The New York Times, February 16, 1997, Sunday.
SECTION: Section 7; Page 23; Column 1; Book Review Desk
LENGTH: 1092 words
HEADLINE: 'I Got E-Mail From Bill!'
BYLINE: By David S. Bennahum.
My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace.
By John Seabrook.
288 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $25.
"You are your words" is the epigraph greeting users as they log on to the
Well, an electronic bulletin-board system in northern California. Cyberspace
remains a territory comprising mostly sentences and phrases, which is why the
Well chose to place this admonition as a reminder to its users -- what you write
here is who you are.
Words are everywhere on line, a situation few would have foretold a decade
ago when television, film and the video-game industry seemed to indicate that
writing and reading would mutate into arcane rituals. Computers did the
opposite, creating through the Internet a rebirth of authorship under cover of
electronic mail, electronic discussion groups and electronic home pages. It is
this expanding territory of electronic words that John Seabrook explores in
"Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace."
The muse who drew Mr. Seabrook into this wide world of words is Bill Gates,
the chairman of Microsoft. In the summer of 1993 Mr. Seabrook bought a modem,
sent Mr. Gates an E-mail message and received an answer a few moments later.
Understandably, Mr. Seabrook was hooked. "Since this moment was the real
beginning of my life on line," he writes, "of which these pages are a record, I
should have said something memorable. . . . But instead I said only 'I got
E-mail from Bill!' " Their electronic correspondence continued for several
months and formed the core of a profile of Mr. Gates that Mr. Seabrook wrote for
The New Yorker. This piece reappears in "Deeper" as a literary device -- the
point where Mr. Seabrook, an innocent novice, or "newbie," decided to begin his
electronic odyssey. The core of the book is composed of four vignettes, three of
which first appeared in The New Yorker, where Mr. Seabrook works as a writer.
After expanding his article on Mr. Gates, he wrote one on being "flamed"
(receiving angry, insulting E-mail), and one about building his own Web site.
The fourth, and most interesting, describes his discovery that people are
discussing his articles on line, and recounts his dread as they draw him into
As his technical skills improve -- from fumbling with E-mail to managing a
conference on the Well and building a Web site -- his delight with the medium
moves in inverse proportion, a trope he establishes in the introduction: "In the
beginning I felt that special lightness of hope and possibility that new
communications technologies seem to be uniquely capable of inspiring. . . . By
the end I no longer felt that way about the technology, and I wondered whether
the feeling had been an illusion." This theme gives Mr. Seabrook a means of
connecting separate stories into a whole.
This transformation, however, from idealistic innocent to wary sophisticate,
emerges as a transparent literary device, making it difficult to care about Mr.
Seabrook's odyssey. Although he is an elegant and lucid writer, his talents are
undermined by a palpable sense of inauthenticity. He writes in a wry,
self-conscious voice that never plausibly communicates his initial idealism
about the medium. "A new window of possibility had opened inside my everyday
life," he writes of his new access to E-mail. "Sometimes, as I was checking my
mail . . . I would stop and ask myself, Was I thinking like a digital guy? What
is a digital guy? . . . Are digital guys what nerds will molt into when the
information highway reaches everyone's door?" This is neither funny nor
introspective. Instead, it is the tone of a wary narrator whose use of humor
keeps "Deeper" skimming the surface of cyberspace and holds the reader at bay.
For instance, midway through his adventure, Mr. Seabrook promises to explore
the limits of what constitutes infidelity in cyberspace. But before much can be
learned, the wry tone reappears, turning his experience into a comic moment.
After several offers to enter a private on-line "chat room," Mr. Seabrook
decides to join someone called "candyman" for an exchange of rapid erotic prose,
and hesitates, writing: "Then it occurred to me that whatever I was about to do
might some day constitute adultery." So he calls to his wife in the next room
and tells her he thinks he is about to have his first sexual experience on the
screen. " 'WHAT?' came loudly through the Sheetrock. Lisa appeared in my
doorway. 'I mean, as a woman,' I said. 'You're a woman?' 'I'm a woman who may
also be a deer. My name is Bambi. I'm sorry you had to find out this way.' "
He rarely goes deeper than this, hiding behind humor, never risking himself,
playing it safe, picking up one idea after another and quickly dropping it. "The
computer screen was like a mirror," he writes. "Not a true mirror -- more like a
mirror that gave you back a vision of the world looking the way you wished it
looked." The reflection he sees in his monitor is that of the mythic frontier,
and the saga of his and his wife's grandparents re-created on line; both
families "had come ou
t west and homesteaded places in the Dakotas in the 1870's . . . like cyberspace
the West was a small place in those days." The duality
between grand illusion and reality that permeates cyberspace is the essence of
this medium; exploring it requires engagement -- you can only observe for so long
without sounding trite.
In this wordspace, however, Mr. Seabrook remains aloof, refusing to join the
natives in their epistolary adventure. Ironically, their writing is the most
authentic and interesting part of "Deeper." Mr. Seabrook includes posts from the
Well's users (where he too has a membership) as they try to make sense of their
experiment in on-line self-governance and later grapple with the thought that
their writing will be included in Mr. Seabrook's book. Toward the end of the
book they rise up and pillory Mr. Seabrook on the Well, posting messages
accusing him of writing his New Yorker pieces in a self-servingly disingenuous
way. After reading his article on being flamed, one writes: "This article seemed
to consist of the author creating a persona that he believed would be attractive
but was in fact intolerable. I found myself rooting for the flamer, altho I'm
not a flaming kind of guy. Put this animal out of its misery, I thought,
although that was an uncharitable and wrong thought." As Mr. Seabrook reads
these posts, eventually entering the fray himself, one is left rooting for the
others in the Well. With "Deeper" they will have more of the same to discuss.
CORRECTION-DATE: March 2, 1997, Sunday
A review on Feb. 16, about "Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace,"
John Seabrook, referred incorrectly to the opening message seen by computer
users as they log on to the Well, an on-line service. The message begins:
"Welcome to the Well. You own your own words" (not "You are your words").
by David S. Bennahum