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The Independent Culture
NPerhaps early radio enthusiasts thought the rot set in when broadcasting stations started up. The eternal plaint of the avant-garde, "it used to be good, but then it caught on", is to be heard in John Seabrook's book Deeper: A Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace (Faber pounds 12.99). Seabrook's "odyssey" petered out as the World Wide Web took off, opening the Net to salesmen. He regards the Web as a sprawl of billboards ruining the view of the electronic frontier.

It's precisely because the Net has the potential to support hedgerow blossoms and hothouse flowers, while the established media are carpeted in middlebrow monoculture, that I want as much vulgar commerce on it as possible. Developing a new medium isn't cheap, even with the vast amounts of unpaid labour sunk into Web construction. Unless hypermedia can become commercially viable, they have little future as a cultural form. We wouldn't have much art cinema without Hollywood.

Seabrook's main contribution to public perceptions of the Internet will probably be to reinforce the idea that e-mail encourages people to be horrid to each other. At the core of the book is an incident in which Seabrook receives a couple of abusive e-mails, and develops an irrational fear that his correspondents have infected his computer with a software "worm". Why, he wonders, does this immaterial hostility preoccupy him so?

Two answers spring to my mind, though not to his. One is that he is operating in a culture which believes that there is nothing so precious as a personal feeling. The other is that his musings originally appeared in the New Yorker, where the fiction is short and the features are thesis-length. The feelings had to expand to fit.

In e-mail, the opposite pressure applies. Much of the offence taken at it arises not from any intent to abuse, but when concision slides into abruptness. I certainly find myself ruffled by terse messages, even though I know that some of the hastier e-mails I send might be taken a similar way.

This, however, is a tiny fly in the ointment compared to the reliable pleasure that checking my mailbox brings. In the print world, people generally send letters to journalists because they have taken exception to something. Over the past year or so, though, I've been delighted to find that readers generally e-mail me because they've enjoyed something I've written. That has made this column the most rewarding journalism I've done.

Part of the reason for the mellow disposition of e-mail correspondents is that it's far cheaper and a lot less trouble to send an e-mail than a letter. It lowers the threshold that our benign impulses have to cross. But another important part is that an e-mail address implies a shared community. We see ourselves as participants in the collective development of a medium and a culture.

That implies mutual support: the expression of it takes the form of a compliment and a request for information. I get plenty of these, and when I need to consult people who know more about the Net than I do, I send them too. The result is that everybody is indebted to everybody else, but only mildly so; which is arguably an ideal condition for a harmonious society.

Of course, there's always some jerk who tries to spoil it for everybody else. Be warned: in the event of a flame, our editor has agreed to assign me the entire Books section in which to explore my hurt feelings.