A Historian In Cyberspace

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To our surprise, more than three million visitors—people of all ages, from all over the world—have come to the Valley Project on the Web. Some have told us that this history on a computer screen touched them more deeply than any other they had ever experienced, as unlikely as that seemed. Part of the appeal has come from the very thing we worried about: the lack of a visible authority, the empty space where there would normally be an argument or a narrative. Instead, we created a place where visitors in effect collaborated with us in weaving stories from the records.

We had stumbled on what proved to be one of the most appealing metaphors of the Web: community. The historical sources took on meaning because they told of communities of imaginable size undergoing the most dramatic events the people of this nation have ever known. But there was more to it than that. People using the site seemed to feel themselves a part of a larger community. They knew they were not the only ones thinking about these people of the past. Messages came almost every day, sharing enthusiasm and encouragement. The new technology seemed to be creating new communities, both real and virtual.

Other Web communities were far more self-consciously orchestrated. Businesses sprang up quickly, built around the metaphor, and tens of millions of people “joined” “communities” by posting Web sites reflecting their personalities, their interests, and images of themselves. Those virtual communities soon became among the most heavily visited places in Cyberspace; 20 million people have created Web pages in one virtual neighborhood or another. The metaphor is pursued with great thoroughness and literal-mindedness. At GeoCities, one of the largest virtual communities, visitors are promised they can “meet people just like you.” Web sites are divided into neighborhoods, blocks, and houses. Each neighborhood has its theme, and they read like X rays of American obsessions, pastimes, and fantasies. People can live in, among many other places, Wallstreet (investing, finance), TimesSquare (games, role-playing), Athens (education, philosophy), Hollywood (film and TV), Pentagon (the military), or RainForest (the environment).

As in suburbia, looks can be deceptive. Although each house in each block appears the same, some are filled with sophisticated graphics and text, while others bear the marks of residents who lost interest after posting a photo of their cat or listing their favorite television show. Some communities have active city fathers and mothers who strive for cybercivic pride. In the Heartland community, for example, residents vie for the Heartland Award of Excellence, given to those who do the most to encourage the values of the traditional American community.

The accelerated history of Cyberspace has recapitulated the history of America.

Much of Cyberspace, in other words, has become thoroughly domesticated. It would be difficult to imagine places much farther removed from the dark, slick, and sinister spaces of Neuromancer . While early visions of Cyberspace envisioned naked displays of power in glowing cubes and grids, Cyberspace at the turn of the century resembles nothing so much as the American suburbia in which it flourishes. Confronted with a blank slate on which to imagine a new kind of space, people on the Web have replicated late-twentieth-century America and its car culture of malls, subdivisions, traffic, construction, shopping baskets, and chain stores. People have even begun to buy and sell “real estate” in role-playing games, at escalating prices. Until proved otherwise, everything on the Web is an advertisement for something else. Of these sites, 83 percent devote themselves to commercial content, 6 percent to education and science. We have met Cyberspace, and it is us.

Relentless optimism stands as the official mood of Cyberspace. “In this Internet moment—a remarkable convergence of calendar and change—we the people have a chance at last to become our own masters,” one booster enthused at the approach of the new millennium. “We are all moguls now, pooh-bahs with our hands on the machinery of vast empires.” While critics of the Web complain that over half of all traffic is already controlled by a few big companies, optimists point out that half remains for everyone else.

THE SENSE OF DANGER NEVERTHELESS CONTINUES TO lurk. No sooner had Cyberspace been settled than it began to attract doomsday cults, pedophiles, and fascist skinheads. Nostalgia immediately developed for the old Internet. “Cyberspace, once thought of as the world’s most cozy community,” one editorial lamented in the wake of a computer virus in the summer of 1999, “has quickly become a lonely, infinite expanse of electronic hallways filled with endless queues of online shopping malls and shadowy alleys where computer outlaws and their rogue programs lurk.” The world of Neuromancer has merged with that of Wal-Mart. Faced with this anomie, gated communities have proliferated in Cyberspace; some people, presented with an unprecedented breadth of possibility, want only to mingle with people like themselves. Shoppers are automatically guided to the same music and books as were chosen by others who bought similar music and books before. The Web of “customerization” grows tighter; hopes of communities based on something other than consumerism dwindle.