Covering Cyberspace
by Julian Dibbell

I started my journalistic career as a rock critic, and in some ways a rock critic is what I remain. Since I have barely written a line of actual rock criticism in the last five years, however, this assertion requires some explanation. So let me explain.

When rock criticism first occurred to me as a career option, I saw it as a way of breaking down barriers between realms of culture that had been artificially, and oppressively, separated. Our culture, I believed, was a kind of apartheid system, with high culture held distinct from popular culture more or less for the express purpose of making people who loved popular culture feel bad about themselves and their desires. At the time, this was easy for me to believe. I was in college, at Yale University, where hundreds of people with Ph.Ds spent their days drawing up and maintaining the lines between cultural realms, and where - as I had discovered early on to my dismay - there was no major in popular music.

I did what I could to compensate for this deficiency in the curriculum. I took whatever courses came up that even remotely touched on the subject of pop music or popular culture. I started a student-run pop-music quarterly, and in it wrote stirringly of the need to break up high culture's hegemonic monopoly on the attention of intellectual bastions like Yale. I dreamed of the day I would go professional, and work toward the creation of a more democratic culture by the mere act of writing thoughtfully and intelligently about the contents of the Top 40 in the pages of thoughtful and intelligent publications.

There was a romanticism to all of this. I thought I was onto something new, that I was helping break exciting intellectual ground. And in the context of mid-80s academia, I sort of was. The field of cultural studies, which proceeds from the assumption that the categories of high and low culture are no longer of much analytical value, is now well ensconced in American universities. But back then it was just a speck on the horizon. Inside the academy walls, high-flying, French-fried literary theory was as ground-breaking as it got, and I never heard the deconstructionists say much that wasn't vaguely condescending about the Top 40.

Once I got outside those walls, however, I found myself beginning to wonder about both the novelty and the urgency of my vocation. Not long after graduation, I got a job as a copyeditor at the Village Voice, and I started writing my thoughtful, intelligent record reviews for publications like the Voice and Spin. And in the process I came to see that this was not a business that was just about articulating the joys and complexities of loving pop music; it was a business that was also about business. I was now, even if peripherally, a participant in the vast postindustrial machinery that helps circulate recorded music through our economy and our lives. And considering from a closer perspective the huge amounts of money and hype that greases that machinery, I couldn't help feeling that perhaps pop music was not exactly the oppressed cultural form I had hitherto imagined it to be.

Moreover, out in the world of professional rock critics, I was no longer any kind of pioneer. The great founding notion of rock criticism - the discovery that pop songs with backbeats were art, and could be written about as such - was already a well-established tenet of the field. Rock criticism's golden age of innovation, stretching from the late 60s to the late 70s, was long over. The titans of rock criticism's first wave - the Robert Christgaus and the Greil Marcuses and the Lester Bangses -- had carved out the basic outlines of the profession, and all that was left for us latecomers was to fill in a few details and doodle some filigree in the margins.

And so, almost as soon as it had begun, the romance was over. Rock criticism became a job. A job I did with enthusiasm and respect, but a job all the same. What I needed now was a new vocation. And lo and behold, a vocation was delivered unto me, right on schedule.

It arrived in the form of the most exciting technological purchase I had made since I bought a stereo system with my paper-route money in the eighth grade. The new gadget was a modem, which I had procured as a handy way to get my record reviews to my editors without having to get on the subway, but which turned out to open a portal into a realm of culture entirely undreamt of in the philosophies of the Yale comp lit department or Polygram's boardroom or the weekly editorial meetings at the Village Voice.

That realm was cyberspace. Which in 1988, if you found yourself outside the walls of the academy, was Compuserve and whatever small constellation of 8-line basement bulletin boards run by hobbyist geeks happened to be in your dialing range. The overt content of these boards was for the most part nothing too thrilling. In the few nooks and crannies where participants weren't debating the merits of various hard drives and graphics cards, they were talking about bowling or cats or Megadeth or any of the thousands of small passions that form the woof and warp of the American cultural soul.

