Entropy Gradient Reversals
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An Internet Relay Chat
On the Future of Discourse

Like many today, we here at EGR often wonder how New Media options are affecting the quality of public debate and intellectual exchange in our society. Are they enabling us to become better informed or just making us dumber faster? Are they helping us to appreciate "how the other half lives," or forcing us to witness a freak show unrivaled since the fall of Rome? In short, what overall impact are fast-emerging communication technologies having on human discourse?

To find out, EGR assembled a panel of experts representing a broad array of professional involvement, from media to government to technology to the social sciences. In this selection, our intent was to go beyond the hand-wringing reports of imminent ethical collapse typified by commentators such as Clifford Stoll (Silicon Snake Oil) and Stephen L. Talbott (The Future Does Not Compute), while at the same time avoiding the pro-technology histrionics of a Nicholas Negroponte (Being Digital).

Without further ado, we introduce our star-studded panel.

The Envelope Please...

Vinton Cerf
Often referred to as the "Father of the Internet," Dr. Cerf was among the inventors of TCP/IP and other critical Internet technologies.

For most of us, this popular singer and comedienne needs no further introduction.

Umberto Eco
Italian semiologist whose most recent scholarly work is The Search for the Perfect Language, as well as author of popular novels including The Name of the Rose and -- currently on The NY Times Best Seller chart -- The Island of the Day Before.

Al Gore
Vice President of the United States of America and coiner of the term "information superhighway."

Mary Elizabeth "Tipper" Gore
The Second Lady -- or as the whitehouse.gov server puts it, "VP_Wife" -- who has a long record of concern with propriety in the Arts.

Ice T
Gangsta rapper extraordinaire and successful cross-over movie star. You name it, Ice has "been there/done that."

Newt Gingrich
U.S. Congressional Representative to the state of Georgia and Speaker of the House. A longtime pal of cyberspace.

Donna Hoffman
Professor at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management and ubiquitously quoted source on Internet marketing and culture.

William H. "Bill" Gates, III
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft Corporation, a man with big plans for the Internet.

Camile Paglia
Contrarian culture critic; author of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson.

Al Franken
Saturday Night Live comic and author of the currently best-selling Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot.

Oprah Winfrey
Noted television talk show host and all-around curious individual.

Janet Reno
Seventy-eighth Attorney General of the United States, and the first woman to be named to the post.

Theodore J. Kaczynski
Widely suspected to be the Unabomber.

Anthea Disney
CEO of HarperCollins and former editor-in-chief of Newscorp's iGuide Internet site, as well as editor-in-chief of TV Guide and executive producer of A Current Affair.

To Protect the Innocent

To protect our guests' identities in the remarks that follow, each was assigned a random IRC handle for this chat session. These are listed here:

