The Last Luddite Gets Wired

Notes from different corners of the world.
May 17 1999 5:27 PM

The Last Luddite Gets Wired

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The editors and I had initially thought of calling these dispatches "The Last Luddite Gets Wired," but I ought to explain from the outset that this is slightly misleading. I'm not a Luddite by stern conviction and technophobe ideology à la Ted Kaczynski, so much as by laziness and default. (Or, you might say, default of being lazy.) I don't want to destroy technology; I've just wanted to avoid its intrusions as long as I can.

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And it's probably true that I'm not the very last one left unwired as long as those spiritual soul mates Ted Kaczynski and Henry Kissinger are still holding out. (I understand that when I got stalled on this story earlier this year, when I'd exhausted myself in the fever of decision-making over what computer I was going to get Slate to buy for me, the unsentimental editors of Slate actually considered offering it--my idea, "The Last Luddite Gets Wired"--to Henry Kissinger, which is more than anything else the reason I finally decided to go ahead: to snatch the assignment away from a power grab by Dr. K.)

So, I may not be the last Luddite and I may not be a strict Luddite, but I am just about the only writer--no, the only person I know--who doesn't own a computer. Who's only sent two e-mails in his life (one to the publisher who claimed J.D. Salinger had given him the right to bring out a hardcover version of Salinger's last New Yorker story, another to a Nabokov Web site on the Pale Fire narrator question--both on someone else's computer). Whose only venture into a chat room--an academic philosophy group--felt like sexual harassment. (I'd made the mistake of adopting the moniker "Redhead," and the supposedly philosophical participants were all over me like a cheap suit the moment I logged on, assuming, it finally dawned on me, that I was a different gender of Redhead.)

But it's not the technology I have a problem with; it's the people. The people who promote the ideology of technology, the smile-button techno-gurus, the Pollyanna prophets who assume cybertechnology will somehow change human nature for the better, bring out the best and not the worst. But it's more than a problem with the people who promote it; it's the people who use it, as well. There is, for instance, the prevalence of that know-it-all, hipper-than-thou tone on just about every single cyberposting I've ever read. As someone afflicted with doubt about everything, who sees ambiguity everywhere, there's one thing I feel unambiguous about: I hate know-it-alls; and wired culture, certainly chat-room rhetorical culture, seems to breed know-it-all attitude, to give know-it-alls and their braying assertions the attention they don't deserve. You know that promo slogan for Alien: "In space, no one can hear you scream." In cyberspace, no one can hear you doubt. Perhaps it's because everything is generated from ones and zeroes, there's no tolerance, no acknowledgement for the spaces in between. It's all ones and zeroes and to the speaker doing the posting, there's always the certainty he's the one and you're the zero.

So, I may not be a Luddite, but I play one on TV, or I'm played as one if you rent and watch You've Got Mail. If you can get past the chirpy sentimentalizing of terminally insipid e-mails by tragically insipid stars Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, you'll find in the film a relatively benign caricature of a New York Observer writer with arcane literary and philosophical preoccupations who crusades to save an independent bookstore from being crushed by a big chain store, who rejects computer culture and rhapsodizes over his typewriter--an Olympia Report Deluxe electric. Now, it just so happens that I am a New York Observer columnist (click here to download me) with arcane literary interests (see the interview with me posted in Feed last month, if you care) who launched a crusade to save an independent bookstore (called Books & Co.) and who wrote a column rhapsodizing over his typewriter--an Olympia Report Deluxe electric--while working on a doomed film project with future You've Got Mail director Nora Ephron.

Actually, that typewriter, my Olympia Report Deluxe, or rather Deluxes (I have three of them because they're no longer manufactured, and I need one for backup and one to cannibalize for parts) are the real reason I've rejected switching to a computer for so long. For the first 10 years of my life as a writer, I was a deeply agonized, chronically blocked writer, and it was not until I devised a method of writing-by-rewriting on my Olympia Report Deluxe that I was able to become a productive--if still slow and labor-intensive--writer. It's not just superstition that kept me from switching to a computer; I suppose I could adopt my rewriting-from-the-top method to a computer if I were to print out each successive draft and rewrite the next one on the screen, then print that out and start rewriting from the top again. But there's something about the sharp staccato sound of my Olympia Report Deluxe--like successive volleys of rifle shots rather than the mouselike scribble-scrabble of the keyboard pad--that I feel reluctant to abandon. And perhaps more than that, there is the incredibly annoying and arrogant rhetoric of computer-user writers who try to get me to convert.

The thing that always used to get to me was the way a certain kind of arrogant but aggressively mediocre writer would harangue me about how I had to get a computer because ever since he got one, "I've been able to turn out so much more," as if this were an unmixed blessing the world would welcome. How it made it so much easier for him to turn out stories because "it's so easy to shift things around." As if ease of composition was the highest value in the hierarchy of literature (it clearly was in his), and as if the ability "to shift things around" was the secret of writing. When, in fact, I've come to believe the curse of much computer-generated writing is precisely that ease of "shifting things around." Cutting and pasting without leaving visible seams, in fact, can turn writing into word processing and can cripple young writers, preventing them from learning how to get beyond word processing to writing, to narrative.