But beyond this overt content lay a message that was thrilling indeed. The message was the medium, which to me looked a lot more like an advertisement for democratic culture than pop music now did. Here was punk rock's invigorating ethic of DIY - or do it yourself - writ large. Here was a broad-based and infinitely extensible forum for expression, a cottage publishing industry in which every participant was both consumer and, potentially, producer. And best of all, here was a cultural form that, to judge by the coverage in the kinds of cultural publications I wrote for, I had all to myself. In essence, I could do all the things with it that I had wanted to do with rock criticism. I could break down barriers between cultural realms, showing the culture vultures of Manhattan and beyond that technology was no longer just for geeks, that it was something that in the long run was going to matter more and more to the arts and ideas that mattered to them. I could celebrate a medium that was reconfiguring cultural hierarchies in a way that, if things unfolded as well as they could, might end up being profoundly liberatory. And last but not least I could be the kind of intellectual pioneer the titans of rock criticism's golden age had been, carving the outlines of a journalistic subprofession in the making.

Who knew? Maybe someday the academy would even invite me back within its walls, summoning me to sit up on the stage of some elegantly upholstered theater on a cozy Thursday afternoon and tell the tale of how it all happened.

But anyway.

Fired up by my new vocation, I began to press for assignments that would let me pursue it. And these turned out to be not terribly difficult to get. Hacker stories, for instance, were particularly appealing to the kinds of places I was already writing for. They were full of rock and roll themes - good-guy outlaws, teenage heroes, passionate subcultures - and because the hacker narrative was easy to sell as a struggle between institutions and individuals over the control of knowledge, it fit in cozily with the vaguely left-libertarian politics of publications like Spin and the Voice. My first big cyberspace story, in fact, was a piece for Spin on teenage hackers from Brooklyn. "Cyber Thrash" was the headline they gave it. My next big one was a cover story for the Voice on the New York City hacker crew MOD. "Rebel Hackers" was the coverline. The head: "On Line and Out of Bounds."

As time went on and cyberspace grew, looming larger on the cultural horizon with every passing year, room for other kinds of stories opened up. In 1993 I did a cover story for the Voice on cryptography and the cypherpunk movement. Remarkably, newsstand sales spiked for that issue, even though - or maybe even because - the cover art consisted entirely of a segment of jumbled ASCII text taken from a PGP-encrypted file. Later that year I had another cover story, now a somewhat famous one, called "A Rape in Cyberspace," which was about a so-called virtual rape that took place in the historic online community of LambdaMOO. No piece I had done before had managed to convey as vividly to readers the fact that there was something wild and different going on online, something that might profoundly alter the way they related to words and communication and culture in general. But that was only the highlight of a year in which I had written articles and columns exploring how cyberspace might affect our relationship to television, to music, to maps, to money, to identity, finding in each new spaces of possibility and peril, and generally having the time of my professional life.

And then, in 1994, the story of cyberspace became, irrevocably, the story of the Internet, and the story of the Internet went mainstream in a big, big way that has only gotten bigger in the years that followed. And I confess that ever since then I have been at a bit of a loss as to how to cover that story as a journalist.

This is partly because I have spent most of these years working on a soon-to-be-published book, My Tiny Life, which is a continuation of the "Rape in Cyberspace" story and which kept me relatively sidelined while cyberspace went on evolving in its breakneck way. It's also partly because the mainstreaming of cyberspace convinced me it made some kind of sense to move from the Village Voice to Time magazine for a while, a somewhat bizarre move with a breakneck learning curve all its own, and one I'm not sure I ever quite got the hang of.