And Now, The Chat

Session Start: Mon May 13 18:02:04 1996
*** Now talking in #tongues

<EGR> As you already know from previous email, our theme is how electronic media are affecting public discourse. That said, let's get right into it.
<infoDad> Well, I think we should remember where all this came from in the first place
<boomer> From the military-industrial complex you mean? I suppose you'd like to see technology take over every aspect of our lives.
<StationBreak> What about the incredible amount of pornography on the Internet. That concerns me very much.
<bigchill> What do you think, StationBreak, do white people have rhythm? That's what I'd like to know.
<hitman> And that's the kind of irresponsible "thinking" I deplore. But what were we supposed to be talking about again?
* labyrinth wonders what virgin is wearing underneath...
<infoDad> There isn't a thing on God's earth I'd rather see.
<minnie> I think we need to be thinking more in terms of the mass market -- turning the net into one. But that's going to require some big changes.
<EGR> labyrinth, please! Say more about that, minnie. What kinds of changes?
* labyrinth wonders what virgin is wearing underneath...
<EGR> Didn't you once say something about "mass customization"?
* virgin smacks labyrinth with a large trout
<pg13> What's going on here? Why is labyrinth doing that?
* labyrinth smacks pg13 with a large trout
* fingertips wants in on this side action
<boomer> It's just late-capitalist frivolity you're seeing play out here pg13. Not to worry over much...
* elvis invites fingertips to explore more deeply
<pg13> But what does it mean about the trout and everything?
* ditto steps on elvis blue suede shoes
<bigfat> LOL boomer. a real howler, pal.
* infoDad smacks boomer with large late-capitalist flounder
* whacko wants to know if trout is some kind of underground code word
<StationBreak> This has already degenerated into something far worse than television. Not that I can't see possibilities...
<labyrinth> The trout/flounder is a ludic semaphore. A sign indicating an invitation to play.
<minnie> To get back to mass markets though...
<EGR> Yes people, let's do try to keep this on track if we can
<pg13> But why a fish? Is it some kind of Judeo-Christian thing?
<labyrinth> Well, since you mention that
<EGR> labyrinth: NO!
<minnie> we need to create a way to customize the experience of online for the individual.
* do-me wants mail from 14/m west virginia. and more!
<hornydude> will 15 do you, do-me?
<EGR> Sorry folks, we seem to be getting a little bleed-over from the undernet.
<whacko> Come again?
<virgin> Just did, thanks.
* bigchill wonders wazup with elvis
<EGR> And how would you do that, minnie?
<minnie> well, I think you need to begin by profiling expectations and desires
* elvis wonders wazup with virgin
<EGR> that's very interesting. but how?
* elvis says profile *THIS*, girlfriend!
<footnote> I think before we start slicing up the market we should explore how this medium differs in fundamental respects from broadcast. I'm not sure you can satisfy the same set of commercial expectations on the net -- certainly not by traditional means.
<fingertips> Well, I've got a big stake in this becoming a mass market, though I agree that the methods to reach and develop it raise a completely new set of challenges.
<StationBreak> Personally, I was more clear on the fish.
<hitman> No, that's right, and these new realities are totally in keeping with what we've been saying about dysfunctional scale. Big government is addicted to control, but will have to relinquish it here.
<bigfat> Oh yeah, right. like you're not in the back pocket of big *business*!
<whacko> This administration is impartial about the size of a business. We are committed to equal treatment under the law.
<bigchill> Burn em *all* to the waterline, zat it?
<ditto> Don't be ridiculous, but I'm sure you'd agree that we need some form of controls, both on informational content and to regulate fairness in business practices.
* pg13 whacks ditto with large trout
<minnie> It's the market that will decide these matters, not government. So I think the exercise is more than a bit academic.
<virgin> way to go PG13! you're getting the hang of it now
* labyrinth checks for strange bedfellows. finds none at all.
* elvis is not surprised after reading his books.
<boomer> So-called market forces and government both stem from a common root. Is there nothing beyond control and money for you people?
<bigchill> Depends which "you people" you talkin...
<StationBreak> Remember when Ross Perot said that? That was rich.
<EGR> We seem to have several threads going here. What about our central theme: discourse itself?
<labyrinth> Well, disjoint new forms are quite clearly appearing. Rather than celebrating individual creativity, they focus on a kind of tribal weaving of a new social fabric via communal construction of an endless albeit entirely ephemeral text. From the Latin "tex, texere," to weave. An electronic palimpsest if you will. Perhaps IRC is to the 20th Century what the novels -- that is, the "new things" -- of Rabelais and Cervantes were to the 16th and 17th.
<elvis> Already been suggested. Has to have been.
