REVIEW: net.wars
Wendy M. Grossman
New York University Press

A cultural study of the mid-1990s Internet, concentrating on cultural and political battles online. The early, more historical chapters are particularly strong.
Rating: 7/10

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The Scenario

Wendy Grossman is a freelance writer who has been published in Wired magazine and other periodicals. In this book, she describes various cultural and political wars involving the Internet. The book seems intended for people who missed the main thrust of the battles, or who found themselves on the wrong side of a fight they never knew they'd joined. (Imagine the poor AOL'er who sends his first "me too" over USENET and doesn't understand why people got angry).

The book has a secondary purpose of memorializing these battles for the sake of the net's own short institutional memory. In this regard, it resembles the Jargon file or the net.legends FAQ (which it quotes repeatedly).

What's Bad?

Grossman started with Compuserve in 1991 and migrated to the Internet in the summer of 1993. This book was commissioned in early 1997, and discusses the years in between. These were important days in the growth of the net, but as a relative newcomer to the world she documents, Grossman sometimes misses issues. Her perspective is further distorted by her affiliation with Wired magazine, and she tends to treat various "friends of Wired" as though they were important net.celebrities, even when most of us have never heard of them. For example, she repeatedly quotes John Perry Barlow, but never even mentions Kibo or ESR.

The book misses the mark repeatedly in later chapters, where Grossman tackles political conflicts which were not resolved at the time of writing. In some cases, she identifies minor issues (like the absence of long-distance settlement charges) as crises and, in other cases, she make broad predictions which, even in the two years since the book was published, have been proven wrong (for example, she predicted huge growth in the use of encryption and third party certification services. It didn't happen). Grossman devotes ten pages to the evils of the Communications Decency Act and the foolishness of trying to use it to "export the first amendment". In this space, she never specifies what the CDA would have required, a strange lapse.

A few conflicts are almost conspicuous in their absence. Where is "everybody versus Microsoft?" Technical battles do not appear because Grossman is not a technical person. Sometimes her lack of savvy throws itself in your face. Can you honestly imagine her sitting with a friend at a computer and failing to find pornography on the net? "We spent three hours wandering uselessly around the Web not finding shocking pictures." Even for 1995, that's a pretty astonishing claim.

What's Good?

The early chapters are strongest, in which she focusses on historical issues and conflicts which were resolved by the time of writing (early 1997). These rely on Grossman's ability to describe net.culture, which she does well and with humor. Among the stronger chapters are her discussion of Why Everybody Hates AOL (and why it may be just garden variety bigotry), Scientology vs. The Net and the awkward position of women on the net. The book is scrupulously endnoted.

So What's In It For Me?

The book is well written; Grossman is articulate, intelligent, and diligent about collecting testimony from the principals in the battles she covers. At just under 200 pages of substantive material, it's a quick and worthwhile read.

Table of Contents

  1. The Year September Never Ended
  2. Make.Money.Fast
  3. The Making of an Underclass: AOL
  4. Guerrilla Cryptographers
  5. Stuffing the Genie Back in the Can of Worms
  6. Copyright Terrorists
  7. Exporting the First Amendment
  8. Never Wrestle a Pig
  9. Unsafe Sex in the Red Page District
  10. The Wrong Side of the Passwords
  11. Beyond the Borderline
  12. Garbage In, Garbage Out
  13. Grass Roots
  14. The Net is Dead
  15. Networks of Trust
  16. Dumping Tea in the Virtual Harbor

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