But the main reason I have felt unsure of my footing in the last few years is simply that the journalistic landscape beneath my feet has changed so much. The wide open spaces I beheld when I first hooked up my modem have gotten at once much wider and much less open. Because the social import of cyberspace has grown so much more obvious and substantial, its narrative is no longer just a boring old technology story that some lucky textual poacher like myself can come along and turn into a cultural story. It's also now a legal story, a political story, and above all a business story. And all of these tend to muscle out the cultural story when competition for page space gets fierce and the chips are down.

This makes a certain amount of journalistic sense, of course. There's a lot less hard news in the cultural story of cyberspace; and as for the most exciting aspects of that story, the big ideas about where cyberspace is taking us as a culture -- well, they're big ideas, and big ideas don't tend to change rapidly enough to keep a weekly newspaper in business, let alone a daily. I was fortunate enough to be around when there were a lot of those ideas hanging ripe for the picking. But now I'm back to the same realization I faced when I first set out to be a professional rock critic: The golden age only happens once. And now I'm obliged to add another realization to that one: Once the golden age is over, even the pioneers still have to get up every day and make a living.

And so, as I move back from the sidelines of cyberspace journalism and try to find my footing as I go, I find myself falling back on the same sense of purpose that kept me going as a rock critic, even as I felt the romance of epic cultural struggle draining away from the endeavor. There was still a cultural struggle involved, after all. Not an epic one, but ultimately I'd say a more important one. It was and is the daily struggle to make the voice of individual cultural experience heard in a world where institutional voices - whether the voice of academia or of government or, especially, of capital -- speak so much louder. I considered it my job, as a rock critic, to do what I could to help ensure that the place of culture in people's lives would not be entirely determined by those other, louder voices.

And that, just to bring this long explanation to a conclusion, is why I say that I am still in some sense a rock critic. Because the job, as I see it, remains the same. I am still trying above all to articulate the lived experience of a cultural form, and not to be unduly distracted by the institutional dramas and interests that surround that form. With rock criticism, that was always easier said than done, and with cyberspace it's certainly not any easier.

For instance, there's an increasing emphasis in the coverage of digital technologies on what journalists call service pieces - the what-to-look-for-when-shopping-for-a-modem story, the how-to-teach-your-kids-safe-Web-surfing-habits story - and it's sometimes hard to distinguish those stories from the kind I try to pursue. But they're not the same thing. They're about telling people how to fit the technology into their lives, not about articulating or even really reporting on how people actually do fit it into their lives.

And then, on the other hand, just to complicate things further, sometimes with cyberspace the service piece is the right way to get at the cultural story. Or the straight-up product review is. Or the legal story is. Or the political story. Or God help me, the business story. For me, that's the tricky part about covering cyberspace. Because the technology is so complex and so protean, you never quite know what corner of society it's going to reach out of and into people's lives. So mostly these days, I just try to take each assignment as it comes, on its own terms, and as I write it up I try not to lose sight of the issues of cultural democracy that attracted me to journalism in the first place and that remain, for me, the great attraction of cyberspace.

I hardly mean to imply that I'm the only journalist attracted to those issues, or the only one who struggles with fitting them into the complex agendas of covering cyberspace. There are a lot of us who do, and some who do it very successfully. I find it gratifying and promising, for instance, that some of the best culturally oriented coverage of cyberspace goes on on the Web itself, at sites like Salon and Feed. But I'm just as heartened to see how much of it there is in print media, too. And not just from snooty, culture-heavy outlets like Harper's Magazine, which consistently publishes excellent, thoughtful work on the cultural implications of computer networks and other digital technology, but at places like the New York Times too, where the space allotted for richly cultural reporting on cyberspace is minimal but where a handful of smart writers like Amy Harmon, JC Herz, and Denise Caruso nonetheless work it into the margins and the subtexts of the business stories and the political stories and the legal stories and the product reviews.

So as I look around and see what's possible, I'm not too discouraged about my prospects for sustaining the sense of vocation that my first modem gave me. The romance may be over, but the job goes on, and given the challenges and complexities the job involves, I can't see getting bored of it anytime soon.