"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 2 August 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Free Range Beef



The cyber-frontier metaphor makes

us as ornery as a one-eyed pocket

gopher in a thistle patch. Tired

as it's become, it was a natural

model for the net's early years.

After all, we're fresh out of

terrestrial frontiers to exploit

and exhaust, and the only real

value in outer space is its

profound emptiness (and the jobs

it generates to keep going

there). Lawlessness, exaggerated

claims of "glory hole!", boozy

wage workers, snakeoil nitwits,

and naked ladies - the net had

all the debauched earmarks of

the Wild West, just the way

Hollywood likes to remember it.



The infinite interiority of

networked computers - still

concentrated as they are in

congested urban nodes - feeds a

valuable delusion: the sense

that we're not limited by space,

that we're not in any danger of

crowding ourselves off the

planet. Through some twisted

logic, and a metaphysical

read-write error in our

collective RAM, we

subconsciously believe that

positive population growth is

more or less irrelevant: the

species will colonize

cyberspace, where the laws of

scarcity simply don't apply.

Hell, they didn't even apply in

the real world, until Jimmy and

Billy Carter came along.


[Beautiful Desert]

Walter Prescott Webb's 1931 classic

The Great Plains made it clear

that what distinguished the new

American West from the old East

was the introduction of new

technologies: the revolver, the

barbed-wire fence, and the

windmill. Until these gizmos

came into production, everything

left of the Mighty Miss was

considered desert. Weapons,

walls, and water - the original

WWW - are what made the West

safe for settlement, and for the

real task at hand: landing a

McDonald's franchise.


The Internet today is being

fenced as far as the eye can

browse. Search engines and

indices, clipper chips,

encryption, PICs, and kiddie

filters are all designed to

overlay the vast electronic

wilderness with a Cartesian

greed, er... grid. Wayward

cowboys and cowgirls who try to

cut across private property are

finding themselves fatally

entangled in firewalls, their

trusty browsers already lamed by

incompetent Java scripts and

buggy GIF animations.


[All Terrain Vehicles]

New media execs have only to go

to their poorly-stocked employee

restrooms to see that the demand

for better content is written on

the wall. (In what medium, well,

perhaps it's not best to take

these things too literally.) But

instead of "content," we get

information, and hundreds of

sites have rolled into

town - peddling maps. Not of

cyberspace, but of brickspace.

It's about time someone on the

net returned the favor for the

hundreds of published books

purporting to be atlases of

cyberspace. It's an interesting

Freudian proposition: if you

know precisely where you are,

then it's okay to be there. The

wider and smoother the roads,

the more you know you're exactly

where you're supposed to be -

whether it's in your Land Rover

or on your Powerbook.



After learning the difference

between declarative,

interrogative, and hortatory,

the next-biggest eye-opener in

sixth grade was discovering that

map makers tended to put their

own countries in the center of

the picture. Digital

downloadable Mercator

projections notwithstanding, the

same thing seems to be taking

place here in cyberspace.

Remember early American URLs

that included geographic

references? In the real world,

only the IRS, the White House,

and Santa Claus can get away

with such nonspecific addresses.



We don't pretend to understand all

the vagaries of InterNIC domain

registration (we still haven't

been able to register the name

of our sister site, fuck.com),

but it's compelling to note that

most domains in countries other

than the good ol' U.S. of A. use

a two-letter country code. It's

what's called, somewhat

condescendingly, a Top-Level

Domain based on political

geography - something that

exists apparently in spite of

InterNIC's backroom grumbling

about "a global network without

national borders." That just

tells you that the principle

"innocent until proven guilty"

has a twisted, provincial cousin

on the net: American until

proven foreign.


Never a company to pass up an

opportunity at bad PR, America

Online execs made asses of

themselves last week, right in

the midst of the Olympics'

strained globalism. No one is

surprised by NBC's absurdly

provincial and inadequate TV

coverage in Atlanta, but America

Online wanted in on the action.

Showing they're serious about

enforcing both the spirit and

the letter of their

not-very-global corporate ID,

AOL monitors who barely speak

one language, much less two,

tried to ban the use of Spanish -

and all other non-English

languages - from a forum devoted

to Olympic soccer. Executives

relented when someone pointed

out that a bunch of foreigners

had already snuck in - at both

the Olympics and AOL.


Who knows where it'll all lead?

But it's safe to say that

minting thousands of new .com

domains, putting up road signs,

and enforcing English as the

official language can only lead

to the South Dakotafication of

the web: Gopher Ghost Town, next

exit. Pioneer Explorer Museum,

five miles. Whoa! You just

missed the turn to Infantile

Gardens. Where the heck is



If the real world is any

precedent, all this metaphoric

westward expansion will end in

proximity to some calamitous

fault zone, the San Andreas of

the web. Really, so what if a

few major media 'scrapers come

tumbling down when "the big one"

hits? In the meantime, we'll be

watching for a whole cottage

industry (perhaps in our own

backyard) to spring up on the

golden shores of cyberspace,

their door-to-door flunkies

asking: "Yeah, but is your

website Suck?"

courtesy of the E.L. Skinner