I Garbugli della Rete - 12
May 1997

English translation

The Idoru, the Comet
the Aliens and Us

disponibile anche in Italiano


Before this is printed, the Hale-Bopp comet will be forgotten by almost everybody. So will the big media fuss about the mass suicide of a religious sect in California that was expecting aliens to arrive in the tail of that comet. But this is not about astronomy or religion. It’s about poor information

Nearly a year ago, in the first article of this series, I discussed the confused noise, the messy cocktail of fears and fantasy that surrounds the net. Time goes by, more and more is said and written. We begin, occasionally, to hear and read more sensible things – but they are still quite rare exceptions.

We’ve read a few well written and well researched articles about suicide cults – of which this recent episode is just one more example. But also a monumental amount of nonsense. That cult had existed for over twenty years. It had nothing to do with the internet. Only recently a few of its followers had started to offer online services to help finance the organization. If they had set up a chicken farm, nobody would be blaming chicken for what happened, or calling them “chicken worshippers”.

But when the internet is involved... the witchhunt is on. All sorts of people who don’t understand the net (or the circumstances of this event) seized the opportunity to write long, dramatic articles about the internet as a new, satanic cult... and found big, and supposedly serious, newspapers willing to publish their nightmares.

These net-haters are not doing any good to their readers, or to a better understanding of new communication tools. But neither are the fanatics that celebrate with exaggerated emphasis irrelevant technical details.

For instance there were front-page articles in many newspapers about an idoru, a “digital” pop singer that apparently is quite popular in Japan. Reports were so inaccurate that they talked about a book by Bruce Sterling, while of course the (not-so-good) “Idoru” story was written by William Gibson.

What's so new? Someone in Japan used computer graphics to do something that humanity has been doing for millennia. There have always been idols and totems, toys and puppets. Dolls have names and distinct personalities. Punch and Judy and all sorts of paper or wooden “people” are well defined characters. So are Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Tom and Jerry, Snoopy and Jessica Rabbit. And so are pop singers and movie stars that exists in fiction, and in people’s imagination, as quite different entities from what they are in their private lives.

And... there is an élite culture, born when the net was the privilege of a very small group of people. A lot of it is interesting and pleasant. For instance the Usenet jargon: it’s fun and I hope it will survive. And netiquette: it’s full of wisdom and we should all learn to follow it better.

But there are parts of tat world that I don’t enjoy, because indeed they feel like sects or cults (though of course they are non-violent and quite harmless.) They are one of the main reasons why many people, who don't understand the net, feel uncomfortable about it.

When I was a newbie, I looked with great respect at people with experience. And I found excellent teachers. Initially I had the same reverence for the “cyberpunk” culture (some of it is quite interesting) but as I got to know it better I became disappointed. Blade Runner is a good movie – but that’s not the world we live in. I’ve been reading science fiction all my life, from Asimov to Gibson, and I enjoy it – but it’s not the only form or literature, or the only source of knowledge.

All cultures have some value. But I don’t agree with the “cyberpunk” culture when it claims to be the net. They should accept the fact that they are only one of many communities, and have no aristocratic privilege. Many of them are stuck with old thinking, crystallized in a pseudo-culture where abstruse language is used to disguise superficial thinking.

They are really behaving like some sort of cult, hiding in the dark, sticking to a self-made “underground” that they find quaintly comfortable. They stay away from any activity to protect freedom of speech and an open flow of information and opinion – they would rather have censorship, so they can play victim. With their selfish masochism they often play into the hands of the censors.

There is a rather unpleasant alliance (de facto, if not deliberate) between the enemies of the net and some of it’s self-appointed prophets.

“We, the people” of the net, have nothing to do with either of those worlds. I am quite encouraged by the messages I receive from readers of this column. They reveal a community of lively human exchange, with a keen interest for dialogue, bright and open curiosity, a true richness of ideas and diversity. This, for me, is the real identity of the net.


Giancarlo Livraghi
  January 1998

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