"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 7 June 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

First Online Story


[The Rev]

The Internet, besides being

everything else anyone has ever

said it is, is an electronic

promise of eternal renewal, a

buzzing digital sea of potential

firsts. It's a beautiful

simulacrum of reality where

everything that's ever happened

in the real world can happen

again with a glistening patina

of renewal, a natural pool for

the carnival-barker mentality of

"you ain't seen nothing like

this before" for everyone and

everything - from washed-up

celebrities to low-level G-Men

to journalists - to dive into

and come out the first.


[Pal Joey]

The real world, as you might have

noticed, is chockablock with a

dizzying array of actions,

running a typical gamut from the

banal and humdrum to the

humiliating, ill-conceived, or

just plain wrong. All of those

actions have a "first" awaiting

in cyberspace, from live suicide

(now that the Timothy Leary link

is dead) to the first dinner

theater performance of Pal Joey:

"interactive in real-time over

the World Wide Web!" to the

first Internet ritual mutilation

to the first 6-year-old girl to

"virtually" fly a plane.



And because of incredibly short

attention spans and the inherent

credulity and ignorance with

which most reporters approach

their duties, lots of workaday

nonsense events IN CYBERSPACE!!

have multiple firsts ahead of

them. You remember the grizzled

city editor's motto, which every

earnest reporter learns in their

first year of J-school and which

gets repeated in some statement

of purpose in every college

newspaper: "If your mother says

she loves you, rush it as a

36-point headline after... after

adding some libelous error."


[Ap Web]

Take eavesdropping. Many a farce

would lose its plot pivot if not

for the ancient human desire to

listen in on others without

their knowledge, and of course

government just couldn't do its

job of enforcing laws with no

victimized complainants without

wiretapping its citizens. Where

would civilization be without

it? On March 31, The New York

Times, civilization's paper of

record, ran Associated Press

wire copy reporting the arrest

of an Argentine student for

hacking into U.S. military

computers. The arrest, the

story insisted, was the fruit of

the "first court-ordered wiretap

on a computer network."


Three months earlier, on December

30, 1995, a staff-written New

York Times report on the arrest

of a German engineer for selling

a cellular phone programmed with

stolen numbers was also sold as

having "involved the first

court-approved wiretap of the




These reporters (and their

editors with TV-short attention

spans) fell into this mess by

forgetting Media and Computers

Rule Number One: Computers are

the Playground For Eerie New

Dangers. This is a special

dietary staple of hour-long

local evening news programs with

their unending string of

breathless reports that kids -

kids, darn it! - have access to

low-speed, brief, and shallow

information and titillation

regarding poorly-planned recipes

for explosives and

poor-resolution photos of ugly

naked women scanned in from '70s

porn magazines.



Why, in the pre-computer days

when the world was still

essentially sane and decent,

young 'uns had to leave their

house, wander to a hippie

bookstore, or talk to their

pals' creepy older sibling

missing a fingernail or two to

have access to such corruption,

in much higher quantity and

quality and probably more

quickly than the average home

computer can download

memory-heavy files.



So how could these reporters

forget the pre-

porn-and-explosives wave of

digital bogeyman, the wily

"hacker." The prosecutions of

those comic-book-reading kooks

working under risible nomes de

guerre like the "Masters of

Deception" and "Legion of Doom"

also involved court-authorized

wiretaps of computer

communications. And the FBI

gleefully acknowledges

monitoring Internet

communications as a matter of

course, without court orders.



Nexis, the lazy reporter's

electronic best friend,

unwittingly provides a glimpse

into the skewed future of

electronic archiving as well as

some silk-fine distinctions. In

a transcript of a Justice

Department press conference

regarding these fabulous firsts,

a spokesperson explains, in

transcript-speak: in earlier

taps, "it wasn't of the computer

packets which network, but the

circuits which network. In other

words, the wiretapping [was] at

the phone company, but not at an

Internet service provider."

(Your Internet service

providers, both of these firsts

indicate, are more than happy to

sell you out to any crime-buster

who comes down the pike.) That's

intriguingly Joycean prose for a

bureaucrat, but one presumes he

meant the "packet switch

network" and the "circuit switch

network." It's a matter of

public record otherwise, though -

so what to do?



The feds have had the authority

to do such wiretaps since 1986's

Electronic Communications

Privacy Act, making the notion

that they are only now using

this authority all the more

doubtful. But computers, being

NEW, breed this sort of

breathless novelty-oriented

reporting. They also spawn

increasingly novelty-besotten

criticism, in which just because

it takes expensive equipment and

a long time to read it and, of

course, because it's the

inevitable wave of the future

(ask anyone whose future relies

on that being true), the type of

fare you normally wouldn't

bother reaching over the curdled

milk to grab if it were on

newsprint sitting in a giveaway

pile at a local coffeehouse is

now considered worthwhile, even

if it means waiting 20 minutes

and racking up connection fees.



Even uberpraised ubereditor

Michael Kinsley agreed in a

recent Esquire profile that

Salon is the bee's knees,

functioning as it does at the

level of a second-rate free

alternative weekly. Granted, one

where almost no article is

longer than 1,000 words and it

takes as long to get to the text

as it does to read it. But it's

online. And see any number of

ass-kissing paeans to Suck, home

of barely bite-sized bursts of

uninformative bile with the

depth of insight of a college

newspaper op-ed. Granted, one

which has managed to get several

corporations to bankroll it to

the hilt. But it's a brave

ALL-NEW world, and if you're not

the firstest with the mostest

you might as well just kill

yourself. Online, of course.

courtesy of Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk