BY Jeffrey Kastner in Opinion | 07 MAY 95
Featured in
Issue 22

No Carrier

Finding the e-world as crass as the real one

BY Jeffrey Kastner in Opinion | 07 MAY 95

It seems the more the Internet expands into its own new kind of world, the more it resembles the old one from which it came. In the US, the last several months have seen Internet stories involving corporate intrigue, financial fraud and random acts of info-vandalism. Now, with the arrest of a university student who used the Net to disseminate violent pornographic fiction, issues of free speech, privacy rights and criminal justice procedures are being exercised on a playing field so fluid that the new lines being drawn on it don't even have time to dry before they're crossed. As time goes on, the vaunted information superhighway is looking more and more like a real superhighway - it's a means of high-speed travel that for the most part runs fairly smoothly, but when accidents occur, things can get awfully ugly.

The most recent furore concerns Jake Baker, a University of Michigan sophomore who was arrested in early February. Up against Federal charges for a series of electronic transmissions originating from his personal computer, Baker faces five years in prison if found guilty. The 20 year-old first ran into trouble in early January, when a U of M alumnus living in Moscow found an astonishingly crass piece of pornographic fiction posted to the newsgroup by Baker. The prefix 'alt', short for 'alternative', is one of several hierarchical notations used to indicate the type of newsgroup. If newsgroups are the most anarchic area of the Internet - started and maintained by the people who use them, with virtually no overall administrative control - the 'alt.' groups are the bastion of the strangest of the strange, catering to every imaginable type of information taste. Alt.swedish.chef.bork.bork.bork, for example, is dedicated to talking with a Swedish accent like the Muppet chef; is a celebration of people named Jennifer and alt.spam is, not surprisingly, a forum for fanciers of the fabled processed meat product. Alt. is also the home of Internet porn: Of the ten most visited newsgroups, three are alt. groups and each is about sex. is read by an estimated 500,000 people, second only to the mainstream 'news.' group and just ahead of, the home of downloadable pornography.

Within the unmoderated world of, Baker's tale was remarkable not for its graphic sexual content, nor even for its excessively vicious nature - currently, the group contains over 3,000 postings, expressing every imaginable type of kink. What was remarkable was that his story used the real name of one of his Michigan classmates (a woman with whom he had taken a class, but had never met) and therefore brought the e-world and the real world into contact in a way that almost guaranteed an explosion. The content of his story alone - the horrors of which involved a ceiling fan, super glue and a hot curling iron - was enough to get him suspended from school and 'escorted' from the Michigan campus without a hearing. The use of the real name brought the FBI in, and their discovery of e-mail in Baker's computer in which he appeared to discuss the idea of actually performing some of his fictional activities got him arrested. Charging him under a rarely used statute concerning the interstate transmission of a threat, authorities also produced psychiatric evidence that Baker 'had trouble resisting his impulses' and ruled that he be detained without bail.

As Baker awaits trial, the debate continues to swirl around him. Every major media outlet has thrown in their two cents, and it's not surprising: rarely do so many visceral issues intersect in one single situation - from freedom of expression to privacy of communication to violence against women - all destabilised by the new and uncertain environment of cyberspace within which the activity took place. As expected, the world of electronic communication has also been inundated with discussion, accusation and apologia regarding Baker. and its companion discussion group,, have been packed with postings in the weeks following the arrest - indeed, the case was recently granted the honour of its own newsgroup, alt.jake_baker.

Yet, for all the rose-coloured prognostications about the advanced, Internetworked future of interpersonal communications, a trawl through the electronic discourse over Baker turns out to be a fairly depressing experience. There have been literally thousands of Baker-related postings in - interspersed between 'Why My Penis is Deformed (A True Story)', 'Star Whores' and 'Junior High Prisoners Pt. 5' - and with a few notable exceptions, they're as puerile and self-absorbed as the piece which spawned them. There's no great electronic town meeting going on, no high-minded intercontinental debate. And there's something in this, because it's out here - not in the hallowed halls of universities and research labs and think-tanks, but in the dusty windblown electronic countryside, in the e-malls of America - that the real future of cyberspace lies. From the beginning there was always a subtext at play when people wrote and talked about the coming adventures in the electronic wilderness - that the new means of information exchange would not only be quantitative but also qualitative. It implied that not only would we be talking more and faster and to a larger group of people, but that somehow the technology would in and of itself elevate our discourse, leaving us not arguing about sex, war, pestilence and floor polish but communicating politely and intelligently about space travel and green technology, about peaceful world government and new agricultural techniques.

If there is a lesson beyond the intriguing legal distinctions which will emerge from the whole Jake Baker situation, perhaps it's the simple reality check that reveals how much the stupidity, crassness and ugliness of the e-world resembles that of the real world; how the immediacy and anonymity of on-line communication have the potential to make us not only faster and smarter and more free, but also even less sensitive, responsible and thoughtful. That the Internet will continue to function as a mirror of a troubled society is not in question: Whether it is perceived as part of the solution, or part of the problem, remains to be seen.