From: (David Sewell)
Subject: Net Surfing is not Cyberspace (Was: Re: Special Issue of TIME)
Date: 15 Mar 1995 05:16:40 GMT

In article <>, Philip Elmer-DeWitt <> wrote:
>But this is all sort of beside the point, isn't it? Does anybody but Joel
>Furr really care?

Well--yes. I jumped into this discussion because when Joel said "there's no such thing as cyberspace" and blamed the popular press for making it up I thought he was overreacting by throwing the concept out along with its undeniable misuse.

When we get past semantics, though, I probably share Joel's anger at oversimplification. There has been a rash of irresponsible columns in recent months by people like Mike Royko who spend a few hours reading Usenet groups or clicking WWW icons and then write, "Oh, this Internet business is a crock." That kind of silliness is something that NEWSWEEK and TIME and most of the other major players are way past by now. But they may still be liable to a more dangerous error--it's in parts of the NEWSWEEK special issue, can't speak for the TIME features yet--by not conveying something I'll throw out as a manifesto:


A net surfer is to an inhabitant of cyberspace as a real surfer is to an oceanographer. (Or a manta ray...) Neither knows what's in the depths, and as a result they're basically passive consumers, of wind and wave on the one hand, of images and text on the other. If you go back to seminal characterizations like Gibson's or Vinge's in "True Names," the most striking thing about cyberspace is its 3-dimensionality. It's an extraordinarily complex matrix of data and the rules for manipulating it. Nodes and identities are not fixed, but are created or destroyed by people who understand the rules intimately. By hackers; by wizards.

Hackers are to the net surfer as a filmmaker is to a moviegoer, as a journalist is to a reader. Once you've learned enough about the SMTP protocol to figure out how to spoof a mail header, you're in the same relation to your medium as the film student learning how to handle a dissolve or a jump cut, or a reporter learning all the wonderful ways ellipsis can transform quotations. Beyond techno-hacking, there's what you might call rhetorical hacking, that consists of mastering the discourse conventions of Usenet, say, to the point where you can create a recognizable persona, change the terms of a debate, or otherwise wield verbal power here. Joel's a true hacker in that sense, one of the best, whether one likes what he does with his skill or not.

Point is, it takes a long discipline and probably native genius to be an adept in any formal medium, and cyberspace is no different. That's why a ga-ga article whose tenor is "install Netscape and become a Master of Cyberspace" arouses dangerously false expectations (it's like saying, "Get a remote control and become a Master of Broadcasting"!). Heck, not even putting up a WWW home page gives you superpowers; by itself, nowadays, it's not much better than sticking up a poster on a public bulletin board down at the supermarket, and likely to attract as much notice.

--So maybe that's why this spring we're going to see two books by former techno-geeks containing warnings along these lines--Clifford Stoll, with "Silicon Snake Oil," which was excerpted in Newsweek, and Steve Talbott, whose "The Future Does Not Compute" is coming out from O'Reilly. They've spent enough time mucking about with things like Unix syslogd, troff macros and X-Window documentation to have some sense of how much "power" clicking a button on a Web page confers. (BTW, full disclosure time, I'm copyediting the latter book, so this is a plug but not a mercenary one, since I don't get paid an extra cent if it sells a million copies.)

David Sewell  *   | "Night-walkers, wizards,
RADIOCARBON, Dep't of Geosciences, U of Arizona |  bacchanals, revellers,
  WWW:    |  sharers in the mysteries."
  Tel. 1-602-881-0857  Fax 1-602-881-0554       |              --Heraclitus  

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