell's essay couldn't come much much closer to EJournal's
announced interests, "the implications of electronic networks and
texts."  From a sentence near the end of his text: ". . . the
computer's ability to create self-contained virtual worlds is
beginning to affect what we traditionally call 'writing' or
'literature'. . . ."  There's an intriguing observation about
"emergent conventions"; there are plausible hints about ways the
network culture may resemble pre-print communities.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

THE USENET ORACLE:
Virtual Authors and Network Community

      by David Sewell
         English Department
         University of Rochester
         dsew@troi.cc.rochester.EDU

1. What Happens to Authors in Cyberspace?

Many literary theorists who have addressed the phenomenon of
"electronic writing" -- a catch-all category that includes word
processing, hypertext, and all communication on wide-area networks --
argue that its immateriality as a medium calls into question the
notional status of authors who publish using it.  For some,
digitized writing is the technology finally responsible for the
"death of the author" that Roland Barthes proclaimed two decades ago
("Death of the Author"), a "death" that has been a tenet of
poststructural thought ever since.  Their basic argument
runs something like this: The traditional view of an "author" as a
single autonomous agent, the sole intentional creator of a work, is a
product of the age of the codex book, when writing was both material
and unalterable.  But the electronic medium, in Jay Bolter's words,
"denies the fixity of the text, and . . . questions the authority of
the author" (Writing Space 153).  When written words are stored as
electronic bits in memory, they are not objects to be owned.  When
authors are incarnated as electronic texts that can be erased,
annotated, downloaded, linked, and redistributed, they are
"textualized"; at that point their identities merge into a communal
hypertext or discussion thread.  Although he wasn't speaking of
computers, Barthes had already hinted in that direction by writing
that "the metaphor of the Text is that of the network ("Death" 161).
Peggy Kamuf finds confirmation of Barthes's formula in the "general
incapacity of a conceptual framework to support or contain the author
function disseminated by computer-aided modeling and composition,
video reproduction, hypertext data banks, nanotechnology, and so
forth" (Signature Pieces 16). Perhaps, as Mark Poster suggests, an
electronic newsgroup or conference "becomes a single text without an
author in the traditional sense of the term" (Mode of Information
122).                                                                [line 105]

Curiously, though, electronic communication has tended to hang on
tenaciously to the single, identifiable author: on-line journals have
conventional tables of contents and author attributions, nearly all
e-mail and news-posting systems identify message senders, and on
networks like Usenet the elaborate ".sig" or signature appended to
one's postings has become a way of transcending the uniformity of the
medium.  (A ".sig" is a signature file automatically appended to
postings by news software; Usenet posters fill them not only with
their name, business or academic affiliation, and e-mail, telephone,
and fax information, but also with ".sig quotes" or epigrams, and even
fancy ASCII graphics.)

Despite the network's potential to allow anonymous collaboration,
it is rare for even experimental network art and participatory
projects to be anonymous.  For years there have existed on BBS's and
conference systems so-called "storyboards" or "never-ending stories,"
where one person begins a narrative line, and others are free to
develop the plot and add characters within the constraints of
agreed-upon conventions.  (The Usenet group alt.callahans is entirely
devoted to communal fiction of this sort, for instance.)  Since in
most cases contributions to these multiply-authored texts are sent as
regular e-mail or news postings, they are identified, sometimes
intrusively, as the products of specific authors.  Such was the case
with "Les Immateriaux," an experimental e-mail project on which
twenty-six French intellectuals collaborated in 1984 as part of an
exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou.  Participant Jacques
Derrida observed that while the computer erases the author's voice,
each contribution was nevertheless signed and therefore "owned" in the
traditional way, making the experiment less radical than the
technology allowed.  (See Poster 114-115.)  Even where an editor
intervenes to eliminate tags associating a given author with a portion
of the completed text, contributors are typically identified or
acknowledged by name.  For example, in the collaborative fiction
"Thirty Minutes in the Late Afternoon" created and published on the
Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (WELL) in 1990, editor Judy Malloy
rearranged posted contributions to create a seamless narrative in
parallel columns, but used parenthetical numbers linked to author
names to identify the individual contributions.^1^  When claims are
made, then, that the electronic medium inherently tends to assimilate
the solitary author to a network or collaborative group, they need to
be tested critically against the actual practice of writers on the
nets.
                                                                     [line 149]
2. The Usenet Oracle: Description and Background

Yet there are forms of on-line writing which, if taken seriously *as*
writing, challenge traditional definitions of authorship because both
collaboration and anonymity are enabled or even required by their
design.  One widely-used example is a real-time conferencing program
like the Daedalus Group's "Interchange," which allows pseudonymous
login; many writing teachers find that letting students write as
make-believe characters can free them to explore a range of voices and
attitudes that signed writing might have made threatening.  Another
example is the Usenet Oracle, in which I have been a
participant-observer -- as both anonymous author and named editor --
for some months now.  It is one of the most prominent experiments in
collaborative creation, an automated mail server that allows two
people, a questioner and a respondent, to create a text without
knowing one another's identity.

