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YOUR NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOR IS A DRAGONA Guided Tour of the Internet's Strange Subcultures and Weird Realities
By ZACK PARSONS
REBEL BASE BOOKSCopyright © 2009 Zack Parsons
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Matrix Retarded
He's intelligent, but an under-achiever; alienated from his parents; has few friends. Classic case for recruitment by the Soviets. -FBI Agent Nigan, War Games
The Internet is a slippery creature that defies description and metaphor.
Sure, the physical Internet can be defined. It can be described as routers and fiber optic lines, megabytes and gigabytes, bleeps and also bloops. That sort of description is too literal. By those rules you could claim a human is a bunch of meat and organs, but then a bucket filled with meat and organs also qualifies as human.
It is the nature, the elusive essence, of the Internet that cannot be easily categorized. What the Internet means.
Thousands of people with intellects vastly superior to mine have tried to describe the Internet. These are people with real college degrees, not the sort you buy for $49.99 from a "university" in a former Soviet state. Their degrees didn't arrive in an envelope that smelled like salted fish and prominently featured a spelling of "master's" that included a "k" and no vowels.
Ted Stevens, thedisgraced Republican Senator from Alaska, had a bachelor's degree in political science from UCLA. That is an undergraduate degree and probably around ten IQ points on me. The brutal Darwinism of Alaskan politics ensures no fools ever hold office in that state. Yet, even a man as robustly intellectual as Senator Stevens once infamously warned of the Internet, "It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes."
William Gibson, one of my heroes, described the futuristic Internet of Neuromancer as a "consensual hallucination" consisting of "lines of light ranged in the nospace of the mind." Gibson's neondrenched cyberpunk prose always appealed to me, but that description of the Internet sounds like a bad ride on some spinning playground equipment after huffing glue.
Gibson managed to come up with an extravagant and psychedelic version of dumb. For practical purposes the cyberspace portions of Neuromancer might as well have been a technical manual on how to send an e-mail written by Ted Stevens during a peyote-fueled vision quest. They definitely don't get anyone any closer to understanding the reality of the Internet.
The Internet is so slippery in large part because it is vast and ever-changing. Gibson might have come closest on the third try in Neuromancer when he referred to cyberspace as something of "unthinkable complexity."
Another nerd hero, racist horror author H. P. Lovecraft, used this technique frequently. When something was "too scary" or "too otherworldly" he would come right out and admit, "This monster is too scary and otherworldly for me to describe." Lovecraft was dealing in impossible angles and colors from outer space.
When a writer attempts to cover the topic of the Internet, he or she is dealing with an imaginary world distributed across millions of computers and created simultaneously by hundreds of millions of people. That sounds like some impossible angles or colors from outer space to me.
Anyone who volunteers themselves as an authority on the subject of the Internet is an asshole. Don't listen to a word they say.
The Internet is too broad; there are too many people filling it up with crap and too many rocks to turn over to ever hope to present a comprehensive picture. Descriptions become obsolescent almost immediately. There are too many tribes, cultures, subcultures, groups, and subgroups to catalog.
Nothing is more cringe-worthy for a frequent Internet user than to see their corner of the Internet described by someone from the outside. Internet subcultures can seem impenetrable to outsiders. They are esoteric, by chance or design, and their denizens communicate using culture-specific jargon and inside references that leave inquisitive outsiders baffled.
When I set out to write this book, I wanted to limit myself to subcultures I had familiarized myself with over nearly a decade of writing for Something Awful. For most of that period our Awful Link of the Day has singled out strange subcultures and weird websites for ridicule. We cruelly mocked everyone from furries yiffing in hotel rooms to miscarriage moms building photo shrines for the bloody corpses of their unborn babies.
It was a rough game we played, maybe even slightly evil, but it was a good sort of evil. Like torturing a terrorist for the location of a bomb or killing a sweet little baby kitten by giving it too many kissy-wissies. That sort of evil.
I hoped that evil experience with the Awful Link of the Day would prepare me for writing this book.
As usual, I was wrong.
Zee Chamber of Horrors
If I were forced at katana-point to offer my best attempt at a metaphor for the Internet I would have to reach for the Bible. I realize that makes me an asshole by my own rules, but trust me on this, Bible metaphors add tons of literary credibility. The Iliad was nothing but a big Jesus metaphor.
I just hope Super God doesn't find out I'm using Regular Bible. He's very sensitive about that sort of thing (super apostasy), but he really needs to chill out. Super Bible isn't all that different from Regular Bible. The Psalms are written in Klingon and Super God might have gone a little overboard devoting nine Commandments to booty. Other than those two examples, and David grinding Mecha Goliath on a skateboard, and the part where Moses unleashes a plague of "dudes getting pounded by horse dicks" on Pharaoh, and Super Jesus exploding instead of being crucified, it's all basically the same stuff.
