Toward More Conscious Web-bing

Not too long ago, I was reading the Sunday New York Times when I stumbled across a brief reference to the multiple Cy Young Award winner and newest Yankee hurler, Roger Clemens.

The writer noted that Clemens uses the web to research hitters’ tendencies. He studies interviews with upcoming opponents to glean tidbits about pitches they are looking for, weaknesses they are trying to overcome, and the overall state of their game.

So how are you preparing for your pitches?

The Clemens story is just another proof of how pervasive the web has become. I don’t need such proof. Nor do you, I suppose. But don’t you catch yourself some days in mid-web and wonder, “How did I get here without at least putting up some kind of fight?”

The web is seductive. A study released recently claims that regular web users feel more “alive” and “energized” than their atavistic counterparts. But, contrarian that I am and will always be, I wonder about this “energized” business.

I’ve had this idea for a screenplay kicking about in my mental attic for several years. It’s about someone who invents a “safe suit,” an impenetrable container that allows a person to go anywhere and do anything without fear. Tumble down a mountainside. Squat in a blasted, hopeless inner-city neighborhood. Wait for a tornado. Saunter onto some Kosovian battlefield. Live this day like it will be done over endlessly — without consequences — as it was for Bill Murray Groundhog Day. Become the ultimate voyeur.

The screenplay’s idea came from a feeling that I have about our present condition. For all the opportunity of this new gilded age, I think there is an undercurrent of fear; a desire to create gated enclaves for the heart and body.

There are reasons to be fearful, for sure. There are children who have no light in their eyes. And who equate status with power and power with guns.

The bomb in Oklahoma City is still exploding. AIDS has dropped from the headlines but is still circulating in the national bloodstream. (Not one week after I wrote the words above, along came the horrors in Littleton.) And in this context of a public life (that can appear, at best, coarse and, at worst, deadly) we enter the web.

The web is, I think, the ultimate “safe suit,” allowing me to go virtually anywhere and see virtually anything without consequences. (With that said, I am mindful of the web’s very real hazards: sexual predators, online credit card fraud, and so on.)

Its capacity to enable voyeurism of all stripes is about to explode because of more bandwidth and the mass deployment of digital video cams. The web gives me the illusion, even titillation, of connectedness and community.

But for the most part, I believe it is just that: an illusion. Seemingly by the day, the web is becoming a giant galleria of human “experiences,” with little shows playing in the shop windows, safely behind the glass. But real community, in my opinion, has commitments, consequences, and risks.

Admittedly, we are only in the early years of the giant social experiment that is the web. And the polls are far from closed yet. After all, access is nowhere near universal. But that will change with lower PC prices and the emergence of true “utility-based computing.” For example, PCs will have chips that can cut the system off if you don’t pay your monthly ISP bills.

Right now, I worry that the web will, for some of us at least, continue a trend toward disconnectedness and the “aestheticization” of emotions. I worry that we will be more and more like Tolstoy’s opera-goers, weeping at the travails of a fictional heroine while their very real coachmen shiver in the cold.

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