Computers: The tedium is the technology: 'Virtual communities' linked by computer networks can be a well of wisdom. Andrew Brown discovers that they can also be utterly banal in equal measure

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The Independent Online
ONE OF THE most dreadful couplets in English Literature comes in William McGonagall's verses on the death of Queen Victoria: And down the wires the electric message came: 'She is no better; she is much the same'. The word that kills this couplet is 'Electric.' The Victorian, McGonagall, had not learnt that exciting technology can deliver wholly banal messages.

In the age of television, we have learnt this lesson so well that we never stop to think how extraordinary is the technology behind today's omnipresent banality. A friend of mine swears he saw a chat show broadcast from Los Angeles in which a Rabbi in New York was disputing with a Shia cleric on a hilltop in Southern Lebanon - with both men and their studio host live.

There is one technology, however, that still strikes its exploiters as magical, beyond the possibility of banality, the way that the Morse telegraph struck William McGonagall. Computer Mediated Communication is how Howard Rheingold describes it in his book Virtual Communities. The term is slightly misleading as well as clumsy: everything is computer- mediated communication nowadays: telephone exchanges are large computers; printing plants are mostly computers; money itself is something that mainly exists inside computer networks.

What Rheingold means by CMC is a much more limited phenomenon: communications in which all parties know they are using computers. They are magical: he is quite right about that; and the magic can be dark and powerful. There are stories here of young men spending 70 hours a week on-line, in fantasy dungeons. Yet it is almost impossible to explain to people who have not done it what these places are like.

An on-line computer network service like CompuServe can be explained in terms of what it delivers: a library catalogue, for example, is the same thing whether you read it in a card index or on a screen half a world away.

In contrast, virtual communities are not really sources of information. If they were useful, they would be much less absorbing. They are a kind of collaborative soap opera, rather like the sort of local newspaper in which every subscriber can expect to see his name in the paper at some stage; only these papers are written by their readers.

Just as in a local paper, there are births, deaths, marriages and occasional savage brawls. And, just as with a local paper, you have to go there if you want to savour the coverage. But getting there is virtually free. Anywhere on the Internet, the worldwide information network, can access anywhere else.

There is no satisfactory metaphor for this: you must believe the fact that once you have access to the net from anywhere - which will cost perhaps pounds 10 a month - you can reach any other point for free. And who has access? Practically every university student; quite soon every school student in affluent countries.

Howard Rheingold's virtual home is the Well in Marin County, San Francisco. The name stands for Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link. But though you can reach it from almost all over the earth, it has a strong local flavour. Only in Marin County would the users identify themselves as Wellbeings. Part of its attraction is that it is like the wonderfully funny (printed) soap opera of Marin County life, The Serial by Cyra MacFadden. One of Rheingold's heroines sets off for Tibet, as one does; the postcards she sends to friends at home are copied on to the Well:

'I've been studying Dzogchen, which is like Tibetan Zen - meditating on the empty mind.

'Different from what I've done before. The course starts today so I'm incommunicado for a month.

'Hmm, I guess I never finished this. Lots of things have happened since then. Mainly, I've become a nun. It's a little strange, but I feel really good about it and I really feel it's the right move for me.'

Next thing we know, she turns up in a hospital in New Delhi with liver failure. Immediately the Well buzzes with the news. It is not absolutely clear from Howard Rheingold's narrative whether any of the excitement was of any practical use to her. But her virtual neighbours were ready to put in a lot of time and money to help her had she needed it and many of them had never met her except on line.

Te Well was founded in the 1980s by a bunch of professional hippies: Stewart Brand, the editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, and John Perry Barlow, cattle rancher and lyricist for the Grateful Dead, prominent among them. Musician Brian Eno is there, too, now. These are solid, middle-class citizens.

Wellbeings can spell, which is rarer than you might suppose in cyberspace and they tend to wit and brevity, two other qualities in short supply out there. The system has a fine line in California aphorisms, such as 'Respect is circular', engraved at the entrance of the sexuality 'conference' - the collection of messages, contributions, replies stored on the electronic bulletin board as a continuing discussion.

The software on which the Well runs probably does a lot to keep the standard of conversation so high: it has the attitude of the bouncer outside a fashionable club. Occasionally it makes small, dry jokes: the command to check your last messages when chatting is ]huh, and the command to see how much you have spent this month is ]mom.

But if you want to know what files are in your directory, you must type ]ls -la, while the command to read a disk file is ]cat. No wonder that only the most intelligent and determined survive their first encounter with it.

It took me about four months of intermittent fiddling to start to feel comfortable there. If it were not my job, I would never have persisted. But Howard Rheingold's book drew me to the parenting conference, which is quite fascinating. To learn how my contemporaries half way round the world are doing the same job as I do is the sort of thrill that real travel should give you and all too seldom does.

On his virtual travels, Rheingold reached the Cix network in London; it is just as easy and costs as little to log on to Surbiton from Marin County as it is the other way round. I was in a small way responsible for this, since I had written about a man on Cix who had reinvented himself as a completely different on-line person after being crippled at the age of 25 by encephalitis. His wife left him; he lost his job; only in a virtual community was he really valued.

He became part of a community of seven men and one woman on the system. They found each other an unending source of interest and mutual support.

Most of the other people on the system found them noisy and obnoxious, like children out of control at a party. Then one, a 21-year-old, died in a motorcycle accident. 'The on-line funeral of Kevin Hall was a rite of passage for all of Cix,' Rheingold says.

That is not quite how some of the audience experienced it. It is true an entire discussion area, or 'conference', called Kevin. hall was set up, like a virtual condolences book, to allow people to express their sympathy, but the contents of this were embarrassing.

One message in particular, that concluded 'Kevin lived only for his bike and his Amiga', tempted some of us to start a counter-conference, to be called 'dead. biker', which would take a more robust view of the accident.

I mention this story to point out the greatest flaw in Rheingold's book, which is its lack of proportion. He predicts, for example, that 'Many countries will soon face the conflict that Japanese and French telecommunications planners must address: to refuse to join the Net in its widest sense and face being left behind, or to join the Net and face social upheaval.'

This is remarkably silly. The Bastille will not be stormed again because the Minitel system, the French information network, has been connected to the Well. It also goes against the theme of his own book, which is that virtual communities are only valuable in so far as they have their own, particular small-town character.

Certainly that is true of the Well, or of the multi-user dungeons he describes. That is why they are worth visiting. As a guide-book to the global villages and hamlets springing up all around us, Virtual Communities can hardly be too highly recommended. It really makes you want to get out there and explore.

But what you can find at the end of your virtual travels is that William McGonagall had it right after all: we are no better; we are much the same.

Virtual Communities; Howard Rheingold; Secker and Warburg; pounds 16.99.

The Well; modem: 0101 415 332-6106; voice: 0101 415 332- 4335; Internet: Telnet to well. sf. ca. us. The Well has a sign-on fee of dollars 25.00 ( pounds 16.50). Thereafter it costs dollars 15.00 a month and dollars 2.00 an hour (the first five hours are free).

Internet connections (voice): Demon Systems, 081 343-3881; and Cix, 081 390-8446.

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