Trouble in E-Land

IT'S getting bumpy on the Information Superhighway. The rude drivers on real highways are being matched by the Mad Maxes of cyberspace. And then there's the matter of just too many roughriders crowding the road - some 10 million people around the world communicate by Usenet alone.

As the users have grown exponentially, the codes of civility that once prevailed at the village level, as it were, are deteriorating into meaner behavior, as in a global electronic streetwise city. Terms have had to be invented for dirty tricks:

Flaming: To treat another user with hostility, sarcasm, and even invective.

Bombing: To erase a fellow user's file, running him or her right out of cyberspace.

Obscenities, sexual harassment, and even death threats have become a deplorable, if minor, part of e-mail. Pedophiles have established their own electronic exchanges. A couple of lawyers are violating current practices on Usenet by inserting ads on every conceivable bulletin board - 6,000 in all.

What can be done to prevent the ideal of free exchange of information from ending up in practice as a kind of electronic Tower of Babel, spitting out anger and aggression?

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge the violence intruding in computer culture. Video war games are too often a child's initiation to cyberspace.

And is it altogether far-fetched to suggest that the temptation to ambush - to deliver the anonymous zap - persists among adults, mostly male adults? A cover story in Newsweek argues that ``computer culture is created, defined, and controlled by men,'' whose impulse is to dominate their machine and everybody else's machine. You can get away with being as post-sensitive as you want in cyberspace.

As more women come on line - at present, there is a gender gap of about 8 to 1 - will the old civilities return to the Information Superhighway? Internet Society directors are meeting in Prague next month to balance the conflicting demands of freedom and some form of regulation or self-regulation. Call it the end of innocence, but cyberspace has become just another region in need of boundary lines to distinguish fair from foul. The future as seen through Windows can be thought of as one more experiment in democracy, electronic style.

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