Interestingly, the form of anonymous question-and-respose turns out to
be less postmodern in approach than one might expect.  It reflects
perhaps not so much a postmodern as a premodern approach to
authorship, like that of Shakespeare's day, when literature

         was a by-product of learning or study, which presupposed
         leisure.  The gentleman might take pride in his by-product, but
         he considered it as only one of many accomplishments in an
         active life.  He never wrote for money, never put his name on
         what he wrote, and rarely even condescended to put what he wrote
         in print.  His work was addressed to a small group of equals.
         (Charvat, Profession 6-7)

The technical basis of the Usenet Oracle is a software program
developed and installed by Steve Kinzler (with assistance from Ray
Moody) on a computer at Indiana University.  Although based on earlier
programs that ran on local systems, the Usenet Oracle was the first to
allow any person with e-mail access to the Internet to participate.
The concept is simple.  A questioner, or "Supplicant," e-mails a
question to the Oracle.  The Oracle software puts the question at the
end of a "question queue"; when its turn comes, it will be mailed to
someone else who has submitted a question.  That person now becomes an
"Incarnation" of the Oracle and must e-mail a response to the question
back to the Oracle's address.  Finally, the Oracle combines question
and answer and mails the completed "Oracularity" to the Supplicant
while saving a copy for itself.  Because the software encodes all
names and addresses, neither questioner nor respondent know one
another's identities.
                                                                     [line 195]
[For a help file explaining how to participate in the Oracle, along
with a brief history of the program, send e-mail with the subject
"help" to oracle@cs.indiana.edu.]

In its most basic form, then, the Oracle software essentially
automates a party game where a central organizer gathers questions on
slips of paper, makes sure that the questioner is not given his or her
own submission, and distributes them to be answered.  In its early
days as a local Indiana University program Oracle was not much more
sophisticated than that, its one-line questions and brief answers
ranging from witty to flippant:

   The oracle has pondered your question deeply.
   Your question was:

   > Why is a cow?

   And in response, thus spake the oracle:

   } Mu.

   You owe the oracle 2 big kisses.  [000-42]  ^2^

["Mu" is the Zen master's traditional response to an unanswerable
question.  Questions to the Oracle are always quoted with the ">"
character, responses with "}".  The original Oracle software
automatically appended a randomly-chosen "payment" line to the
response; the Usenet version does not, but asking the questioner or
"supplicant" for some appropriate payment has become a convention.]

Beginning in October, 1989, when Kinzler publicized the Oracle's
existence on a number of Usenet news groups and began posting
selections of the best Oracularities to the widely-read rec.humor
group, questions and responses became increasingly creative and
elaborate, and over the three years of its existence the Oracle has
grown far beyond its origins into a genre with its own conventions,
formulas, and mythos.  The Oracle now has its own Usenet newsgroup,
rec.humor.oracle, with current estimated worldwide readership of about
25,000; another 600 subscribers receive digests of Oracularities via
an e-mail list ^3^.

Two or three digests of ten Oracularities are published most weeks;
less than ten percent of all submissions are selected for
publication.  Beginning with the 100th digest a voting system was
introduced so readers could rate Oracularities; every few months the
highest-rated ones are collected into a special "best of" collection.
After he had read and edited some 20,000 submissions during
the Usenet Oracle's first year of existence, Kinzler established a
"Priesthood" of volunteer editors--currently about two dozen--who
filter incoming Oracularities and pass along the best ones.
                                                                     [line 246]
Not surprisingly, many of the published Oracularities involve
computers: parodies of Unix documentation; jibes at Microsoft, DEC,
and other companies; elaborate text-adventure games; sessions where
the Oracle logs onto a mainframe at "heaven.com" or onto someone's
brain (various parts of the psyche are typically represented as files
in a user's home directory); satire aimed at the hated VMS operating
system (for instance, a clever comparison between VMS and PMS, which
"have pretty much the same features, as anyone familiar with both
could tell you" [310-10]).  But many other species of Oracularities
have evolved: parodies of everything from sociological jargon through
pop-cult TV shows to Sam Spade mysteries and 18th-century bawdy drama;
humorous and nonsense verse; mock-scientific explanations of obscure
phenomena; manic invented histories and science-fiction scenarios.  In
one of the highest-rated Oracularities [135-08], the Oracle runs a
simulation program that pits Merlin against Stephen Hawking in order
to determine whether magic is real. (Hawking wins when Merlin violates
causality by invoking a future self who accidentally kills his earlier
self.)  The best-received Oracularities are ingenious comic
miniatures, often products of considerable effort and imagination.  In
the following Oracularity, quoted in full, the question sets up an old
punch line: "Make me one with everything!"  The respondent, however,
makes it an occasion for an extended comic monologue:

   The Usenet Oracle has pondered your question deeply.
   Your question was:

   > What did the Tibetian [sic] monk say to the hot dog vendor?

