scariest thing on the net?
I don't even know what to make of this article. He seems to totally switch
style at the sentence "Never mind that most of the Internet's acreage has
been staked and furrowed..." But I don't see, then, how the first part
really contributes *positively* to his conclusion. Maybe an editor gone
Anyway, I present:
March 30, 1997
>From Porn to Cults, The Net Looks Nasty
By GEORGE JOHNSON
For the techno-libertarians intent on keeping the abstract duchy called
cyberspace the freest of all lands, the last few months have been a
nightmare of bad vibrations rippling through what the electronic elite
derisively calls the "old media."
Every few days, it seems, television newscasts and newspapers carry reports
of unspeakable acts conducted over the Internet. Pedophiles and maybe even
prisoners trade pornography and tips on kidnapping, while trying to seduce
children in electronic chat-rooms.
Right-wing lunatics post recipes for explosives and rouse their members
with paranoid visions of immense conspiracies that only they can overthrow.
Earlier this year, the United States Parole Commission, alarmed at the
flotsam sifted from the data gurgling through the fiber optical pipes,
added a new item to the list of things federal parolees can be kept from
doing: owning firearms, drinking to excess, consorting with criminals, and
now, using a computer to access the Internet.
The horror stories about the crimes made possible by this powerfully
anarchic technology pale against the news last week that a cult of Southern
California computer enthusiasts, who supported themselves making Web pages
for businesses, committed mass suicide in preparation for a science-fiction
version of the Rapture, in which they would be beamed aboard a UFO hiding
behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
Taking phenobarbital like Communion wafers, and following the drug with
vodka chasers, they rested, shrouded in purple, and quietly awaited the
Anyone who spends much time randomly wandering the Web may have found their
delusion eerily familiar. For months rumors about the UFO and the comet
have festered in discussion groups and on Web pages all over the Net,
sharing space with speculation about military plots to blow up TWA Flight
800 and the federal building in Oklahoma City, or to destroy Zairians with
Ebola virus engineered in government labs.
The computer cult, with the sappy name Heaven's Gate, added to the group
hallucination, using its own Web site to spread an ideology that combined
Christianity and gnosticism with scenarios that could have come from
watching too many X-Files reruns while reading the Weekly World News.
But the weirdest thing about their cut-and-paste religion was that it
wasn't really so weird at all -- at least not on the Internet, where one
can leaf through digitally "enhanced" photos showing pyramids on Mars and a
second Sphinx -- linked, through some ethereal connection probably
involving resonating crystals, with the monuments of Egypt (which may have
been built with the help of enlightened extraterrestrials).
Never mind that most of the Internet's acreage has been staked and furrowed
for such respectable activities as collaborating on the Human Genome
Project or trading recipes for German chocolate cake.
In the public mind -- molded by news reports on the old media, which are
still more powerful and pervasive than anything on line -- the Internet is
starting to seem like a scary place, a labyrinth of electronic tunnels
hiding activities and obsessions as disturbing and seedy as anything Thomas
Pynchon has dreamed up.
Real or imagined, such feelings are ripe for political exploitation. This
became clear when Congress debated and hastily passed the Communications
Decency Act of 1996, which makes it a crime to leave indecent material out
on the Net where children can find it.
Earlier this month, the Clinton Administration -- the very same
Adminstration that promised to put every child on line -- went before the
Supreme Court to defend the act, which was held unconstitutional by lower
A lawyer for the administration described the Internet as "a revolutionary
means for displaying sexually explicit, patently offensive material to
children in the privacy of their own homes," of giving "every child a free
pass to every adult bookstore and video store."
As the now famous New Yorker cartoon put it, "On the Internet nobody knows
that you're a dog" -- or an 8-year-old closing the window on the Sesame
Street site to click over to alt.sex.necrophilia. Now the justices are left
to ponder whether the Internet should be treated like the telephone, on
which you should be allowed to say anything, or like television, where
content can be restricted for the public good.