Keeping in mind that all Internet metaphors are stillborn failures, I think that Regular Bible's parable of that damnable apple from Genesis is about as close as you're going to get. Snake Devil tempted Eve by telling her when she took a bite of the forbidden fruit of Knowledge her eyes would be opened and "you will be like God, knowing good and evil." That ruined the good times for Adam and Eve in a hurry, but they knew a lot more than they did before.
Like the apple, the Internet gives each of us access to wondrous and limitless knowledge. But, the revelation of the Internet is that we discovered our vice was also limitless. Our egos and super-egos were joined by our raging ids, unleashed on a seedy world of our creation.
Adam and Eve felt shame and found the need to tie some leaves to their junk. Our forbidden fruit evidently made us shameless and gave us the knowledge to use a camera to show our junk to strangers.
This model didn't seem so bad when the Internet first began and the knowledge was a whole lot less limitless. A bunch of nerds posting to Usenet and bulletin boards about Star Trek and boobs and Dungeons & Dragons didn't cause society to collapse into anarchy. It was easy to see how the pros outweighed the cons.
Nerds, the perpetual outsiders and fringe characters, established themselves as the de facto rulers of the Internet. For nearly twenty years their superiority was unchallenged, but as their virtual kingdom spread it attracted new audiences and new enthusiasts. The number of Internet users grew slowly at first, but with the creation of the Web and Internet browsers those numbers began to grow exponentially.
Millions of newcomers were learning that they could establish a new identity on the Internet. Without a body to get in the way, they could literally become whoever they wanted, and as the Internet spread these identities grew in importance. Without geographic constraints like-minded individuals were able to seek out one another around the world. This allowed subcultures to flourish.
These tribes began to form on the Internet almost from the beginning, and many of the subcultures discussed in this book predate the creation of the Web. It was the Web that drove these subcultures to prominence. It made them accessible and appealing to millions. Furries and otherkin were among the first, but stranger subcultures fragmented from the originals or appeared from nothing, and narrower interests found audiences.
If you're going to write a book that deals with questions of identity and tribalism on the Internet, sooner or later you probably need to talk to an expert.
I was three months into the process of writing the book. I had amassed a collection of websites, saved forum posts and IM conversations. I had talked to some old friends in Arizona, erotic puppeteers, conspiracy theorists, End Times believers, and various and sundry other odd individuals.
I was preparing to embark on my journey to meet with and interview as many of these characters I had come in contact with as possible. I could feel the wind at my back and the book project was developing a real sense of momentum, but I still felt a lingering doubt. It was as if there was something missing. I needed a clearer sense of direction.
It took me a few days, but I decided what I needed was the spark of insight that I could not create myself. I needed someone with a professional's perspective. Before I learned who my weirdos were firsthand, I needed to talk to someone who knew how the Internet shapes identity and community.
With a little help from the University of Chicago humanities department, I contacted Anders Zimmerman, a graduate researcher of "cyberspace anthropology" who claimed to be working as "part of the University of Chicago." He referred to his specific field of study as, "Inner Self Manifestation."
Most of Anders Zimmerman's published research involved the use of a sort of sensory immersion technique. In papers he referred to it as "The Chamber," but its exact purpose was confusing to me and his research was light on the specifics. All I knew was that he was searching for the same sort of truth about identity that was at the core of my book.
When I spoke to Anders on the phone he sounded very excitable and very German, an over-caffeinated Freud. The mention of my book project immediately piqued his curiosity.
"Ooh, a buch, ja? I have zee reimagining chamber," he said. "Come to meine shtudio und we can do some experiments."
"What sort of experiments?" I asked.
"Ve re-imagine you," he said, and then added, "In zee chamber."
I was a bit hesitant to subject myself to "zee chamber," a hesitancy that only re-hesitated when my taxi arrived outside a carpet outlet store in Chicago's Hermosa neighborhood.
There are worse neighborhoods than Hermosa in Chicago, neighborhoods with more violent crimes, but this was the sort of area where some really horrible and weird shit might go down. It was the sort of area where a beloved grandma gets decapitated by a scythe or a city bus making its late-night rounds stops to pick up passengers only to find three skeletons sitting at one of the bus stops. Hermosa is the sort of neighborhood where you're walking along and you find a baby laying on the sidewalk and you pick it up and it has your face.
