In September, President Clinton discovered a rare patch of common ground with the Speaker of the House. All public schools, the president proclaimed, ought to be linked to the Internet by the year 2000. Newt Gingrich has been extolling the educational virtues of the Net for months. Want to learn about batik craftsmanship? he asks in To Renew America. Just log onto the Net, the library where the books never leave the shelf. "Somehow," Gingrich said at a Progress and Freedom Foundation symposium earlier this year, "there has to be a missionary spirit in America that says to the poor kid, 'The Internet's for you.'"
Just what will the nation's schoolchildren, poor or otherwise, find in cyberspace? Pending bills in Congress, a directory of ZIP codes, the Shoemaker-Levy photos of Jupter -- and quite a bit more. The messages posted to the newsgroup re.pyrotechnics, for instance, offer plans for constructing bombs. On alt.suicide.holiday, users suggest how those so inclined might painlessly kill themselves. One recent addition to the family of online newsgroups is called alt.fuck.the.skull.of.jesus.
The alt.sex hierarchy includes groups devoted to enemas, spanking, water-sports, foot fetishes, necrophilia, and pedophilia. The pedophiles, in fact, populate four separate newsgroups, some of which feature digitized photos of naked children. A company with the easy-to-remember Net moniker x- rated.com advertises "that kinky, sleazy, wild, depraved, incredibly hot- making stuff that you used to have to sneak into the house in plain, stained, brown-paper wrappings -- now brought to you hygienically by the miracle of computing."
Gingrich's GOP comes in for a good bit of online attention. According to alt.conspiracy, the Republicans have a secret plot for cracking down on illegal immigration: Every American citizen will be forced to have a computer chip implanted under the skin. Talk.rumors reveals that Dan Quayle is gay. The there's the new group alt.rush-limbaugh.die.a.flaming.death. Even alt.fan.newt-gingrich turns out to feature sprinkling of skeptics. Not long ago, Philip Elmei-DeWitt of Time groused that the Speaker's "much- hralded vision of cyberdemocracy" strikes him as merely "warmed-over Al Gore." Another critic complained that Gingrich's firing of House historian Christina jeffrey is further proof that "all North American politicians must be cuddling lapdogs of the Zionist masters."
On line, in fact, everybody's sensmvmes get trampled. A publicly accessible file-transter site offers the notorious antisemitic forgery Protocols of the Elders of Zion, thoughtfully compressed for speedier downloads. Air. politics.white-power features all sorts of racist rants. Sexist flamers now dominate alt.feminism, overloading the bulletin board with hostile jibes. On a thread about women and sports, one womarlisted her many athletic accomplishments. "Yeah, baby," responded a male user, "but can you cook?"
The Net provides a wide-open forum for all sorts of raucousness. Any user can post to unmoderated newsgroups, and any sufficiently savvy user can create a newsgroup. (The day that alt.politics.usa.newt-gingrich opened for business, so did alt.sex.incest.) Some insightful debates result, but so does lots of playground name-calling. On a religion newsgroup recently, a user asked a follower of the antisemitic Christian Identity movement how his beliefs differ from Hitler's; the Christian Identity follower responded by asking how the questioner's beliefs differ from the Antichrist's.
The Internet, with its combination of near-absolute free speech, facelessness, and anonymity, naturally attracts people whom offline society stigmatizes. Pedophiles, Holocaust-deniers, and bomb-makers represent only a tiny fraction of Net users, of course, but they generate a disproportionate amount of noise.
That's the sort of noise that plenty of people don't want in their public schools. In fact, a lot of conservative Christians aren't crazy about computers to start with. In his 1991 book The New World Order, Pat Robertson refers to supercomputers. as an "alarming development" that, by moving us toward a cashless society, may be fulfilling the Revelation prophecy that "no man could buy or sell without the mark of the beast." The Net isn't going to appeal to people who think computers are ushering in the Antichrist. More broadly, Gingrich's Information Age vision doesn't resonate with those evangelicals to whom the future means, above all else, the Second Coming. Some discord has already arisen. The Christian Coalition, which spent an estimated $ 1 million to push Gingrich's Contract with America, favors new laws regulating online pornography; Gingrich is skeptical.
Plenty of people will wince at what they find online. They'll clamor to make the Net safe for Middle America, especially its schoolchildren: Keep the Shoemaker-Levy photos, but oust the porn, pedophiles, and pyrotechnics. Invariably, critics will be able to cite offline harms resulting from the Net. Pedophiles will abuse children they first met online, kids will blow off fingers with the Net's bomb recipes, despondent teens will poison themselves using recipes from alt.-suicide.holiday. Maybe all these tragedies would have occurred without the Net, but that's tough to prove.
These critics will also argue that a medium partly funded with tax dollars, as the Net is (through state universities and state-funded networks as well as public schools), must reflect public sensibilities. It's the same argument that's raised against the National Endowment for the Arts, but with a twist. The NEA has aided a handful of projects likely to appall the average American. The Net aids thousands of them, and delivers them straight into the home and classroom. Technological fixes, such as software to block out the raunchy neighborhoods of cyberspace, will help, but they'll never be airtight; the average 14-year-old techno-nerd, after all, can out-hack most of his teachers and a fair number of software engineers.
Though a number of public schools are already online, there hasn't yet been much fuss. A lot of these schools require students to pledge that they'll stay away from certain parts of the Net -- perhaps as effective as posting the sign "Please don't look at these books" alongside a library shelf of sex guides. A year ago, I asked an ACLU official why conservative Christians, those traditional schoolbook flyspeckers, hadn't yet caught on to what this new medium was spewing. She held her finger to her lips and said, "Shhh. Don't tell them."
Well, a lot of them have discovered the Net for themselves now. So have those liberal parents who fret about subtle sexism and other outmoded stereotypes in schoolbooks. Cyberpolitics may be quirkily Third Wave -- at the Progress and Freedom Foundation conference, Gingrich shared the rostrum with Electronic Frontier Foundation cofounder John Perry Barlow, a shaggy lyricist for the Grateful Dead. Offline politics, though, remains bogged down in the industrial-era Second Wave, where censorship disputes are commonplace and clamorous. This one is sure to be a beaut.
By Stephen Bates