The Last Luddite Gets Wired

Dispatch No. 3: In Which I Grow To Hate My Computer and Despise Those Who Send Me E-Mail

The story so far: In the previous two dispatches I recounted the preliminary results of the deal I’d proposed to the editors of Slate last yearSlate would buy me a computer, modem, printer, peripherals up to a cap of $3,500. In return for which I would file, under the rubric of “The Last Luddite Gets Wired,” a series of dispatches detailing my decision-making process (whether to do it, what to buy), and then the experience of my late entry into the digital age.

At the close of my last dispatch, my purchases had arrived: $5,600 worth of Apple PowerBook G3 with DVD, Hewlett Packard printer, and assorted software and peripherals. When we left off, I was comparing myself to the awestruck apes in the opening scenes of Kubrick’s 2001, warily staring at the black slab of my Apple PowerBook as if it were the alien monolith. By the way, can anyone explain to me exactly who put the monolith there and why? I’d never really liked 2001 but had been intimidated by those who were (like the apes) awestruck by the monolithic icon Kubrick had become. The night I got my black slab from Apple, I rented 2001 and found it–like most allegedly profound and prophetic accounts of the Cyber Age–to be an overrated snooze that gestured at portentousness but delivered only an amateurish light show at the end, a light show that seemed like a substitute for the profundity it lacked. Kind of like Coppola’s inability to figure out how to end Apocalypse Now and desperately throwing in some heavy-sounding passages from “The Wasteland.”

But I digress. Let me cut to the chase. It’s three weeks after the black-slab monolith arrives and I’m on the phone with my friend Cynthia, who’s very cyber savvy. “How’s it going with your computer, are you online yet?” she asked me.

“I hate my computer,” I said.

“That’s a fast learning curve,” she told me.

The implication being that everyone sooner or later, or sooner and later, hates his computer, for its unreliability, its lack of consistency, its drop-outs, drop-offs, frozen screens, and the like.

Oh, things seemed to go swimmingly for about the first 24 hours. With the help of my computer tutor, I managed to light it up, my PowerBook, even signed up for an Internet service provider. I chose an e-mail name. Which, by the way, I’m not going to disclose, because frankly I don’t want to hear from you. Well, maybe not you, but from your typical chatroom wise-guy poseur, the “snide know-it-alls who lord it over the chatrooms with their wannabe witticisms,” as I put it in my last dispatch.

And here I want to dwell a bit on the question of cyber-era wannabe wit. My friend Cynthia, who’s fairly au courant with wired culture, noted I’d brought it up in my first dispatch as well, my distaste for know-it-alls and the way cyber discourse, perhaps because it’s grounded in ones and zeroes with no gradations in between, seems to bring out the worst in people, to breed the arrogant assumption that he who posts is the one and everyone else is a zero.

Cynthia encouraged me to get deeper into the culture and personality of the chatroom poseur in this dispatch, and since my assignment was to write about not just navigating the technical side of wired culture but about the culture itself, I’m going to take a look, a very close and exacting look, at one e-mail a Slate reader sent in response to my first dispatch. One e-mail that beautifully, perfectly embodies that peculiar combination of arrogance and ignorance, of self-aggrandizing wannabe wit I find so repellant about cyber-chat culture.

I’ll spare you the name of the sender. It’s irrelevant. What’s relevant is that he’s so typical in tone of the genus, Chatroom Poseur. The subject line for his dismissive missive: “Rosenbaum, the Luddite?” promises a stunning exposé, which he proceeds to deliver thusly:

“Rosenbaum, no Luddite he, saves himself typing time by using the letters MST3K to stand for Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (my favorite TV show. Watch it and visit its Web site before Barry Diller kills it). Only someone who is a closet computer user would bother to reduce the long title to a five-letter/number combination …”

Oooh, busted, man! Busted for abbreviation.

I love this so much that before quoting the rest of this devastating indictment, I want to savor its asinine splendor slowly. Let’s see, I’m not a real Luddite because I use abbreviations. Duh, don’t they have dictionaries online for people as ignorant as this? But ignorance does not, in Chatroom Poseur rhetoric, preclude arrogance. I don’t know, I checked: There’s nothing in my “How To Be a Luddite Handbook” that proscribes the use of abbreviations. But in his ignorance and arrogance, he’s sure he’s nabbed me in the act.

Now let’s turn to his brilliant Sherlockian deduction from this:

“Only someone who is a closet computer user (as he admits) would bother to reduce the long title to a five-letter/number combination.”

Let’s see, where to begin in this feast of arrogant, ignorant feebleness? (Do you know the phrase–was it from Alexander Pope?–“Often in error, never in doubt”?) So his deductive facility proves I’m a “closet computer user,” as I supposedly “admit.” Not likely, pal, on either count. As I wrote, I’ve never owned a computer, I’ve never produced a document on a computer, I’ve sent two e-mails in my life, made one visit to a chatroom and surfed the Net once, all on friends’ computers. Hardly a closet or any kind of computer user. Just enough, though, to give me a distaste for types like him.

But still, I’m fascinated by his logic. His certainty about the detail with which he seems to believe he’s nailed me: I use abbreviations. Um, exactly what’s the connection? People who use typewriters (which, I suppose I need to point out to this ignoramus, also have keyboards) don’t use abbreviations? There’s no logic to it at all but that doesn’t prevent a Chatroom Poseur from proceeding, all puffed up with self-congratulation on his coup, to his next point:

“If he is allowed to spend $3,500 on a computer set-up, give me the money and I’ll spend a lot less for a complete and excellent system–provided I can keep the difference …”

Make way for Mr. Techno Whiz! He seems to have a (not unsurprising) problem with reading comprehension. The premise of the dispatches was not to test my computer shopping virtuosity. The point was to chronicle the perils of an admitted novice. I’m perfectly prepared to believe you could do better than me in selecting “a complete and excellent system.” Why don’t you go enter that contest then and stop patting yourself on the back, because that’s not the point here, dimwit. Sorry, but close proximity to this sad and pathetic variety of arrogant ignorance seems to bring out something more in me than the pity it deserves. It inevitably coarsens my own naturally gentle and forgiving temperament, brings out an irritated contempt. Q.E.D, that’s what chatroom discourse seems to do to everyone: bring out the worst, most snide side of the soul.

But what else could you feel for this fellow but contempt? I’m not unwilling to listen to criticism, but a critique clothed in such an invincible armor of arrogance and ignorance is, well, typical of cyber-chat rhetoric. I’m not saying all e-mailers have achieved that perfect fusion of arrogance and ignorance, but the ones that do set the tone.

Hmmmm. I seem to have spent most of this dispatch denouncing a single e-mail. But really it is not the person but the tone, the all-too-typical wise-guy wannabe, the self-congratulatory would-be wit of the Chatroom Poseur.

What other generalizations can be made about the Chatroom Poseur? As a species, a genus, I suspect, he (and it’s almost always a he; the Chatroom Poseur is perhaps the end-stage cyberspace refinement of Male Answer Syndrome) considers himself a writer when he posts his little bons mots. For some absolutely incomprehensible reason, Chatroom Poseur is rarely able to get his work published, at least in the once conventional fashion that required someone else to believe and invest in his work. But that’s probably because The Man just can’t handle the searing vision of his Truth!

So, he’s a little bitter and resentful beneath his smugness. The lordly condescending tone Chatroom Poseur employs is the armor that hides his insecurity, his wounded (and well-deserved) sense of inadequacy. But the Web is the great equalizer for Chatroom Poseur, the Web doesn’t discriminate between good and bad prose. The labored and leaden wit of Chatroom Poseur gets “published” as if it were S.J. Perelman (note to Chatroom Poseur: S.J. Perelman is not the same as Ron Perelman). As if it were real writing.