In the meantime, the Heaven's Gate suicides can only amplify fears that, in
some quarters, may be already bordering on hysteria. The Internet, it
seems, might be used to lure children not only to shopping malls, where
some sicko awaits, but into joining UFO cults.
>From listening to some people's fears, one would think that Internet
bandwidth had increased to the point where a distant evil hacker could
download your mind.
As in the never-ending debates about television and violence, raised now to
a new hyperactive plane, the question is this: Is the Internet a source of
cultural sickness or just its reflection? And as with television, cause and
effect cannot be so easily untwisted.
A country where murder is frighteningly common naturally gives rise to TV
dramas about violence. And exposing millions of minds to fictional killing
night after night might help create a climate in which violence is more
likely to occur. The effect is nonlinear, like the reverberative howl
arising from a microphone held too close to a loudspeaker.
On the Net everyone can reach out and touch at random, in a way that's
somewhat different from blindly dialing digits on a telephone pad. The
Internet is the most efficient incubator yet of ideas both ennobling and
debased. Each computer terminal is a shiny surface, reflecting not just
things in the real world but things in the simulated reality of the
In this wilderness-of-mirrors, a single string of mutant thoughts can be
replicated over and over, distorted in the Internet funhouse until the
result is impossible to untangle.
Somehow the slick design of Web pages -- so easily accomplished with a few
dabs of Java and a cursory knowledge of the computer language called HTML
-- adds credence to outlandish ideas.
Confusing medium and message in a way that might have made Marshall McLuhan
sick, people don't want to remember the obvious: that all the alarming
things on the Internet have been around forever.
In late February, when a Nobel prize-winning scientist, Dr. Daniel Carleton
Gajdusek, pleaded guilty to a charge of child molestation, news accounts
zeroed in on the fact that he was snared in a federal investigation of
child pornography on the Internet.
Gajdusek didn't meet the boy he admitted molesting in a cyberspace
chat-room. But investigators apparently became suspicious of the scientist
after they noticed Internet pedophiles discussing journals -- published by
the National Institutes of Health -- in which he mentioned his sexual
encounters with boys in Micronesia.
Slight as the Internet connection really was, it seemed to add to the
seediness of the situation -- one more shred in an accumulating pile of
evidence that there are networks of people lurking out there with alien
values, and that anyone, any age, might stumble onto them with a mouse
Not all the connections are so thinly drawn. A month after the scientist's
guilty plea, a man in New York City was accused by the Suffolk County
district attorney of using the Internet to conspire with an accomplice in
North Carolina to take turns raping, torturing and sodomizing a 14-year-old
The very next day a Minnesota prison inmate was indicted by a federal grand
jury for conspiring to traffic in child pornography over the Internet.
Among the bytes on his disk was an annotated list of thousands of children
from small towns in Minnesota: "latchkey kids," "cute," "Little Ms. pageant
The Long Island case is horrible enough that it would have made news even
if the accused men had talked on the telephone or exchanged postcards. But
would the case of the Minnesota prisoner have seemed quite so sensational
if he had kept his list in a spiral notebook? Corrections officials said at
the time that there was no evidence that the children's names had actually
been distributed over the Internet.
As early as 1975, the leaders of Heaven's Gate, Bo and Peep, were
recruiting lost souls. And back then, the most powerful personal computers
available were Texas Instrument pocket calculators.
"The Two," as they also called themselves, drew the curious to meetings by
posting notices with thumbtacks on bulletin boards made the old-fashioned
way, with cork and wood.
Maybe the Internet, with its ability to rapidly and efficiently bring
together a hodgepodge of miscreants, was an important part of the group's
later devolution. But it may be just as reasonable to blame the phenobarb
and vodka cocktails they sipped like wine from the chalice of their strange
In the end, maybe the uneasy feelings about the Internet come from seeing
all the old plagues and sins recast in an unfamiliar new form. An ancient
accumulation of inchoate fears has become focused inside this high-profile
medium, made more easily touchable -- and, it's tempting to believe, easier
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