   And in response, thus spake the Oracle:

   } The most famous exchange between a lama and a hot dog vendor
   } occurred one block south of Times Square in July 1988.
   }
   } Hot Dog Vendor: What can I get for ya today?  Footlong with
   } the works?  I said, what can I get for ya today?  Hey, ya
   } wanna hot dog or not?  Listen if yer not going to order willya
   } move on, I gotta business to run.  Stop starin' at me, man.
   } And wipe that silly grin off yer face.  Say something, dammit,  [line 284]
   } yer givin' me the creeps.  Hey, I get it.  Ya don't [speak]
   } English, do ya?  Uh, lessee, yo, uh, tengo los, uh, hot dogs,
   } uh, perros calientes.  Okay, fine! just stand there.  See if I
   } care.  Just don't scare away the customers.  Jeez.  Forget it.
   } Ya wanna Coke?  Coca-cola?  I don't care where yer from, ya
   } gotta understand "Coca-cola".  Coca-cola?  Stop smiling.
   } People'll think yer up to something.  Hey, I got all-beefs,
   } beef-n-porks, turkey dogs, polish sausage, and kielbasa.  You
   } can get ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, relish, pickles, or
   } onions on them.  I've got plain and whole grain buns.  I don't
   } care what you want, just order something or leave.  I'm
   } serious, man, if you don't go away, I'll call the cops and
   } have them arrest you for loitering.  Jesus Christ, will you
   } stop staring at me!  STOP IT!  At least blink once in a while.
   } You're driving me crazy!  You wanna Coke?  Wait, no, I already
   } tried that.  Listen, man, I'm serious, stop starin' and grin-
   } nin' at me.  I gotta gun under the counter.  I'll use it.  I
   } mean it.  STOP STARING AT ME!  STOP IT!  STOP IT!  STOPIT-
   } STOPITSTOPIT! YOU'RE DRIVING ME CRAZY!  AAAAARGH! STOPIT-
   } STOPITSTOPITSTOPIT!  PLEASE LOOK AWAY!  HERE!  OKAY!  I'M
   } MAKING YOU A HOT DOG FOR FREE!  TAKE IT!  EAT IT! JUST GO
   } AWAY!  STOPITSTOPITSTOPITSTOPIT!  YOU WANNA COKE?  OKAY!
   } HERE'S A COKE!  IT'S ON THE HOUSE!  NOW PLEASE GO AWAY!
   } I CAN'T TAKE ANY MORE OF THIS!  YOUR EYES ARE DRIVING ME
   } INSANE!  PLEASE STOPITSTOPISTOPSTOPSTOPSTOPSTOPSTOPSTOPSTOP!
   }
   } Then the lama widened his grin just enough to barely show
   } his teeth.  At that moment the hot dog vendor was enlightened.
   }
   } You owe the Oracle a better koan.  And a new deli.
     [293-03; formatting of the original text has been modified]

If this is taken as a representative Oracularity, its most striking
features might seem to have nothing to do with "electronic writing."
Generically, the response is a dramatic monologue framed as a Zen koan
or teaching story.  It uses dialect and concrete detail admirably, but
no differently than any creative writer would.  Even the arbitrariness
of the question which the respondent must answer could be mirrored in
a traditional writing situation: one can readily imagine a creative
writing instructor asking students to compose a scene between a
hot-dog vendor and a Tibetan monk as a warm-up class exercise.  In
fact writing an Oracle response has a good deal in common with
impromptu narrative and improvisational drama, two forms that require
inventive response to an unforeseen assignment.
                                                                     [line 329]
3. Features Unique to Online Collaboration

Other aspects of the Oracle as a writing situation are unique to its
medium.  Most importantly, questioner and respondent are invisible and
unknown to each other.  They share neither a physical location nor a
common time of writing.  Both writers must guess at the likely range
of cultural references, terminology, and specific knowledge that their
co-authors share.  (The Oracle's help file alludes to this problem in
its suggestion that writers avoid "slang, jargon, and obscure
references," since "[p]eople of all different backgrounds located all
over the world use the Oracle.")  In the quoted Oracularity, the
respondent assumes that readers will understand the humor of the
confrontation between New York vernacular culture and Tibetan
Buddhism, and that they will catch allusions to the "beatific smile"
and the teaching style of Zen (the smiling monk of course plays
roshi to the befuddled vendor-novice who is finally enlightened).
Mark Poster claims that every author-audience relationship in
electronic writing is to some extent a fiction:

         [I]ndividuals engage in telecommunications with other
         individuals . . . without considerations that derive from the
         presence to the partner of their body, their voice, their sex,
         many of the markings of their personal history.  [They] are in
         the position of fiction writers who compose themselves as
         characters in the process of writing. . . .  The traces of their
         embeddedness in culture are restricted to the fact that they are
         competent to write in a particular language, writing perhaps at
         the infinite degree.  (Poster, Mode of Information 117)