So in a way, I’m happy for Chatroom Poseur–that he’s found a place to preen indiscriminately, to preen intemperately, to preen all over the place. If Chatroom Poseur didn’t have the Net, he’d be one of those people you pass in the crowded streets of big cities, moving along with the crowd on the sidewalk, talking and gesticulating with great articulate intensity–to himself. If he didn’t stay at home and tyrannize other Chatroom Poseur wannabes, you’d have to listen to his self-congratulatory monologues at parties. Or at the post office. Well, you still sometimes do, but much less now that he’s got his little cyber-realm to lord it over back home in the bedroom of his parents’ house.

Am I being too harsh to Chatroom Poseur? Only as a symptom, I guess. In ancient Athens, they had a name, a name that became an epithet, for the ancient equivalent of Chatroom Poseur, the ones who preened in the Agora, the chatroom of Athens. They called them Sophists, people who were less interested in finding the truth of a question than in winning an argument, turning the search for truth into an argument they could win and preen over.

From Sophists we get sophistry, sophistication (in its pejorative sense), and 23 centuries later, in the person of Chatroom Poseur, pseudo sophistication (Chatroom Poseur is not quite clever enough for genuine sophistry).

I was trying to figure out what it is about the tone of Chatroom Poseur’s postings that make them so irritating. I think some of it has to do with their staginess: Chatroom Poseur always seems conscious of his audience when he’s tapping out his would-be witticisms; they pose as conversation but they’re really self-regarding performances. He’s not completely there in his utterances because he’s listening to himself, hearing himself, admiring himself, posing for himself at all times. The Narcissus of the Net, he puts the pose in Poseur.

But as I say, I don’t want to be harsh about Chatroom Poseur. I’m probably displacing on poor C.P. some of the anger at my PowerBook G3. Actually, I don’t think it’s the computer that’s at fault so much as my Internet connection. My computer tutor thinks it’s my phone line that’s causing these frequent dropouts, which require me to redial or try different Internet service providers with pretty erratic and unpredictable results.

My goal in my first session with my black-slab PowerBook monolith was a modest one. Get online and at least get into Slate so that I could see my first dispatch and decide what I needed to revise while it’s posted. Here I think is a wonderful, if potentially nightmarish, feature of Internet writing. I’m almost always plagued by second thoughts about my magazine pieces, things I would have changed or added, but second thoughts that come too late, after the issue’s closed, on the way to the newsstand. I like the fact that I can revise, add, correct errors online in Slate. As I did in my first dispatch when I called Slate to change Scrooge McDuck to Gyro Gearloose (don’t ask). But on the other hand, this same wonderful feature could, I can see, if I were to write more for online publications, become a source of nightmare: A compulsive rethinker and rewriter like myself would never have the enforced closure of a print medium that has gone to press, would never think himself free of a piece, would never in some corner of the mind stop working on it. That way lies madness.

But anyway, after my initial success, trouble started. Netscape Navigator would frequently interrupt my reading of Slate to drop me out and tell me that they were unable to locate anything even faintly resembling www.slate.com. Could this be fallout from the Netscape/Microsoft war? Could this be evidence in the ongoing Microsoft antitrust trial? But for which side? I don’t know; all I know is when I shifted to Microsoft Internet Explorer, I could stay on Slate (which, needless to say, is a Microsoft-owned enterprise) but without the full 4.0 graphics I got on Netscape before they kicked me off and told me they never heard of Slate. I think there must be more to the story, but it’s beyond me.

Beyond me also was the reason my screen froze so often, why even after my computer tutor carefully installed my DVD software for my on-board DVD player, I couldn’t get rid of a message reading “Apple DVD player cannot continue after your computer has gone to sleep” (even after I woke it up). I couldn’t figure out why my icon wouldn’t change back from a watch reading 9 o’clock on the DVD screen. It was in the midst of this I had to do some traveling, but when I came back I found I didn’t even want to open the black slab. It seemed a lot of hassle, for what? The better to be able to read the bilious effusions of preening Chatroom Poseurs? I put in a call to my computer tutor for an emergency intensive session. In the next dispatch, I’ll let you know whether I go back to being a Luddite.