Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cybercultureby Mark Dery
"Flame Wars," the verbal firefights that take place between disembodied combatants on electronic bulletin boards, remind us that our interaction with the world is increasingly mediated by computers. Bit by digital bit we are being "Borged," as devotees of Star Trek: The Next Generation would have it—transformed into cyborgian hybrids of technology and biology through our ever more frequent interaction with machines, or with one another through technological interfaces.
The subcultural practices of the "incurably informed," to borrow the cyberpunk novelist Pat Cadigan’s coinage, offer a precognitive glimpse of mainstream culture in the near future, when many of us will be part-time residents in virtual communities. Yet, as the essays in this expanded edition of a special issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly confirm, there is more to fringe computer culture than cyberspace. Within these pages, readers will encounter flame warriors; new age mutant ninja hackers; technopagans for whom the computer is an occult engine; and William Gibson’s "Agrippa," a short story on software that can only be read once because it gobbles itself up as soon as the last page is reached. Here, too, is Lady El, an African American cleaning woman reincarnated as an all-powerful cyborg; devotees of on-line swinging, or "compu-sex"; the teleoperated weaponry and amok robots of the mechanical performance art group, Survival Research Laboratories; an interview with Samuel Delany, and more.
Rallying around Fredric Jameson’s call for a cognitive cartography that "seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of place in the global system," the contributors to Flame Wars have sketched a corner of that map, an outline for a wiring diagram of a terminally wired world.
Contributors. Anne Balsamo, Gareth Branwyn, Scott Bukatman, Pat Cadigan, Gary Chapman, Erik Davis, Manuel De Landa, Mark Dery, Julian Dibbell, Marc Laidlaw, Mark Pauline, Peter Schwenger, Vivian Sobchack, Claudia Springer
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The Discourse of Cyberculture
By Mark Dery
Duke University PressCopyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Flame wars, in compu-slang, are vitriolic online exchanges. Often, they are conducted publicly, in discussion groups clustered under thematic headings on electronic bulletin boards, or—less frequently—in the form of poison pen letters sent via E-mail to private mailboxes. John A. Barry's definition of "flame" (n., v.) as "a (usually) electronic diatribe" suggests that such exchanges occasionally take place off-line, although denizens of computer networks are putatively PC junkies and hence likely to prefer virtual invective to FTF (on-line shorthand for "face-to-face") tongue-lashings.
Then, too, the wraithlike nature of electronic communication—the flesh become word, the sender reincarnated as letters floating on a terminal screen—accelerates the escalation of hostilities when tempers flare; disembodied, sometimes pseudonymous combatants tend to feel that they can hurl insults with impunity (or at least without fear of bodily harm). Moreover, Email missives or "posts" seem to encourage misinterpretation in the same way that written correspondence sometimes does. Like "snailmail" (compu-slang for conventional letters), electronic messages must be interpreted without the aid of Nonverbal cues or what sociolinguist Peter Farb calls "paralanguage"—expressive vocal phenomena such as pitch, intensity, stress, tempo, and volume. The importance of body language is universally conceded, of course; books on the subject are staples of the supermarket checkout stand. Paralanguage, Farb writes, is no less essential to accurate reading: "No protestation by a speaker that he is uttering the truth is equal to the nonverbal confirmation of his credibility contained in the way he says it." Both, significantly, are missing from on-line, text-based interaction, which may account for the umbrage frequently taken at innocently intended remarks. It accounts, too, for the cute use of punctuation to telegraph facial expressions. Here is a key for some commonly used "emoticons," defined in The New Hacker's Dictionary as "glyph[s] ... used to indicate an emotional state" (read them sideways):
:-) = smiley face; used to underscore a user's good intentions.
:) or, less frequently, :} = variations on the same theme.
;) = wink; used to indicate sardonic humor or a tongue-in-cheek quip ("nudge, nudge; wink, wink").
:( = sadness, sometimes used facetiously.
Of course, no signaling system, as one "net surfer" observes, is foolproof:
Shit happens, especially on the Net, where everyone speaks with flattened affect. I think the attempt to signal authorial intent with little smileys is interesting but futile. They're subject to slippage like any other kind of sign. The bottom line is, anyone who plans to spend time on-line has to grow a few psychic calluses.
Electronic notes, posted in group discussions, differ from hand- or typewritten letters in several significant ways. Like public bathroom graffiti, their authors are sometimes anonymous, often pseudonymous, and almost always strangers. Which is the upside of incorporeal interaction: a technologically enabled, postmulticultural vision of identity disengaged from gender, ethnicity, and other problematic constructions. On line, users can float free of biological and sociocultural determinants, at least to the degree that their idiosyncratic language usage does not mark them as white, black, college-educated, a high-school dropout, and so on. "There is no visual contact, no hearing of accents," says Wayne Gregori, a thirty-five-year-old computer consultant who runs SFNet. "People are judged on the content of what they say."