But Poster exaggerates the degree of uncertainty about audience that
electronic networks create.  Our respondent's assumption that readers
would catch the Zen references was not arbitrary.  As a discourse
community, Usenet has its historical roots in hacker subculture, one
of whose best-known features is a predilection for Zen-like paradox;
before the Oracularity of the Tibetan monk appeared, there had been many
published Oracularities reflecting this interest.  (The frequent
references to Zen in Douglas Hofstadter's Goedel, Escher, Bach
[1979] merely brought to the attention of the wider public an interest
that had been part of hacker culture for years.  See, for example, the
"AI Koans" in Appendix A of Eric Raymond's The New Hacker's
Dictionary, pp. 404-405.)  Even though Usenet readers are growing far
more varied in background as wide-area network use mushrooms, the
Net's discourse conventions derive from hacker subculture as surely as
the prescriptions of traditional high-school English classes are
rooted in neoclassical grammar.
                                                                     [line 375]
Why does such a talented comic writer as the Master of the Hot Dog
Koan choose not to identify himself or herself to gain what we usually
consider a major reward of authorship -- recognition?  While the Oracle
software makes anonymity possible by withholding participants' names
and e-mail addresses, the complete anonymity of published
Oracularities is actually a matter of convention and authorial choice.
In the introductory Oracle help file, participants are explicitly
told, "If you do not wish to remain anonymous, you may include a
phrase in your answer like "incarnated as <insert your name and/or
address here>."  Nevertheless, fewer than one percent of authors
choose to do so.  This was one of the first things about the Oracle
that intrigued me: writers like the Master of the Hot Dog Koan were
evidently putting real effort into writing that went "unrewarded" by
the conventional association of name with publication.

4.  Why are Usenet Oracle authors content to remain anonymous?

In August, 1992, I conducted a survey of Oracle participants to seek
answers to this and other questions about the Oracle, receiving via
e-mail 125 returned questionnaires.  Of the 80 active authors who
answered the question "How do you feel about the anonymity of
Oracularities?" 59 (79%) felt it was helpful or crucial, while only 5
(7%) said they would prefer to be identified.  Narrative responses to
the question indicate that anonymity provides two crucial advantages:
freedom of self-expression, and the shared aesthetic illusion of an
Oracle persona.  Like college professors who publish murder mysteries
or romance novels under pseudonyms for fear of being thought
unprofessional, Oracle writers sometimes feel safer when unidentified:

         I think [anonymity is] essential.  I wouldn't have the guts to
         use the Oracle if I knew my name was going with everything I
         wrote.

         It helps me to give answers which are much more uninhibited. If
         I knew my identity would be made public I might be a little
         reluctant to write, since I would not want co-workers to know
         how much I am involved.
                                                                     [line 413]
But the second reason for accepting anonymity more resembles that of
the medieval author, who, in Hans Robert Jauss's words, wrote "in
order to praise and to extend his object, not to express himself or to
enhance his personal reputation" (Ede and Lunsford, Singular Texts
78).  The "object" in this case is the collection of a corpus of work
by a personality, the Oracle, whose characteristics derive from the
collective efforts of contributors.  (The Oracle help file
acknowledges "the thousands of Oracle participants over the years who
have created the personality, mythos and history of the Usenet
Oracle.")  And in fact the Oracle has accreted an identifiable
personality.  Like a Greek god, he is polymorphous: now a crotchety
old man, now a super-intelligent computer program, now a deity.  A
jealous, omniscient and omnipotent being, he is apt to strike with
lightning (or "<ZOT>") supplicants who insult him or fail to grovel
sufficiently.  Nevertheless he is vulnerable to having his plug pulled
by his creator Kinzler, his computer's system administrator, or an
irate "god@heaven.com."  Like Zeus, he has a consort: Lisa evolved
from the cliche-geek's fantasy-fulfilling "net.sex.goddess" to the
Oracle's companion.  It may be that one reason for leaving Oracle
submissions unsigned is generic constraint: like Scripture,
Oracularities should seem to participants to proceed directly from the
voice of God.  As E. M. Forster once observed of unsigned newspaper
editorials, "anonymous statements have . . . a universal air about
them.  Absolute truth, the collected wisdom of the universe, seems to
be speaking, not the feeble voice of a man" (Anonymity 8).  A number
of Oracle authors who responded to the questionnaire identified
similar reasons for leaving their contributions unsigned:

         I'd put less effort into writing for the Oracle if [my identity]
         were public.  I prefer the idea of an all-powerful Oracle rather
         than the various incarnations scenario. . . .  Sometimes it
         would be nice to say, "I wrote that!" but I prefer to just smile
         knowingly...

         I don't care who wrote it, but it sort of loses something when I
         see a signature line.  Destroys the myth, so to speak.