The eerie desolation was nerve-wracking, but it was broad daylight. Anders's "shtudio" was located adjacent to the carpet outlet, behind an unmarked green security door. There was an intercom next to the door with three buttons. A small placard beside the top button read SCIENC, and the other two placards were scratched out. Someone had hastily scrawled a penis and testicles in black marker across the front of the intercom.
I pressed the top button. Nothing. I pressed it again and longer.
"JA! Ja! Okay, vas?" Anders's voice blasted from the over-amped speaker.
I leaned down to the speaker and loudly said, "I'm here to see Anders Zimmerman."
"Ja! Shit, you don't have to shout."
The door buzzed and I hurried inside. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. The expansive ground floor was dusty and smelled of machine oils. Large presses or lathes of some sort were covered by plastic tarps. The overhead fluorescent lights and most of the windows were high and painted over. Thin beams of light were breaking through the crackling paint and in their shafts I'm pretty sure I could see asbestos particles.
A heavy door opened and closed somewhere far away inside the building. There was a loud click followed by a buzz as one by one the fluorescent lights switched on.
"Gutentag, Herr Parsons," said Anders from very near to me.
I jumped, realizing the anthropologist had closed to within a few feet of me while I was staring up at the lights like a rube. He was a little shorter than me, a little older, but he had a youthful head of spiked blond hair that was thinning a little bit on top.
His facial features seemed drawn by gravity to his chin, which left a lot of empty real estate above his gray eyes and horn-rimmed glasses. He was dressed like a member of the merchant marine. He was a nightmare vision from a J.Crew catalog in a worn cable-knit turtleneck, ridiculous white canvas pants, and a pair of decaying army boots he had apparently inherited from a combat veteran.
"Hello," I said, and shook his hand. "This is an interesting place you've got."
Anders was given pause by my clicking handshake. He glanced at my gloved hand, a gift from Doctor Lian, before his internal monologue changed the subject. He surveyed the room as if just noticing it.
"Ooh, ja. This is old machine shop, leased very cheaply as long as I keep the machines. This is okay because zee chamber is in zee basement."
Anders directed me toward another security door, this one in better repair and marked with three-dimensional chrome letters that spelled OFFI. I reluctantly followed him to the door, picturing zee basement as a rat's maze of claustrophobic passages choked with rusty, steaming pipes and pressure gauges with needles vibrating in the red.
I calmed my nerves by reminding myself that I had braved the Twilight Zone episode that was Hermosa. I didn't see a stray bunch of red balloons floating purposefully down the street. I didn't have my face melted off by a pigeon. Hermosa was a way worse scene than some stupid creepy basement in a factory.
Fortunately, zee chamber in zee basement was nothing like I had imagined. We descended a perfectly normal enclosed staircase and passed through a door into an open and well-lit space. It looked more like an artist's loft than a dank industrial basement.
It was almost the exact opposite of dank. It bordered on pleasant and warm. It was definitely clean. We were standing on cherry parquet flooring. There was a drafting table and stool and two Apple computers sitting atop two black Ikea desks. The desks were so new there were a few assembly stickers visible as we walked past.
The lighting was warm and sufficient, provided by a mixture of overhead lamps in brushed metal fixtures and standing lamps that seemed chosen to go along with a whimsical set of purple couches. I think I even heard soft music playing. Distant strains of Feist.
"Not vat you expected, ja?" Anders laughed, detecting my surprise. "Come, I show you zee chamber."
The chamber was a separate room that resembled a racquetball court. It had three white walls, a white ceiling with starkly bright recessed lighting, and a one-way glass back wall and door. In the center of the room was a chair that looked like an ergonomic dentist's chair. It was black and articulated, with a foot rest and padded armrests. It looked creepy, but also very comfortable. Good lumbar support.
I pressed my palms against the glass to get a better look and I realized that the white walls were not walls at all. They were made from floor-to-ceiling strips of a faintly iridescent white fabric stretched taught over a metal framework.
"What are the walls?" I asked.
"Ooh, you vill see." Anders had taken a seat behind one of the Apple computers. "Come sit down. Vee must talk before you go into zee chamber."
"I'm not going to sit down in there and end up on a beach talking to my space dad, am I?" I asked as I took a seat.
"No, of course not," Anders said with complete seriousness.
He had somehow missed my insanely clever reference to the movie Contact. My opinion of him was plummeting.
"Before ve begin I must know vie you have come here to see zee chamber," Anders said. "Vat do you vant to learn from me?"
Excerpted from YOUR NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOR IS A DRAGON by ZACK PARSONS Copyright © 2009 by Zack Parsons. Excerpted by permission.
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