(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

John Seabrook, a staff writer for THE NEW YORKER, began his two-year exploration of cyberspace in late 1993 when he was assigned to do a profile of Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft Corporation, and decided that it might be a good idea to buy a modem and communicate with Gates via e-mail. The book is a personal account of Seabrook’s discovery of the unique on-line world from e-mail to the World Wide Web.

The first three chapters focus on the e-mail Seabrook received from Bill Gates as well as some of the responses he and Gates received after the profile appeared. Subsequent chapters describe Seabrook’s first flame letter, a scorching criticism of his failure to give due credit to one of his sources for the Gates article; his first virtual sexual experience during a private chat session, in which he pretends to be female; his efforts to find a community of computer users on the WELL, a hippie-yuppie bulletin board; and his creation of his first World Wide Web site.

This is not a book for experienced on-line addicts or web surfers; it is written for the millions of computer users just discovering the Internet and the Web. Seabrook’s approach is that of a “newbie” who traverses the on-line world in a tentative, exploratory way; his persona is that of a pioneer in a frontier world. The tone of the book is personal, with the emphasis neither on information or philosophic implications of the on-line world, but rather Seabrook’s individual reactions to its many unique features.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. February 16, 1997, XIV, p. 5.

The Economist. CCCXLIII, May 17, 1997, p. 11.

Executive Female. May, 1997, p. 65.

GQ: Gentlemen’s Quarterly. LXVII, February 1, 1997, p. 65.

New Scientist. CLIII, March 8, 1997, p. 41.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, February 16, 1997, p. 23.

The Observer. March 9, 1997, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, January 6, 1997, p. 58.

The Spectator. CCLXXVIII, March 8, 1997, p. 30.

Time. CXLIX, February 10, 1997, p. 82.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, March 16, 1997, p. 11.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

John Seabrook, a staff writer for The New Yorker, began this personal odyssey in cyberspace with an assignment to write a profile of Bill Gates, computer guru, chairman of the giant Microsoft Corporation, and richest man in the known universe. Buying a modem for the first time in late 1993, Seabrook went on line and began an e-mail exchange with Gates that resulted in a face-to-face meeting and the publication of the profile. The published piece, in turn, generated several hundred e-mail responses both to Gates and to Seabrook, all of which introduced Seabrook to the powerful communication potential of the Internet. From this point onward, to use the metaphor of the book’s title, Seabrook moved deeper and deeper into cyberspace, like an early American pioneer venturing deep into a new continent.

The first three chapters focus on the Gates encounter and include several of the e-mail messages Seabrook received from Gates. Although it is mildly interesting to read Gates’s views on on-line communication, these ideas are common and can be found in other places where Gates is his own best spokesman; the real focus here, as it is throughout the book, is Seabrook’s examination of his own reactions to the phenomenon of electronic communication—how it differs from hard-copy text, how it affects his assumptions about computer users, and how it offers the potential for a widespread sharing of ideas. As such, the account is a sort of roller-coaster ride in which Seabrook begins with high hopes for his new world, which then become dashed by his discovery that this world, being human, is limited by the age-old characteristics that have always limited humans—greed, ego, selfishness, and plain old rudeness.

Seabrook soon becomes one of those hapless addicts who search the Internet for some utopian community nonexistent in modern life. In the sometimes engaging, sometimes annoyingly flippant personal style of a well-meaning novice stumbling into a brave new world, Seabrook describes the kinds of encounters that most users of the Net eventually discover. He is stung by his first “flame,” a vicious verbal assault that seems to take place on the Net more often than in any other kind of communication. He is intrigued by his first virtual sexual encounter, in which he poses as a female and has on-line sex with an anonymous seducer. He faces fears of having been infected by a computer virus and searches frantically for some vaccine to cleanse his system. He encounters the vast variety of Usenet and Listserv discussion groups and discovers that the proportion of mindless chatter that goes on in such places is in direct proportion to the amount of noise that goes on in other modes of human communication. As he experiences these elements of on-line life, Seabrook researches and briefly summarizes the history and background of various features of the Net.

Throughout the book, Seabrook explores some of the characteristics of the Internet that have fascinated new users since its development. He meditates on the fact that people are much more likely to correspond using e-mail than to write to each other on paper and post envelopes in the so-called snail mail of the U.S. Postal Service. He wonders why numerous strangers are willing to join in chat sessions and talk into the wee hours of the morning about issues both trivial and earth-shaking. He is fascinated but ultimately put off by those who want to have anonymous, safe sex on line, describing their masturbatory fantasies to each other until reaching either real or faked orgasmic pleasure.

If there is a central theme that unifies the wide-ranging discoveries Seabrook makes, it is his search for a community of cyberspace users bonded by high-minded thought and utopian ideals. He thinks that he has found it when he signs up for a bulletin board system named the WELL, made up of latter-day hippies and ecological yuppies looking for a wedding of technology with the romantic ideal of a utopian society.

Seabrook has an on-line meeting with Howard Rheingold, former editor of the Whole Earth Review and current WELL guru, who thinks that the WELL offers the opportunity to create something like the German Romantic ideal of the “Over- Soul”—a group mind or “multi-brained organism of collective expertise,” to use Rheingold’s terms, for problem solving. Seabrook gets more and more involved in the on- line activities of the WELL, exploring its archives to discover the 1970’s counterculture he says he was too young and too square to participate in the first time.

About halfway through Seabrook’s two-year journey, the World Wide Web is born and begins to revolutionize on-line life,...

(The entire section is 1924 words.)