         When I read Oracularities . . .  I prefer to think of a faceless
         deity in a cave somewhere, not joe@lharc.netcom.edu.  I prefer
         anonymity.
                                                                     [line 454]
So one of the most powerful conventions governing Oracle responses is the
attempt to give voice to the Oracle's persona, a wise but world-weary and
sometimes petty deity for whom answering queries is just a 9-to-5 job:

   } Day in, day out, the Oracle hears the cries of despair and
   } ennui that rise from people like you, trapped in an absurd
   } human condition.  "What does it all mean?" you want to know.

   } Time was, a younger and more energetic Oracle tried to answer
   } every existential query individually.  But Usenet has grown
   } apace, and let's face it, "What is reality?" is FAQ number 1.
     [i.e. "Frequently Asked Question"; 453-03]

The willingness of Oracle authors to experiment with different voices
and personae mirrors something Trent Batson has noticed about
network-based writing classrooms: they seem almost "meant for
simulation" (Batson, "ENFI" 4) -- that is, for playing with roles,
scenarios, and invented characters.  Participants seem to agree that
the Oracle is in a small way a verbal world constructed by the
community.  Good Oracularities, one questionnaire respondent wrote,
"are necessarily creative and humorous, but I think the very best ones
display a sort of *attitude* that the Oracle has.  This is hard to
define.  It's sort of an agreed-upon personality that the collective
mind has."  Another respondent observed that Usenet in general is "an
artifice by which digitheads like ourselves can communicate with each
other - it's a really crude precursor to cyberspace, and is a lot of
fun.  But it's definitely a simulation."

5. The Oracle and Textual Authority

Because Oracle writing is fluid, improvisatory, and infinitely variable, it
tends especially to mock forms of discourse, from computer documentation to
scripture, that are formulaic and authoritative at the same time.  In Bakhtin's
terms Oracularities are thoroughly "heteroglossic," composed of pastiche,
parody, fantasy, imitated voices, conventional genres, comic dialogues.  If the
traditional model of authorship is what Barthes calls the "Author-God" ("Death
of the Author" 146), the Oracle undermines it at every opportunity.  Parodies
of the Bible abound.  There is a "Very Strange Version" [391-08], and a
marvelously blasphemous version of Biblical history in which (among other
things) Jesus is sent to earth to warn man not to ask the Oracle the Woodchuck
Question [460-05], and even a dialogue where the Oracle uses a synchronous
"talk" program to summon God on behalf of a supplicant:
                                                                     [line 497]
   } Somebody wants to talk to you, God.
   }
   } >Yes?  Can't you just give them my Internet address?
   }
   } Sure would like to, God.  But you see, in the context of an Oracular
   } message you've degenerated from a halfhearted joke into an
   } irrepressively [sic] boring formulaic answer.
   }
   } >What is this?  What are you saying?
   }
   } God, you're dead.  Not because of that asshole Nietzsche, not because
   } you're old, not because you hang out at the terminal room on Saturday
   } nights.  You're dead because you are invoked for answering questions
   } like "How much would does a wood chuck chuck if a woodchuck could
   } chuck wood?" and "Is Lisa good in bed?"  You're such a stiff. [155-05]

(This dialogue ends when the Oracle deletes his "God" program,
casually noting that "God is simply a mathematical construct of mine
that I use to amuse myself during spare clock cycles.")  Of course,
the Oracle's own textual authority is no less vulnerable.  If he is an
AI program or a computer, he can be undone by system errors, infinite
loops, and line noise.  (In one Oracularity, the Oracle is on trial
for dereliction of duty.  Called to the witness stand, "Kinzler" is
asked if he knows the defendant.  "Yes I do. He's an executable file
in my home directory"  [238-10].)  As a deity, he is beset by Homeric
squabbles with other gods and by his own arrogance.  As a human male,
he is often bested by Lisa in an ongoing battle of the sexes, or held
up to ridicule for his thoroughgoing paternalism.

Always, however, the Oracle is a product of writing, and his status as
text is often underlined by metafictional play with the Oracle
conventions or, more generally, with narrative and language
themselves.  Asked which types of Oracularities they preferred,
respondents to my questionnaire chose as their favorite genre
"meta-Oracularities (self-referential plays on Oracle conventions)."
Given the preponderance of participants with strong computer
backgrounds (78% are, or are preparing to be, "computer
professionals"), this is not surprising: of the six distinctive
characteristics of "hacker humor" identified by Eric Raymond, the
first is "fascination with form-vs.-content jokes, paradoxes, and
humor having to do with confusion of metalevels" (New Hacker's
Dictionary 203) ^4^.  Some of the best Oracularities play with
surrealistic and metafictional frame-breaking in the best tradition of
Italo Calvino and John Barth.  For instance, in one of readers'
all-time favorites, the Oracle is asked who would win a fight between
Superman and the Hulk. Finding the question too trivial for his august
consideration, the Oracle runs a simulation program on the Vax in
search of an answer.  Sim-Hulk and Sim-Superman batter each other
until the Hulk, about to lose, decides to smash out of the simulation,
whereupon he and Superman begin showing up on users' terminals all
over Indiana University, and "Kinzler" receives an electronic message
from an irate administrator: "Stephen, what is that goddamned Oracle
of yours up to now?  We have memory faults all over the place, iuvax
is threatening to 'smash puny workstations' and this errant process is
invading every die green behemoth!  You see what I mean? Knock it off!
Smash!" [140-05].  Another Oracularity is an extended self-referential
tour-de-force along the lines of Barth's "Life Story"; if anything it
is more effective in showing narrative giving birth to itself since no
identifiable author stands behind the prose:
                                                                     [line 557]
   The Usenet Oracle has pondered your question deeply.
   Your question was:

