when John Seabrook first let it be known on the Well, one of his online homes, that he had a contract to write a book about cyberspace, rumors flew about the size of his advance. It was said to be huge, up in the six figures. People began jokingly referring to large sums of money as "Seabrook units."
There was an unstable mixture of affection and jealousy in such comments. The Well is a writer-heavy system, and many of its denizens felt they knew more about cyberspace and could do a better job than Seabrook who'd only written a couple of pieces about Bill Gates and e-mail for The New Yorker, where he's a staff writer. A similar attitude seemed to motivate the high-tech writers responsible for the abusive e-mail about which Seabrook wrote at length in "My First Flame."
In such magazine pieces and now in "Deeper," which incorporates material from those articles, Seabrook crafted a persona at once thoughtful and naive, literate yet innocent. The narrative arc of "Deeper," a passage from online innocence to experience, carries him from feelings of unlimited possibility to down-to-earth disillusionment from the exuberant gee-whiz moment when he first discovers that he can e-mail a famous guy like Bill Gates and Gates will actually answer to the realization, when he builds his own home page on the Web, that life online is just another face of real life, after all.
The fact that "Deeper" has any arc at all sets it apart from most cyberspace primers. The book has the engaging charm of good first-person magazine writing, wedded to a genuine openness to experience that's rare in this field.
Seabrook announces at the start his intention to approach his subject "uncynically," and he keeps his promise. The naive voice serves him well in using his book as a vehicle to introduce the peculiarities of e-mail, Usenet, online conferencing and the Web to everyday readers who lack their own first-hand experience with these phenomena.
But though he tries hard to build "Deeper" as a sort of cyberspace equivalent to Francis Parkman's "The Oregon Trail," the parallel is deeply flawed. Parkman's history of frontier exploration reported on remote places that few of his readers could ever imagine visiting themselves. The wilderness Seabrook maps is one that any reader with a computer, a modem and a few bucks can visit for himself.
Still, Seabrook adopts and discards metaphors freely and forthrightly. The biggest problem with "Deeper" lies not in its awkward frontier imagery or even its over-reliance on reprinting big chunks of e-mail, online postings and Well conversations. "Deeper's" blind spot is its lack of openness about Seabrook's own privileged position as a New Yorker writer. It never seems to occur to him, besotted with the wonders of the new medium though he may have been, that "firstname.lastname@example.org" answered his e-mail not because e-mail itself is magical but because The New Yorker's name still carries its own media magic. That kind of naiveti isn't so charming.
Whatever lies behind it misplaced humility? closeness to the subject? failure of self-insight? Seabrook's unwillingness to share The New Yorker side of his story locks readers out from the one part of his tale that they have no other access to. Anyone can log on to the Well or fool around with e-mail. Only someone in Seabrook's position can explain the inscrutable doings of the Tina Browns of the world.
Why did the world of New York publishing take so long to catch on to what was happening online? Why does so much of what gets published today remain so unreliable, so hype-ridden or knee-jerkingly cynical? Do people online distrust the media so pervasively because they know how bad a job those media do of telling their own stories? These are important questions that go beyond the trivialities of publishing-world gossip and get to the heart of the continuing war of words between the "new media" and the old. Seabrook could have made "Deeper" a subtler and more honest work by incorporating more of his professional life into his tale.
As it is, "Deeper" remains probably the best effort to date by a general-interest writer to paint a comprehensive, enjoyable picture of online life for the offline reader. There's a lot of practical wisdom in Seabrook's analysis of the dynamics of online communication how free-speech ideals can motivate people to behave like creeps, and how the "groupmind" moves in mysterious ways to fan furious thrashes and, less often, achieve a hard-won consensus.
Seabrook's conclusions are chastened but not hopeless: "I have spent too many hours in bitter argument with angry antagonists, when in a face-to-face meeting we would have resolved our differences in five minutes, to believe in the utopian promises of this technology anymore. Whatever capacity the medium has for bringing people together, it has an equal capacity for driving them apart; and the solace one may find online is offset by malice, and the compassion by cruelty, and the goodwill by spite."
Nonetheless, he goes on: "In the end, it doesn't really matter whether the online world represents progress or not. The giant electronic brain half human, half machine grows larger. Even Bill Gates is its puppet. It has no moral purpose that I can discern, but, like me, most people will not be able to refuse it, so you may as well advance confidently and hopefully in the only direction that makes any sense deeper. It's not progress, but it's movement of some kind." That's a distinction our digital pundits need to take to heart.