THE DARK SIDE OF CYBERSPACE: Virtual reality now harbors actual criminals and addicts who shun the real world
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The Internet's strength - its openness - is also its weakness. In the printing-press era, it cost money to print books and more money to distribute them. With the Internet, it's almost completely free. While that freedom gives everybody the chance to be an instant publisher, what they write isn't always great literature.Skip to next paragraph
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Even Internet critics, however, are leery of electronic censorship. Some Internet pioneers have cut back their time on the network because of the deluge of info-junk. (See story, below.)
The network makes it almost too easy to send things to others.
In April, two Arizona immigration lawyers flooded the Internet with ads for their services. In June, they did it again. Reportedly, it took attorney Laurence Canter of Phoenix less than 90 minutes to send his original ad to more than 5,000 electronic discussion groups that, in turn, are read by millions of people. The cost for this effort? Nothing except the regular monthly fee to his Internet provider and a local phone call. The result: More than 15,000 responses flooded in, crashing the system of his Internet provider. The responses were mostly complaints. Sending unsolicited ads is considered a no-no on the ``net.'' But the flap shows how tough it is to enforce unwritten rules in such an anything-goes environment.
Back at the Internet discussion group, Fraggle Rocks is beginning to get responses to her addiction problem. Johnny dreams up an on-line wedding, complete with inside Internet jokes. ``Super'' suggests trying a role-playing game (called a Multi-User Dimension or ``MUD'' as a substitute.)
The discussion group - alt.irc.recovery - is intended ostensibly to help people get over their electronic addiction. But the tone here is only mock-serious. Fraggle herself comes back on-line to explain that she has no intention of leaving her virtual enclave. What she really wants is to be ``a little character that can stay in IRC all the time and never leave. That would be real ... not this stuff they call bills and eating and breathing.''
Researchers disagree about whether to call this behavior addiction. ``I'm really tired of seeing people take a shallow sort of twist on it,'' says Amy Bruckman, an education research assistant at the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. (See story, right.)
The bigger issue is the quality of on-line interaction. At its best, Internet exposes people to a wealth of information and contacts. At its worst, it is mindless jabber.
``One could almost call it Internet trash talk,'' Professor Win-ner says. ``The thought is that nobody really knows who you are. And the processes of social accountability ... are just missing on-line. Anyone can say just about anything and then vanish.''
``It's almost a robot-like type of communication,'' adds Valerie Lorenz, executive director of the Compulsive Gambling Center Inc. in Baltimore. ``They send jokes or a little bit of the latest news. [But] they don't get to know each other at an emotional level. It takes up time. But what happens when you turn the computer off? There's still the emptiness and the loneliness.''
Technology and society will eventually address these deficiencies. ``It's really a design problem,'' Ms. Bruckman says. ``Think about the difference between walking into McDonald's and walking into a fancy French restaurant.'' People pick up on the social clues: the decor, the lighting, what the waiters are wearing, and the hours of operation and they act accordingly. The trick, she adds, is to put those same kinds of clues into on-line environments.
Bruckman is building a professional community for adults - a MUD, actually - where everyone has to use his or her real name. Participants can go from one virtual room to another and participate in organized activities. Every Tuesday night, writing teachers get together at a virtual cafe to exchange ideas. The hope is that users will become more discriminating.
``In the great shakedown that will doubtless occur, both good and bad will emerge and I think will be fairly obvious,'' Winner says. ``Right now, we're getting a lot of toxic waste on-line. But eventually people will say: `Gee, I don't want to live in this Love Canal. Let's move to someplace where we have meadows and trees and people talking seriously about things that matter.' ''