<bigchill> Dis course, dat course. Whatever. Nobody ever addressed my rhythm question.
<EGR> Assumed you were kidding, bigchill, but maybe that's actually apropos.
* pg13 wonders if a propos is another kind of fish...
<labyrinth> I think bigchill's question is hugely relevant. What we are circling around here is the notion of natural language communities, if I may conflate two phrases.
* virgin wants to watch labyrinth do that
<EGR> Say more labyrinth.
<infoDad> I hope we're not talking some racial thing here. Plus, labyrinth, I am an engineer and prefer simple, straightforward language if you could.
<fingertips> ditto that.
<ditto> that what?
<fingertips> No, not you, ditto. I meant ditto what infoDad said.
* elvis wonders who's on first...
* virgin explains that -- to the contrary -- Who's on second
<boomer> Can't you see that none of this matters a rat's ass? You are all just diddling with symptoms.
<bigfat> Like TCP/IP and ATM and HTTP are clear, infoDad? Give me a ludic semaphore any day.
* StationBreak hands bigfat a ludic semaphore
* bigfat humbly accepts StationBreak's generous gift
<labyrinth> Well, community is *the* thing online. If I may rephrase bigchill's rhythm question I took it to be asking whether the pre-digital hegemonic culture offered much support for group process. As socially construed, this would include such things as dance and various public games. The black community, not the white, gave rise to rap, a preponderantly linguistic gaming phenomenon that came out of a practice called "signifying" -- right so far, bigchill?
<bigchill> Yeah, I'm down with that.
<pg13> Well, I'm down ON that. Most of it is pure filth.
<ditto> I'd have to agree with pg13 on that. Though it's unfortunate that the racial association is so often invoked. But that's because
<bigchill> yo: *FUCK* you ditto you mush-mouthed liberal scumbag
<hitman> As you know, bigchill, I feel the same way about Liberals, and that's why we've proposed
<virgin> and fuck you too, hitman, you sorry sack of shit. you want to play Truth or Dare, motherfucker?
* bigfat takes notes furiously for next Big Book
* elvis *loves* it when y'all talk dirty
* pg13 smacks everyone with several very large trout and logs off
<ditto> honey?
* StationBreak is glad she's not gonna be at ditto's house for dinner
<labyrinth> So I think the question reduces to whether there is in fact "a white community" in the same sense we refer to "the black community." Of course, there is no single monolithic community in either case, yet the question remains an interesting one.
<bigchill> You trackin, labyrinth. Not bad, bro.
<boomer> This could actually get interesting...
* labyrinth takes elegant little European bow
<infoDad> I have to say I am utterly at sea in this discussion. What just happened?
<elvis> Seems Italy and Africa just formed an alliance against Whitebread Amerika.
<footnote> But you're not considering the kids in this, I think. There's a new generation on the net that doesn't bring the usual legacy baggage, regardless of race.
<boomer> But not, notice, regardless of economic status. You want to whitewash technology as some New Age messiah, but it reinforces all the mechanisms that generate alienation in the first place. Good luck.
* StationBreak wonders if boomer's ever been on TV
<boomer> Forget it lady.
<EGR> So you're saying the whole notion of "virtual communities" is an oxymoron, at base?
* virgin used to do her wash with OxyMoron. Whiter whites!
<infoDad> I don't see that technology is any different today, essentially, than it was for Neolithic man. We've always tried to make machines of one type or another to lighten the burden of work.
<elvis> Didn't do much for Neolithic woman though I bet.
<EGR> I hate to say this, but unfortunately we're out of time -- and just as we've surfaced so many intriguing themes. I'm afraid we're going to have to cut it off here.
* virgin wants to watch EGR do that
<EGR> While I don't think we've reached any firm conclusions about the state of discourse in the electronic media, some fascinating questions have certainly been raised by all this
* minnie wonders which ones
<EGR> and I hope we can do it again -- if our readers like this sort of thing, of course.
<boomer> Market forces at work again.
<footnote> Oh shut up, butthead. It's free.
* whacko promises herself to {{{never}}} do this a second time.
* EGR thanks footnote for that gracious footnote.
* ditto reminds everyone to vote in November.
* hitman reminds everyone to vote DOLE in November
* boomer longs for a bag of fertilizer and a little 40-weight
* labyrinth winks at all the girls and bids them good night. high-fives bigchill.
* fingertips decides to rethink his Internet strategy. Again.

Session Close: Mon May 13 19:08:22 1996

Entropy Gradient Reversals
All Noise - All the Time


Some of you have asked whether I'm still at IBM. Absolutely. Of course, the views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the organization as a whole. Just in case you wondered.


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                                     Entropy Gradient Reversals
                                     CopyLeft Christopher Locke


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