   > This is the first sentence of my question, which wants the Oracle to
   > know that all the sentences of my question grovel humbly before the
   > Awesome presence.  . . .
   >
   > Boldly reclaiming the path, this sentence starts out a new and improved
   > paragraph.  This sentence is confident we will finally get to the
   > point, since it can see the next sentence will, indeed, ask the
   > question.  This sentence wants to know if there is anything profound in
   > self-reference. . . .

   And in response, thus spake the Oracle:

   } This is the first sentence of the Oracle's response.  This is the
   } second sentence of that response.  This sentence appears several times.
     [. . .]
   }
   } This is actually the third sentence of the first paragraph but has been
   } placed here in error.  This sentence appears several times.  This
   } sentence attempts to abandon the self-referential style so that your
   } question may be answered, but fails.  This sentence makes the same
   } attempt, but fails just as miserably.  This sentence appears several
   } times.  This sentence, though not able to abandon self-reference,
   } nonetheless succeeds in tackling your question in that it postulates
   } that while the selfreferential style may seem horribly vague and boring,
   } it *does* give ample opportunity for playfulness on the part of the
   } author.

6. The Oracle and the Network Community

The preceding Oracularity is somewhat anomalous in the thorough
undermining of authorial presence it borrows from the "high-culture"
experimental literature it imitates.  Ordinarily, techniques like
self-referentiality and frame-breaking in the Oracularities differ
subtly from their analogues in literary metafiction.  In the latter,
they serve to efface the concrete social reality of the author by
providing the illusion that the text writes itself.  The "author" of
literary metafiction is presumed to be the sheer intertextual
conjunction of other books, or perhaps an arbitrary language game,
like the combinatory that generates the books in Borges' Library of
Babel.  By claiming origin in pure formal systems, metafiction denies
that it is a product of a given society, let alone of an individual
author.
                                                                     [line 603]
However, the Oracle's obsession with logic games, paradox, and
infinite regress mark its collective author as a member of a
distinctive and identifiable subculture, that of the hacker.  Where
literary metafiction can be -- perhaps most often is -- apolitical,
the Oracle's very existence on the Net is an implicit endorsement of
hacker politics: information (both data and text) should flow freely;
authority over information systems should be decentralized; the
aesthetics of programming (or any other creation; a poem can be a
"good hack") is more important than the material uses to which it may
be put.  Jim Cheetham, one of the Oracle Priests, finds awareness of
"hacker culture" important to Oracle participants "because I think
it's a good and correct outlook to try to educate 'net users into,"
especially since the Oracle "has a (slightly) moderated version of the
'net's government by anarchy" (personal communication).  The core
characteristic of Net governance is that conventions and rules emerge
from community practice and consensus rather than being imposed from
the top.

In many ways the development of Oracle conventions (like those of
Usenet writing in general) resembles the evolution of epic in an oral
culture: any individual participant is free to alter, supplement, or
redirect the narrative, but only those innovations that are accepted
by the community survive ^5^.  Fascination with recursion is, one might
say, sociologically grounded in the Oracle community, as reflected in
a wickedly clever Oracular response to the question, "Why don't
computer scientists have any sexual stamina?": "Their problem is a
fear that any repetitive process is actually the dreaded infinite
loop.  Providing a proof that the usual termination condition will
still occur should suffice" [089-10].  Roger Noe, a computer scientist
and Oracular Priest, believes the Oracle's persona reflects "self-
satire at its best":

