Friday, July 11, 2008

Cybersex in the Cretaceous

In my early days online, the online world was a very different place. People called it simply "the Net," and it was peopled by techies, academics, and military geeks. The core technologies of the Internet (DNS, html, ftp, even tcp) had not yet been invented. Network connections were too slow and disks too small to store much in the way of graphics, so the Net was a sea of text. Email had to be hand-routed and was liable to be lost if any machine or connection in the specified route was offline.

We early inhabitants of cyberspace found it wondrous. We could communicate mind to mind, without bodies getting in the way, with people who shared our interests around the world. We could argue about ideas with people we'd never meet, encountering view points that simply didn't exist in our own meat space. 

The level of discourse was high, although we didn't always recognize it at the time. Even the wackiest posters expressed themselves in clear, logical, grammatical, and correctly spelled prose. Commerce had not yet arrived online, and there was a sense of a freewheeling crunchhead frontier, free of many of the influences of mainstream society.

We prized freedom, particularly the free exchange of ideas, highly. We would arrive at the truth, and it would make us free. The Net could transform society by giving us the kind of public forum that had never existed on Earth.

The Net wasn't a perfect world. The military and academic uses of the Net conflicted from the start. In addition, every September, a new crop of freshmen would arrive on the Net. Discourse would fall for a few months with this influx of newbies, but the newbies could be trained, and the Net remained a playground for crunchheads.

Until, that is, the year September never ended. When AOL started bringing newbies online in droves, the quality of discourse fell and the face of the Net changed. AOL created its own playpen, with users isolated behind an interface that controlled their access to the net.  These users met with one another in AOL chat rooms, and developed their own, distinctly non-crunchhead culture.

The Net was never free of class distinctions, with the Military, Academia, and Techies forming clear castes. With the influx of the Great Unwashed Masses of AOL, however, the Net acquired an underclass. Suddenly, there were people online who had not gone through the university, technical, or military gate-keeping process. Anyone could come online, and some of them couldn't spell or punctuate their way out of a paper bag.

It was precisely these Great Unwashed Masses who invented cybersex.

Very quickly, the old Net guard pulled away from these AOL upstarts. We rejected their cute acronyms (to this day, I do not use "lol," which smacks of the chat rooms of AOL). We continued to focus on the transmission of ideas, and to cling to the view of ourselves as disembodied electronic minds.

So, naturally, my sort of people didn't do cybersex. We might, for sure, have online romances and share sexual fantasies, but we did it in our Old Guard style: abstract, cogent, lengthy, considered, academic.

This has left with an odd sort of innocence as the Net moved forward to become the Internet. Cybersex can have nothing to do with me. It can, in fact, go on right under my nose without arousing my notice. Since my sort of people don't do it, whatever it is that my sort of people are doing can't be cybersex. It must be something else.

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