Posts are read and responded to by computer users scattered across the Internet, the global meta-network that comprises information services such as Bitnet; the private, academic, and government laboratories interwoven by NSFNET (the National Science Foundation Network); mainstream networks such as America On-line and CompuServe; and smaller, more esoteric bulletin boards like San Francisco's WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) and New York's MindVOX. (Mitch Kapor, founder of the Lotus Development Corporation, once compared the Internet to a "library where all of the books are dumped on the floor in no particular order.") But unlike profundities scrawled on rest-room stalls (which always seem, somehow, as if they belong on the walls of Pompeian ruins), on-line conversations exhibit a curious half-life; as the reader scrolls down-screen, scanning the lively back-and-forth of a discussion that may go back weeks, months, or even years, he experiences the puns, philippics, true confessions, rambling dissertations, and Generation X-er one-liners as if they were taking place in real time—which, for the reader watching them flow past on his screen, they are.
On occasion, one might stumble onto a flame war, although verbal brawling lowers the tone of colloquia and is therefore frowned upon. In the WELL's Mondo 2000 conference, users take their disputes outside the topic, into the virtual version of the back alley—a topic-cum-boxing ring called "Flame Box," where they may roll up their sleeves and pummel each other witless. Witlessness, in fact, was the order of the day in the flame war I witnessed, where squabblers seemed to specialize in a baroque slacker-babble related to the mock-Shakespearean put-downs used by Alex on his droogies in A Clockwork Orange: "Look, you syphilitic bovine harpy," "You heaving purulent mammoth," "Get thine swampy effluvia away from me, you twitching gelatinous yolk of rancid smegma," and on, and on. "This standoff will probably end in Koreshian glory," predicted one user, with thinly disguised relish.
In some ways, flame wars are a less ritualized, cybercultural counterpart to the African-American phenomenon known as "the dozens," in which duelists one-up each other with elaborate, sometimes rhyming gibes involving the sexual exploits of each other's Mothers. At their best, flame wars give way to tour-de-force jeremiads called "rants"—demented soliloquies that elevate soapbox demagoguery to a guerrilla art form. Characterized by fist-banging punctuation, emphatic capitals, and the kill-'em-all-and-let-God-sort-'em-out rhetoric patented by Hunter S. Thompson, rants are spiritual kin to Antonin Artaud's blasphemous screeds and the Vorticist harangues in Wyndham Lewis's Blast. Here is a classic, written by a female user who calls herself "outrider":
Never give in, never submit. Or just never go out of your house anymore. In twenty years this will be Life: stay home all the time because it's too dangerous to go out/you can't eat red meat in public/or sugar either/or grease/and you damn sure can't smoke; get all stimuli, info, human contact, groceries, money, etc. on your computer. All materials will be delivered by heavily armed people in tanks: they must cross the moat filled with piranha, crocodiles, and weird water-borne disease organisms, and also pass the security check that keeps them from getting Swiss-cheesed by the remote control firepower in the gun turrets at the razorwire perimeter, then they have to pass the DNA identity scanner at the last portal—and they absolutely refuse ALL TIPS AND GRATUITIES. After a pleasant meal of micronuked frozen blah, you can jump onto the Net and read the Daily Horros in the form of movingpicto-news; go to the library and download the original French version of Madame Bovary and a decent French dictionary. Read in the comfort of your cozy warm bed, safe behind triple-wall steel constructed building. Pet your cat/ dog. Clean your arsenal. Sleep. Dream of a more lifelike life ... remember the olden days when you could walk outside in the Night and go places, when you could drive safely from here to there ... go back to sleep.
This special issue's title is intentionally ironic. The tone, as in most intellectual discourse, is decorous; there are no flame wars here, and no rants in the proper sense (although Tricia Rose's inspired peroration on feminist mothers as "the most dangerous muthafuckahs out there," with its call for "feminist women to have as much power and as many babies as they want to, creating universes of feminist children," comes close). Even so, the compu-slang title reminds us that our interaction with the world around us is increasingly mediated by computer technology, and that, bit by digital bit, we are being "Borged," as devotees of Star Trek: The Next Generation would have it—transformed into cyborgian hybrids of technology and biology through our ever-more-frequent interactions with machines, or with one another through technological interfaces.
(According to Clark Fife, who works at New York's Forbidden Planet sci-fi bookstore and memorabilia shop, a cap-and-T-shirt set produced by a merchandiser to capitalize on the inexplicable appeal of the Borg—implacable Star Trek villains who function as a "hive mind," or collective entity, and whose bleached flesh is interpenetrated by fetishistic high-tech prostheses—have proven wildly popular. According to Fife, the Borg are popular because they resonate with the cyberpunk sensibility and because "they're symbols of technological victimization that appeal to people." Simultaneously, their cultish following bespeaks a pervasive desire among sci-fi readers, Star Trek fans, and other members of fringe technoculture to sheathe the body in an impenetrable carapace, render it invincible through mechatronic augmentation—a hypostatization, perhaps, of a creeping body-loathing congruent with the growing awareness that wires are twined through all of our lives, that our collective future is written on confetti-sized flakes of silicon.)
