Rants & Essays

Web-Lash

By Paul Somerson

Quick - what's the most dangerous threat to us all? Sarin-filled subways? Russian plutonium smugglers? Government bureaucrats? Cults arming against government bureaucrats? Disgruntled postal workers? Pat Robertson? Hot McDonald's take-out coffee? Guess again. Ask a growing number of boneheads out there and they'll tell you public enemy No. 1 is none other than the World Wide Web.

You can't turn on a TV or skim a newspaper these days without stumbling over hordes of shrill technophobes urging regulators to pull the plug and shut the whole Internet down.

Their new bogeyperson is the radical right wacko, now that online recipe-swapping sometimes involves ingredients like fertilizer and fuel oil. The week after the tragedy in Oklahoma, trash TV was filled with wild-eyed discoveries that, yes, extremists use the Internet, too. There was even an erroneous flash on one tabloid news show that prime bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh had an American Online account - as if this by itself was a crime, or proof of something dark and evil.

Another bugbear is the Harassment and Victimization Brigade. These single-issue cranks see the online world simply as a vehicle for words and thoughts they don't agree with. They browse the Net for strong language, unwelcome speech, inappropriate laughter. Recently, Representative Kweisi Mfume even introduced an insanely broad "Electronic Anti-Stalking Act" that gives these losers a First Amendment-bashing club. Use that smiley-faced emoticon wrong, buster, and you're in big trouble.

And there are always the antisex freaks. Breathless TV accounts have convinced them that the entire Internet is essentially a vast network of digital deviants bent on ensnaring their young, and an endless unsolicited torrent of multimedia smut pulsating down the phone lines, a pornucopia of perversion.

While it's true that knowledgeable Web-crawlers can check out exotic newsgroups like alt.binaries.nude.celebrities (where you can see "Willard Scott Nekkid"), the average user won't have a clue about how to find, download, and view such material.

Now there's even a whole new book zapping the Net: Silicon Snake Oil, by Clifford Stoll. Better known for his The Cuckoo's Egg exploits, Stoll savages the Net as an overhyped, dehumanizing waste of time for drones and asocial dorks. He complains it's an "ostrich hole" that diverts us from solving social problems and prevents us from planting tomatoes (I'm not making this up). He castigates schools for buying PCs instead of more books. For more than 200 rambling pages, he ticks off a long list of online benefits and then tries to punch holes in every single one. Frankly, his reasons are often a little, well…cuckoo.

Memo to all these whiners and trouble-makers: Lighten up. And take advantage of the technology instead of trying to kill it.