This latter objection is not just something I'm theorizing or conjecturing about, it's something I've seen firsthand. For the past three semesters, I've taught a nonfiction writing seminar at Columbia Journalism School, and one of the most persistent difficulties I've had is communicating to the students (all of whom, of course, compose on computers) that rewriting and revising is the heart of writing and that rewriting does not consist of cutting and pasting and plugging new paragraphs into a story. That cutting, pasting, and plugging, in fact, turns their prose into a conceptual Frankenstein of sewn-together dead appendages rather than something with a unified voice and vision.

And I don't think not being wired has, so far, limited me as a writer or a reporter. I spent 10 years researching and writing a book about conflicting Hitler theories ( Explaining Hitler, out in paperback in June, by the way) without needing to surf the Web sites of neo-Nazi pinheads who, along with child pornographers and Bill Gates, seem to me to be the only unequivocal beneficiaries of wired culture.

So, OK, I'm sure you're wondering by now, if you have so many objections, why would you ever want to get wired? Well, part of the answer is in the words "so far." I don't think I've suffered so far, but I think I'm beginning to feel cut off from an undeniably significant aspect of American culture, Web culture. As someone who has a tormented love for pop culture, I have begun to feel I'm missing something. It struck me most forcefully when I recently surfed through (on a friend's computer) the Web site devoted to Mystery Science Theater 3000, which I've long felt is the smartest, funniest thing on television, maybe the smartest thing about pop culture in pop culture. A show I crusaded for and helped save a few years ago, but which now seems doomed by Barry Diller's Sci-Fi Channel. What I found, in addition to the official MST3K Web site, were links to literally dozens of personal sites devised by fans who felt as deeply about it as I did, some sites devoted to a single episode. They were wonderful! I have trouble with people who don't get MST3K. I really wanted more communication with those who do.

And so, last August when my book tour took me to Seattle, I had the notion of proposing, over dinner with Michael Kinsley and Jack Shafer, the following deal: If Slate would pick up the tab for me to buy a computer and get completely wired up, I would do a running diary of the experience. Mike insisted that I make all my decisions on what equipment to buy without consulting anyone at Slate in order, I presume, to keep the process free from any imputation that the hidden hand of Microsoft might be influencing me--and probably to avoid responsibility for my bad judgment and subsequent floundering. We eventually agreed on a cap of some $3,500 for Slate's contribution. Anything over that would come out of my pocket.

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The two final factors that led me to decide to propose the deal with Slate (which I've read and enjoyed in its plain paper version since inception) were, first, the surprising enthusiasm for cyber culture demonstrated by Slate editor Judith Shulevitz, a far more exacting literary intellect than I am--someone who cares about the word and writing as much as I do--who, nonetheless, made an impressive case for the potential of cyber discourse in an appearance at my Columbia Journalism School seminar.

What clinched my decision, I suppose, was a kind of distant but proprietary feeling I have about cyber culture. An almost paternal feeling that, while I may not have fathered it or even step-fathered it, in a couple of crucial ways I had, at the very least, helped foster-father it. Foster-fathered two of the most salient aspects of cyber society, the two sides of the force, you might say: Apple culture and hacker culture.

No, I'm not just having an Al Gore I-fathered-the-Internet moment here. I believe a case can be made--indeed a case has been made by others, by historians of Apple and hacker culture--that "Secrets of the Little Blue Box," a story I wrote for Esquire back in 1971 about "phone phreaks" and the first computer hackers (it was only the second magazine story I'd ever had published) played a crucial role in the careers of the founders of Apple and of a legendary ur-hacker I made famous who went by the name of Captain Crunch.

"Secrets of the Little Blue Box" described the illicit underground network of electronics geniuses (many of them blind teenagers) who'd figured out how to hack into the telephone company's computers in a way that allowed them to make unlimited free calls and establish illicit etheric conferences on the phone companies' unused network space. And my story gave considerable attention to the pioneering hacker exploits of Crunch (who had gotten his name when he made the discovery that the cheap little giveaway whistles found inside Cap'n Crunch cereal emitted a pure 2,600-cycle-per-second tone which, when whistled into the right receiver in the right sequence, could make the phone company computers do his bidding. 2600 later became the title of the pre-eminent hacker culture magazine).

Well, as it turned out, two of the readers of that Esquire story were young Steve Jobs and young Steve Wozniak, who--as Jobs later confirmed to me--were inspired by the story's sketchy description of the "Little Blue Box," a device that generated not just a 2,600-cycle tone but all the tones necessary to operate the phone company switching systems. Inspired enough that, following clues in the story, they were able to track down the frequencies of the other tones and attempt to manufacture "little blue boxes" in their parents' garages--a partnership, a fascination with nifty tech that would evolve into creating Apple, whose (initial) subversive spirit partook, I think, of its techno-outlaw origins.

Captain Crunch, meanwhile, went on to become the kind of underground culture hero who inspired a wilder and more illicit outlaw tech culture--became the guiding spirit and patron saint (and legal martyr) of hacker culture. And although he and I apparently differ as to the impact of the Esquire story on that culture (see my interview in Feed on that question), I'm convinced that he was an heir to a vital American tradition of the outlaw inventor, the Billy the Kid/Scrooge McDuck of cyberspace, a weird visionary artist.

So, in deciding finally to get wired and go online, I feel that in some way I'm completing a circle of sorts. The question was then, once I had the mandate to spend $3,500 plus for anything I wanted, starting from the ground up, what would I buy, how would I choose? What would you do if you had that lump sum to start all over again? The strange, disorienting decision-making process that consumed me for months--and the ultimate choices I made--will be the subject of the next dispatch.

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