         [W]e're really making fun of ourselves, the users of computers,
         and the designers and implementers of computer hardware and
         software, which is not necessarily distinct from the group of
         users.  . . . [M]uch of the Oracle mythology is simply a satire
         of the stereotypical computer nerd.  He's a know-it-all who
         holes up in his sanctum sanctorum, surrounded by every kind of
         computer hardware and software imaginable, connected to every
         network that might exist (including olympus-net, god-net,
         cthulhu-net, you name it) and continuously engaged in multiple
         simultaneous conversations from people obsequiously seeking his
         knowledge. (Personal communication) ^6^
                                                                     [line 647]
In identifying self-satire as a generic motive, Noe helps explain why
most Oracularities are *not* couched in terms that only a computer
scientist or electrical engineer can understand.  A few Oracularities
have in fact been written entirely in C programming code (inevitably
beginning with the header "#include <stdgrovel.h>"--i.e., an imaginary
standard library grovel file), and others that elaborate the syntax of
a context-free grammar for Oracle questions and answers, but a heavy
concentration of these generally provokes irritation from Oracle
participants.  As one respondent to my questionnaire, an engineer, put
it, "I HATE (!!!!) Oracularities which rely on some intensive
knowledge and familiarity with computers, operating systems and
languages - computer nerd 'humour' of this sort is pathetic."  This
even though Oracle authors tend to imagine their audience as composed
precisely of computer nerds; as one participant described it, "a room
full of sophomore and junior undergraduate computer science geeks with
x-rated gifs on their xterms, speaking technobabble to each other, and
nary a one of them has had a date or a bath for a month." (As a matter
of fact, the average age of Oracle readers turns out to be a
comparatively elderly 26.)  One motive for not writing technobabble,
then, might be to satirize those who can write nothing else.  (In his
entry on "Hacker Speech Style," Raymond says, "One should use just
enough jargon to communicate precisely and identify oneself as a
member of the culture; overuse of jargon . . . is considered tacky and
the mark of a loser" [New Hacker's Dictionary 20].)

The members of the Oracle Priesthood who answered my questionnaire
agreed that a broad cultural knowledge is important to give competent
responses to questions.  Here is how they rated a number of categories
of knowledge on a scale from 1="not important" to 5="very important":

         Classical (Greek & Roman) mythology:           3.5
         Classic English and American literature:       3.4
         Illuminati, Tolkien, other cult literature:    3.4
         Current world affairs:                         3.3
         American popular culture/politics:             3.2
         Geography and history:                         3.1
         Hacker culture and lore:                       3.1
         Oracle mythos (Lisa, ZOTting, etc.):           3.0
         Natural and biological sciences:               2.8
         Unix operating system:                         2.8
         C programming:                                 2.6
         Movies:                                        2.6
         Other computer systems (VMS, DOS, etc):        2.5
                                                                     [line 691]
There is a clear continuum here from literature down through current
affairs and history to formal and scientific systems.  These responses
suggest a catholicity, a desire to open the network subculture up to
any form of culture it can incorporate.  To the extent that it is a
hacker phenomenon, the Oracle is the vehicle of a discourse community
that is actively assimilating older modes of thought and writing
rather than turning inward. So it is no surprise to find, for example,
an updated version of the old Davy Crockett backwoods boast:

   > I am a Unix Guru: I debug programs from octal dumps.
   > I eat VMS hackers for lunch.
   > I know the entire Ada manual by rote, never use Ada anyway since I write
   > all my programs in machine language and never use assemblers since I
   > type in the binaries directly using cat. [a Unix program that displays
         output]
   [. . .]
   > I write device drivers in my sleep.
   > The DEC salespeople worship me as a minor deity and sacrifice young,
   > buxom secretaries to me at full moon.  [141-10]

It wouldn't be too far off, in fact, to call Davy Crockett a nineteenth-
century version of the Oracle.  The jests, tall tales, and embroidered
history published in the popular Davy Crockett almanacs were anonymous
vehicles for solidifying the folk culture of the frontier, as the
Oracle is for the electronic frontier.  The Oracle differs chiefly in
its inclusiveness: the electronic frontier is a circle whose
circumference is nowhere, and in principal anyone with network access
can join the community.  Consider the Swedish participant who reported
that he appreciates the Oracle because it allowed him to have "a
fruitful cooperation with a total stranger, which other people (also
strangers) have liked so much as to put [the result] in the
oracularities."  The evidence is that writing for a virtual community
like the Usenet Oracle's can be its own reward.  "It's wonderful,"
another participant wrote; "there is an immediate reward in the form
of your own question being answered.  And if your answer is good,
immediate reward by publication."
                                                                     [line 728]
The existence of the Usenet Oracle by itself is hardly enough to
herald the "death of the author," especially when so much
electronic writing still takes traditional forms.  Nor does working with
computers diminish individualism simply because networks constitute a
kind of communal reality or because programming emphasizes formal
systems rather than subjective expression; Eric Raymond notes that in
its anonymity "the Oracle is atypical.  Most hacker-community projects
are undertaken as ego expression, a way to earn the respect and
approval of peers" (Personal communication).  And the same can be said
of most non-hackers who publish on the Net.  But the energy and
creativity that writers put into their Oracle participation is one
among several pieces of evidence that the computer's ability to create
self-contained virtual worlds is beginning to affect what we
traditionally call "writing" or "literature" as distinct from "mere"
game.