Jejune though they may seem, flame wars merit serious consideration; offering ample evidence of the subtle ways in which on-line group psychology is shaped by the medium itself, these subcultural practices offer a precognitive glimpse of mainstream culture a few years from now, when ever-greater numbers of Americans will be part-time residents in virtual communities. As Gareth Branwyn notes in "Compu-Sex: Erotica for Cybernauts," the "rate of growth for new computer networks joining the Internet is 25 percent every three months," an astonishing statistic that attests to the explosion of interest in electronic interconnectedness. Approximately 10 million people frequent electronic bulletin boards, and their ranks are growing by the score. A WELL employee told me, shortly after the appearance of Time magazine's 8 February 1993 cover story on cyberpunk, that the bulletin board's population—already 3,000 strong—had swollen by several thousand more. "People call and ask, 'Is this the cyberspace?'" he said.
Indeed, it is—"the desert of the real," where the shreds of the territory, to invoke Baudrillard, "are slowly rotting across the map." Those who spend an inordinate amount of time connected by modem via telephone lines to virtual spaces often report a peculiar sensation of "thereness"; prowling from one conference to another, eavesdropping on discussions in progress, bears an uncanny resemblance to wandering the hallways of some labyrinthine mansion, poking one's head into room after room. "One of the most striking features of the WELL," observed a user named Ioca, "is that it actually creates a feeling of 'place.' I'm staring at a computer screen. But the feeling really is that I'm 'in' something; I'm some 'where.'"
Virtual-reality interfaces, facilitated by high-bandwidth information highways of the sort proposed by the Clinton administration, will concretize Ioca's "feeling of 'place'"; at last, there will be a "there" there. Using current developments as a springboard, one might imagine users in head-tracking 3-D goggles, a quadriphonic sound system embedded in the goggles' earpieces. As the user looks up, down, or from side to side, the computer's high-speed program animates the world—and its soundscape—accordingly, creating the illusion of a 360-degree, real-time hyperreality. Howard Rheingold completes the sensorium with the sense of touch, imagining high-tech body stockings that "know" where their wearer's limbs are in space. The inner surfaces of these suits would be covered with
an array of intelligent sensor-effectors—a mesh of tiny tactile detectors coupled to vibrators of varying degrees of hardness, hundreds of them per square inch, that can receive and transmit a realistic sense of tactile presence.
Plugging into the global telephone network, the user connects with similarly equipped individuals or groups. All appear to each other as believable fictions: lifelike characters inhabiting a three-dimensional environment. (Reality, here, is mutable, evoking Greg Tate's mock-serious vision of the defaced, re-faced Michael Jackson as "harbinger of a transracial tomorrow where genetic deconstruction has become the norm and Narcissism wears the face of all human Desire"; gender, ethnicity, age, and other variables can be altered with a keystroke or two.) "You run your hand over your partner's clavicle," imagines Rheingold, "and 6,000 miles away, an array of effectors [is] triggered, in just the right sequence, at just the right frequency, to convey the touch exactly the way you wish it to be conveyed."
It must be noted, however, that virtual embodiment of the Rheingoldian sort is an early to mid-twenty-first-century technology. It would require a global fiber-optic network in concert with massively parallel supercomputers capable of monitoring and controlling the numberless sensors and effectors fitted to every hill and dale, plane and protuberance of the body's topography. Then, too, a reticulated fabric of safe, high-speed micro-vibrators is only a mirage, given the state of the art in current technologies.
Nonetheless, there is more to cyberculture than cyberspace. Cyber-culture, as I defined it in an earlier essay, is
a far-flung, loosely knit complex of sublegitimate, alternative, and oppositional subcultures [whose common project is the subversive use of technocommodities, often framed by radical body politics].... [Cyberculture] is divisible into several major territories: visionary technology, fringe science, avant-garde art, and pop culture.
Fredric Jameson has noted the correspondence between cyberpunk novelist William Gibson's cyberspace and "the world space of multinational capital," where vast sums are blipped through fiber-optic bundles, and has called for a cognitive cartography, "a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system." A map of the increasingly virtual geography in which we find ourselves, suggests Jameson, is essential in "grasp[ing] our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain[ing] a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion." Compasses and sextants in hand, the writers in this collection embark on Jameson's project, mindful (if intuitively) of one WELL-dweller's corrective:
This medium gives us the possibility (illusory as it may be) that we can build a world unmediated by authorities and experts. The roles of reader, writer, and critic are so quickly interchangeable that they become increasingly irrelevant in a community of co-creation such as the WELL (cf. Benjamin's "revolutionary literature"; on-line far supersedes the newspaper as a medium in which the reader is likely to also be the writer). I really have no objection to someone who has come into our community, lived here and participated, analyzing [his] experience and trying to put it into perspective. I think the objection to the "critics" who are now fawning over cyber this and cyber that is that they are perceived as intellectual carpetbaggers who don't bother to learn the terrain before they create the map.
Excerpted from Flame Wars by Mark Dery. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author
Mark Dery is a cultural critic whose writings on technology and fringe culture have appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Wired, and Mondo 2000.
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