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Cyber Charm May Be Vanishing Into Thin Air

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Have you ever ordered a pizza without going so far as to pick up a phone?

You will.

Have you ever waited 15 minutes for a picture of a stranger’s cat to download?

You will.

Have you ever spent hours chatting with a 12-year-old boy in London about his pornographic “Star Trek”-themed poetry?

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You will.

In fact, you already can.

Even as the media continue to hype the bottomless pit of opportunities within the on-line world and bookshelves overflow with manuals on getting Granny connected to the Internet, cyber is losing power as a label for instant hipness and respectability.

Techno-society critics, scholars, satirists and everyday users are starting to protest that a “virtual” community can’t hold a candle to a real one, and that when stupidity is decompressed, downloaded, hypertexted, linked, configured, e-mailed and digitized, it’s still stupidity.

“Wow, with this technology I can access the commercial for ‘Judge Dredd’ directly to my computer,” deadpans Lisa Narodick, 21, of Palo Alto.

This is not to suggest that the Internet is a dud. Few would dispute its tremendous capabilities: Important data are transferred quickly; helpful advice is found; neglected voices are heard; interests are shared, and much paper is saved. In many professions--medicine, academia--the Net is a powerful tool.

Rather, the growing backlash stems from the mainstream media’s constant harping on the benefits of the Internet for all of us. Although mass-market publications have begun to cover pitfalls such as cyberporn and privacy issues, most technology writers still approach their subject with incredible reverence and remarkably little skepticism.

They tout on-line shopping, on-line teaching, on-line voting and even on-line sex. Many believe the on-line world will “save and redeem us,” says techno-critic Sven Birkerts, author of “The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age” (Faber and Faber, 1995).

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Others warn that the pressure to get on-line now starts in elementary school--and that the Internet can be addictive.

“For all the hours I spent on-line,” says recovering techno-geek and Oakland astrophysicist Cliff Stoll, “I received darn little in return.”

In his book “Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Superhighway” (Doubleday, 1995), Stoll attacks the systems and ideologies he once felt dependent on. After neglecting his family and friends to surf the Net, download files, check into Web sites and speak up on chat lines, he realized that, for the most part, he was doing the equivalent of watching bad TV.

“Why in the world,” Stoll wondered, “would I want to spend an hour every night downloading pictures of people’s dogs or animated graphics of toilets?”

The inherent democracy of the Internet means everyone gets a say, and what he or she says is often not worth listening to. Besides the pornography that Congress is currently fretting over, the Net contains an immense amount of junk. A small sampling:

* Newsgroups such as alt.food.taco-bell and alt.tv.infomercials speak for themselves. In some cases, newsgroup activity centers around such irrelevancies as a complete list of the foods Homer has eaten on “The Simpsons.”

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* Personal Web sites, which anyone can create, showcase pet photos, pornographic pictures or the current temperature in the hot tub of a guy named Paul. A virtual lunch counter presents a picture of various foods, and one can follow up with a trip to a burp Web site and download sounds of belches.

* Supposedly “useful” Web sites include “Scottish Film Listings,” which tells what time “Pocahontas” is playing in Glasgow. Meanwhile, CareerWEB offers this advice: “Of course, a computer cannot give you the assistance in planning your career that a professional is able to provide.”

* Commercial services including America Online and Delphi offer “cyberlinks” to celebrities. One question posed by a subscriber to actor David Duchovny of “The X-Files”: “Do you have a middle name?” To rocker Julianna Hatfield: “Are yo [sic] cool?”

On-line content (or lack of it), however, may be less of a concern than society’s increasing dependence on technology, critics say.

“The Internet is radically changing our relation to time,” says Birkerts, who writes on an electric typewriter in his Massachusetts home.

“It allows us to live this proxy social life, with the illusion of engagement, when really it is just busywork,” he says. “In a superficial way, we are brought together, but we are set apart on a deeper level.”

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As if to prove Birkerts’ logic, nightclubs and coffeehouses hawking Internet access have appeared across the country, from Electronic Cafe International in Santa Monica to Cybersmith in Cambridge, Mass. Patrons can surf the Net or play Doom on CD-ROM consoles, but many think that a cyber-cafe defeats its own purpose.

“I go to a nightclub or coffeehouse to meet people and have real interactions,” says Ben Herzog, 20, of San Francisco. “If I wanted to sit hunched over a glowing computer screen, I’d stay at home.”

Author Kirkpatrick Sale has found kinship among an older, more vehement strain of anti-technology activist--the Luddites, village workers in early 19th-Century England who rebelled against the construction of factories and mills for the textile industry.

With his recent book--”Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution” (Addison-Wesley, 1995)--and his habit of smashing computers with sledgehammers in front of audiences and photographers, Sale has emerged as the leader of the neo-Luddites.

“Quite apart from what any individual does with a machine, for good or ill, the primary effect of computers is to enable corporations, the government and military powers to carry out their missions faster and more completely,” Sale says. “Those missions are causing the exploitation and destruction of the world, both socially and environmentally.”

In between Sale’s grim vision and the media hype, though, lies a vast middle ground where many believe the Internet and its technology truly belong.

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“Is the Net the end-all, be-all of human culture?” asks author J.C. Herz. “No. Does it have potential? Yes.”

Few have traversed cyberspace more than Herz has. She spent hours prowling its nether regions in Harvard University basements for her book “Surfing on the Internet: A Nethead’s Adventures On-Line” (Little, Brown, 1995) and believes that the Internet is simply going the way of any media phenomenon.

“It’s the natural course of things--first the hype, then the backlash, and then a return to center. It wasn’t all we thought it was, but it’s still pretty cool.”

Herz predicts that the Internet will help shape the future. “Ultimately, the Luddites will falter,” she says. “If you’re not involved with the Internet in the next 20 years, you won’t be a factor of cultural production.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps the list of anagrams for the tired phrase information superhighway that recently appeared in Newsweek will prove to be telling. At the top of that list:

New utopia? Horrifying sham.

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