Just as the players in 3-D interactive adventure games of the future
will "become" knights, hobbits, or New York cabbies, virtual writers
in interactive network spaces take on new identities in a universe of
discourse where their supposedly "real" selves may never be known, and
where even their simulated identities may not be fixed.  The Net may
yet turn out to be that culture imagined by Michel Foucault "where
discourse would circulate without any need for an author . . . [and]
would unfold in a pervasive anonymity" ("What Is an Author," 138).  In
such a culture writers may lose the rewards of traditional authorship,
while gaining the satisfaction of helping to create art forms and
genres that could not have existed otherwise.  As one of the
questionnaire respondents wrote, "Oracularities are designed for the
medium in which they are read--I can't imagine it working on anything
but Usenet."  It remains to be seen whether such innovative forms will
become, figuratively, the cathedrals of cyberspace that countless
unacknowledged builders and designers will collaborate on for the sake
of creation itself.


(Special thanks to Steve Kinzler and all the Oracular Priests and
participants who corresponded with me as I was doing research for this
article.)
                                                                     [line 767]

NOTES

(^1^) "Thirty Minutes" was published in the online journal ART COM, Number 42
(October 1990); for information on obtaining back issues send e-mail to
artcomtv@well.sf.ca.us.

(^2^) All Oracularities quoted in this article were originally published in
on-line digests; the first number refers to the digest volume, while the
second is individual Oracularity.  The Oracle help file referred to above
includes information on retrieving back digests.

(^3^) The readership figure derives from Brian Reid's period estimations of
Usenet group readership posted to the newsgroup news.lists.

(^4^) The others are "Elaborate deadpan parodies of large intellectual
constructs"; "Jokes that involve screwily precise reasoning from bizarre,
ludicrous, or just grossly counter-intuitive premises"; "Fascination with
puns and wordplay"; "A fondness for apparently mindless humor with subversive
currents of intelligence in it" (Marx Bros., Monty Python); and "References
to the symbol-object antinomies and associated ideas in Zen Buddhism and
(less often) Taoism" (203-204).  All of these are common in the
Oracularities.

(^5^) Asked how Oracle conventions developed, Steve Kinzler replied,
"emergently.  Someone tries something in an Oracle question or answer, it
gets published in the Oracularities, everyone else reads it, catches on and
starts using it themselves.  The durable ones stick, the weak ones fade away"
(personal communication).

(^6^) Another of the highest-rated Oracularities manages to interpret Creation
in hackish terms at the same time that it satirizes the stereotyped male
hacker:

   The Usenet Oracle has pondered your question deeply.
   Your question was:

   > Why is it that most men suffer a complete loss [o]f personality when
   > exposed in any manner to a computer?
                                                                     [line 807]
   And in response, thus spake the Oracle:

   } In order to explain this I must detail the story of creation...
   }
   } In the beginning there was a Computer.  And God said to the computer
   } % vi creation.c
   } He then wrote the universe, and compiled it and it was good.
   } And God ran it in background, and saw that it was good.  He
   } then noticed that the Universe was eating CPU time and tried
   } to kill it, so that he could do his important work, which
   } was to determine the Ultimate Question of Life the Universe
   } and Everything.  The Operating System had a glitch and the
   } Universe could not be kill -9'd.
   }
   } It came to pass that a lady friend of His wanted to visit
   } with Him.  He snarled at her for the interruption.  Then Man,
   } being made in His image, forever duplicated this when being
   } interrupted by women while he was working on a computer.
   }
   } That is why men react poorly when being interrupted on the
   } computer.  It is a Divine trait.
   }
   } You owe the Oracle the source code for the Universe.  [175-10]


REFERENCES

Barthes, Roland.  "The Death of the Author."  In Image, Music, Text.
Trans. Stephen Heath.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Batson, Trent.  "ENFI and Drama."  EnfiLOG 1.1 (1992).

Bolter, Jay David.  Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History
of Writing.  Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991.

Charvat, William.  The Profession of Authorship in America, 1800-1870.
Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli.  Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1968.
                                                                     [line 845]
Ede, Lisa, and Andrea Lunsford.  Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives
on Collaborative Writing.  Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.

Forster, E. M.  Anonymity: An Enquiry.  London: Hogarth, 1925.

Foucault, Michel.  "What Is an Author?"  In Language, Counter-Memory,
Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews.  Ed. Donald F. Bouchard.  Trans.
Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon.  Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

Kamuf, Peggy.  Signature Pieces: On the Institution of Authorship.  Ithaca:
Cornell UP, 1988.

Poster, Mark.  The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social
Context.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Raymond, Eric S., ed.  The New Hacker's Dictionary.  Cambridge, Mass: MIT
P, 1991.

David Sewell      English Department            dsew@troi.cc.rochester.edu
                  University of Rochester

[ This essay in Volume 2 Number 5 of EJournal (December (2), 1992) is
(c) copyright EJournal.  Permission is hereby granted to give it away.
EJournal hereby assigns any and all financial interest to David Sewell.
This note must accompany all copies of this text. ]

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