The Ethical Spectacle, May 1995, http://www.spectacle.org

The Internet Gold Rush

About two weeks ago, I installed an evaluation copy of Chameleon on my home computer, sent to me by the Interramp service of Performance Systems International. I logged in to the Interramp server, filled out an online form, and within minutes had an Internet account.

Since then, I have experienced anywhere from one to three crashes per session, some of them locking up the computer so badly that CTRL-ALT-DEL won't work. I connect to the Net knowing that every session will end in a crash; its just a question of how much I'll get done before I am thrown out.

Part of the problem appears to be the WebSurfer software; I have managed to crash the computer merely by clicking on an erroneous link in a homegrown HTML document, without even being connected to the Net. I can crash by visiting too many pages in a row, leaving before the GIF's are downloaded; by killing multiple GIF requests in the "Connection Status" screen; or, much of the time for no apparent reason at all. For example, I type "http://www.books.com". It worked the day before and will work the day after, but twice in a row it blows out the computer so bad I have to turn it off and on again to restart. And Wired Magazine's Hotwired pages tell me that Websurfer is one of the browsers they do not recommend.

I have been in the computer business in one way or another since 1981, from CP/M running in 64k through to today. I have worked and played on Zx81's, Commodores, Apple II's, the PC Jr., the XT, 386's, 486's, xterminals and Nexts, and I have never run any commercial app that has crashed my computer so many times, or so seriously.

What makes this an issue worth writing about here, rather than a private score? Because I am not alone. There are multitudes out there who are experiencing the same thing I am trying to connect to the Internet. And the reason it is happening is because a gold rush is on, we are living in a world of hype, and the vendors we must deal with believe that all of the usual rules are suspended.

It isn't healthy for anyone. At the core of it all is not vaporware but the Internet, a thing that if left alone will grow, serve us in ways we haven't even yet imagined, and be healthy. Instead, with the media hyping it every day like a newly opened Yukon, hordes of people are rushing in to plunder it or regulate it. You wouldn't expect there to be health regulations, garbage pick-up, or any kind of laws in a new territory; and that's exactly what's happening today on the Net.

Of course, to continue the analogy a little further, just as there was in the Yukon, there is an indigenous culture here, which has been living quietly a long time with its own rules and values, and which is being trampled all over by the invaders. No-one wants the indigenous culture to stand in the way of what needs to be done; so they either get dismissed as a bunch of arrogant technodweebs who don't want anyone to make a buck, or they get ignored entirely.

The new cultures and the old need to adapt to each other; the old will need to give up some ground--keeping commerce off the Net is a lost battle. But the new people need to adapt, not act like the Net didn't exist til they discovered it.

Companies distributing commercial access products they should be ashamed to show anyone in alpha test are the "coyotes" of the Net, ushering in hordes of the disadvantaged with vague promises that there is gold to be found in the streets. These people--like I have the last two weeks--will get in and find they cannot really do anything except frustrate themselves and (possibly) annoy other people; and they will report back that this doesn't work, is not worthy of support. When the hype blows up, it would be fine if the citizens of the Net were left alone again, in peace, for the Net might more safely survive as an evolution than a revolution. But few new territories are left the same after the masses rush in, let alone better. Because of the way the media has overblown the Net, while the access companies have rushed people in by the boatload, the end result may be that we are left to the critics and the regulators, who will then denounce us as a fraud on America, and do their best to take apart the remnants. For much of it is a fraud---just one that happens to be being perpetrated not by the citizens of the Net, but by the third parties making the promises.

Email to PSI went unanswered except by a robot mailer; email to Netmanage was answered apologetically by a marketing manager who told me the company knew there were problems with the "free" version, and advising me to download the latest from their Web pages. But, since Websurfer automatically deleted any files I had ftp'd during the session every time I exited, I respectfully declined, and today use Netscape instead.