Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace Author Gets Online, But Not Off the Hook

Title: "Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace"

Author: John Seabrook

Data: 277 pages, Simon & Schuster; $25

Like your first outing on the World Wide Web, John Seabrook's account of his experiences on the Internet, "Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace," is useful and engrossing. Though it fails to live up to its promise, his narrative is engaging and readers can learn from its shortcomings.

First-time author Seabrook, who writes for Harper's and the New Yorker, entices readers with the lure of the Internet. As he writes in the preface, "(W)hen you start out online, it seems as though politics, ethics, and metaphysics—all the great disciplines of mankind—are reduced to their original elements, and are yours to remake again."

Awakening users to the exhilarating power of the mighty mouse, the Net offers a bold new world of electronic mail, instant communication and access to the Web, (invented, he notes, by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee in 1991.)

Widespread use of the Internet is just beginning, and while the vast electronic future belongs to the innovators of cyberspace, the Net has plenty of room for improvement as a means of communication and an information source.

Visiting a Web site can be a frustrating encounter. And, though more people are using it, (15 percent of the U.S. population, according to one poll,) they are using it less often, spending an average of 12 hours per month online, down from 16 hours in 1995.

One reason may be that users find the technology difficult to master. Most Net literature is high on jargon and low on common sense. Unfortunately, "Deeper" is no exception. Seabrook assumes an intermediate knowledge of the Net.

He uses terms loosely, throwing them around without an explanation of their meaning or origin. The habit puts newer users, and the rest of those 85 percent of Americans who do not have access to the Internet, squarely in the dark. Nevertheless, anyone who can survive DOS ought to be able to manage this leisurely trip around the Internet.

"Deeper" captures the thrill of discovery you first feel in that moment of awareness that you are acquiring knowledge, as Seabrook marks each leg of the journey with personal tales and brief notes.

"What was interesting (about the Net)," he writes, "was the image of the individual bathed in his own cone of light, absorbed in his personalized soundtrack, swaddled in technology."

Anyone tempted to share the feeling with their mother will appreciate Seabrook's tutorials about e-mail with Mom, using his Apple Powerbook laptop.

"I showed my mother ... how to log on. You see that little number under the envelope? That means you have one new letter. (Seabrook had sent her a message.) So, OK, now put your hand on the trackball." The trackball? Oh, yes, the trackball. OK, I got it.' ... It took my mother about two hours to learn to write and send me a message that said, If you don't come to Thanksgiving, my heart will be broken.' And that was only the beginning."

Pretty soon, he was ignoring his mother's e-mail and receiving messages from her like this one: "I thought the whole idea was you were supposed to answer e-mail. You were the one who told me that."

His attempts to overstate the much-hyped Internet experience, however, are simply misguided shots at defining the new phenomenon in an age when a housewife can read the newspaper online, update her Web site showing her handmade quilts and send e-mail to her sister in New Jersey—all from the privacy of her living room.

Though Seabrook appears to have accepted every environmentalist bromide against technology, he begrudgingly embraces the general idea that scientific progress improves human existence. After proclaiming productivity as passionless, he eventually accepts the opposite principle.

"(A)fter I had been using my Mac for a while, my real desktop got ... more logically organized—more like the metaphorical desktop on my computer screen," he writes.

He is inspired to organize his papers in file folders for the first time.

"Having begun by using my brain as a metaphor to understand my computer," he writes, "I was now using the computer as a metaphor to understand my brain."

Each part of the Internet is covered, from designing a Web site and hilarious cybersex to the author's realization that his first year online, not including the phone bill, cost nearly $1,500. He includes his own e-mail communication with Microsoft boss Bill Gates. Flames of furor erupt over his New Yorker article about the god of Windows in which fellow cybersurfers vilify him for portraying Gates as a geek genius.

Seabrook offers a horrifying glimpse at the state of our culture in which technology is embraced while its creators are envied and detested. Even the author seems to jump on the bandwagon, naming the last chapter "The Road Behind," a stab at Gates' own book, "The Road Ahead." As "Deeper" shows, the road to the electronic future will take you where you tell it to go and no where else. There are no guarantees; no baby sitters to watch over your teen-ager and no one to tell you where not to go, (though some who will gladly tell you where to go).

Seabrook should have included a chapter on those who use the Internet. After all, the Net has become a breeding ground for shy individuals who wouldn't dare enter a singles bar, and it has liberated thousands of hobbyists, night-shifters, intellectuals, geeks, gays and others who prefer the anonymity and solitude of using the Net for one reason or another. He could have probed into the lives of those alienated souls who pound away at their keyboards until 2 a.m. looking for love, ordering a new CD, studying a battle of the Civil War, banking or taking a cooking class on line.

Self-confessed ex-nerd Seabrook is uniquely qualified to examine how the Internet has affected their lives. He ought to know; he is one of them.

"Perfection through skill and practice," he writes about using a computer for the first time, as a grade-school geek, " ... control that could be achieved in silence and alone. Authority, this was what I desired."

The Internet was what he found.

Originally published April 6, 1997 in Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)

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