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Online America - 22 September 1995

Two newspaper headlines only a day or two apart: "Computer Stings Gain Favour As Pornography Increases," and "Internet Pioneer Has Second Thoughts On The Information Highway." If the association between these two headlines is unclear at the moment, bear with me, hear me out as an old Russian friend of mine used to say whenever he said something totally baffling.

The two pieces that bore these headlines were about the daily march of technology, but they reflected a new misgiving. Up to now, in my experience, most pieces on technology have been devoted to marvelling at the resources of inquisitiveness the computer has made available throughout society.

The first and most worrisome misgiving is summarised in that first headline: "Computer Stings Gain Favour As Pornography Increases." Government people have suspected for some time that very suspicious exchanges were going on between customers of America's largest computer network – the signs of an underground industry in child pornography – sent a team of federal agents, going undercover, and moving into the network as customers looking to buy or traffic in child pornography. And last week they arrested a dozen actual customers and in the process, unveiled and put on a news network's television screen, a long page of services and numbers and pictures under a sub section of the letter "c".

Now I suppose there are as many topics on this network under "c" as you would find in, I was going to say any dictionary, but it's the splendour and the horror of America online, and all other computer networks, that they contain under any topic the accumulated information of a dozen dictionaries and as many encyclopaedias as the system chose to feed in.

However, if you were a child pornography addict, all you had to do was manipulate the mouse to see, surf through the various subsections that don't interest you like cricket, church history, Churchill, somehow swivel back to child. And after ignoring childcare, childhood diseases, childhood literature you'd come on this appalling shopping list under the printed general heading: child pornography, offering movies and stills of sex acts between infants, between 10 year old boys and middle-aged men, between small girls and married men and on and on through mind shattering variations that even the most liberated liberal would, I believe, call perversions. By the way, I facetiously mentioned that on the way to your speciality you would bypass childcare. One of the people arrested ran a childcare centre in a Chicago suburb, and on the side fed, into the computer images of nude little girls not yet into their teens involved visibly in relations with adult males.

The easy availability of these horrors to anyone who is into America Online, is what got Congress steamed up about a movement, which until now, has been a question of whether it was legal to raid sex shops selling child pornography. You would think that everybody would want to make this traffic illegal and to put the traffickers behind bars, but you guessed it, there are people with shining good intentions, even a national organisation of very respectable reputation, that resists the notion of prosecution. They maintain in this, as in many other examples of stretching the first amendment to the breaking point, they maintain that the right of freedom of speech and of assembly must not be infringed, and they quote as I've done, in I must say other instances, Justice Holmes's classic remark: "Freedom of speech means freedom for the speech we loathe".

But I do believe sooner than later the political parties are going to agree on a bill that draws the line for once between the right of free speech and the right to degrade and defile small children in the name of liberty. The pornography theme is only the most gross of the ways in which the computer network's being used to perform more plainly definable crimes: money laundering flourishes on an already grand scale, much simpler than flying agents from one country to another and dropping in on carefully shielded banks, trading stocks can already be faked or misaddressed and pretty soon every other normal daily chore, or what the government calls "consumer related activities" like paying bills or shopping. There are uncounted thousands perhaps millions of people across the country who first tune into the national cable television shopping network 24 hours a day and then feed their choices or bargain bids into the computer. And wouldn't you know, there is already a civil rights outfit ever alert to the liberties of the subject that deplores the role of those government agents in pretending to be customers in order to unveil the wretched purveyors of pornography. It's something called the 'Electronic Privacy Information Center' which proclaims itself a research centre specialising in the protection of privacy since the intrusion of technology. The argument of its director is this: you won't know, when you're online, whether you're talking to an investment broker or to an undercover agent. Of course this has always been the argument against police or a detective force using fakers at all and will probably never be resolved to the satisfaction of everybody.

The second headline expresses the growing doubts, not of neophytes on the outside, or people like me with manual typewriters, but of the in-people you might say, the internet people themselves. That headline was remember: "Internet Pioneer Has Second Thoughts On The Information Highway." His name is Clifford Stoll and he starts the ball of doubts rolling by saying for an insider a shocking thing: "You lead a much more shallow life online than you do in the real world".

Now this put far more boldly than I dared, what I said last weekend to a grandson who told me how much easier and how much faster, how much altogether better my writing would be if I switched to a computer: "You can shift paragraphs, come back later redraft in an instant." I said, with as much controlled passion as I could manage: "But computers don't write better prose they don't produce better writing, that's to say they don't feel deeper or think more clearly. And as for the gift of redrafting and switching paragraphs," I said. "It happens with me that I do the editing in my head before I put it down. I don't like to write an approximate sentence and expect to improve it later on. I've never written a draft of anything. I know this is very fussy but it's my style." "But speed, speed," he insisted. Speed, I thought back, has nothing to do with quality.

Hemmingway wrote 100 words a day rarely more. Flaubert could sweat over a sentence for hours, whereas Balzac wrote 3000 words a day and so was able to write a single novel or novel sequence in, what was it, 44 volumes.

What I didn't say was what has often haunted me when I've been inclined to bang out a word that's not quite right in the hope later on of making it perfect. It's a line of Mark Twain's and I suddenly realise I'd spoil it if I didn't prepare you for an American usage that's not the same in British English. What England calls a firefly, Americans call a lightening bug – I hope it doesn't blunt the point of Mark Twain's fine line – this was it: "The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug".

There's another professor at New York University – we have six, seven, eight universities in this city – and he's not an outsider, he's a technocrat, interested however as few technocrats seem to be, in studying the relative efficiency and inefficiency of various new technologies. "Our society," he says "is one in which all forms of cultural life are now subordinate to technology." The first point he makes is it cannot be stopped, but its progress ought to be the steady concern of public debate. Of every new technology he says we ought to ask: "What problem is it going to solve, whose problem is it, will solving it create other unanticipated problems?" The ideal procedure he believes is a debate in Congress, which happened after the invention of the Concorde. Congress decided that getting from New York to Los Angeles in three hours instead of six wasn't worth the hideous extra cost and wouldn't benefit many Americans, so the United States abandoned its plans for supersonic transport. The professor believes there ought to be much more public scrutiny of computers, for example, nobody has questioned the general decision to put computers in all the schools, but he says there is little evidence that they help children solve problems better or faster.

There's another book out by yet another sceptic, it's called Rebels Against The Future: The Luddites And Their War On The Industrial Revolution, and it recalls the English handicraftsmen in the early 19th century who rioted nationwide against the new textile machinery that robbed them of their jobs, and the book goes on to project a similar fate for legions of skilled workers of all sorts who are being shed, by the mergers of great corporations and banks, by the development of voicemail, by the bypassing of what you might call flesh to flesh contact on our telephones, so the emergence of a more or less permanently unemployed population of the skilled. That portends, says the author, the dangers of great social unrest, and that must be the concern of another talk, and I hope, of another century.


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