Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company The New York Times
March 30, 1997, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 4; Page 1; Column 1; Week in Review Desk
On the Internet, Hysteria Over Heaven's Gate
By GEORGE JOHNSON
FOR the techno-libertarians intent on keeping the abstract duchy called cyberspace the freest of all lands, the last few months have been a nightmare of bad vibrations rippling through what the electronic elite derisively calls the "old media."
Every few days, it seems, television newscasts and newspapers carry reports of unspeakable acts conducted over the Internet. Pedophiles and maybe even prisoners trade pornography and tips on kidnapping, while trying to seduce children in electronic chat-rooms. Right-wing lunatics post recipes for explosives and rouse their members with paranoid visions of immense conspiracies that only they can overthrow.
Earlier this year, the United States Parole Commission, alarmed at the flotsam sifted from the data gurgling through the fiber optical pipes, added a new item to the list of things Federal parolees can be kept from doing: owning firearms, drinking to excess, consorting with criminals, and now, using a computer to access the Internet.
The horror stories about the crimes made possible by this powerfully anarchic technology pale against the news last week that a cult of Southern California computer enthusiasts, who supported themselves making Web pages for businesses, committed mass suicide in preparation for a science-fiction version of the Rapture, in which they would be beamed aboard a U.F.O. hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Taking phenobarbital like Communion wafers, and following the drug with vodka chasers, they rested, shrouded in purple, and quietly awaited the ultimate trip.
Anyone who spends much time randomly wandering the Web may have found their delusion eerily familiar. For months rumors about the U.F.O. and the comet have festered in discussion groups and on Web pages all over the Net, sharing space with speculation about military plots to blow up T.W.A. Flight 800 and the Federal building in Oklahoma City, or to destroy Zairians with Ebola virus engineered in government labs.
The computer cult, with the sappy name Heaven's Gate, added to the group hallucination, using its own Web site to spread an ideology that combined Christianity and gnosticism with scenarios that could have come from watching too many X-Files reruns while reading the Weekly World News. But the weirdest thing about their cut-and-paste religion was that it wasn't really so weird at all -- at least not on the Internet, where one can leaf through digitally "enhanced" photos showing pyramids on Mars and a second Sphinx -- linked, through some ethereal connection probably involving resonating crystals, with the monuments of Egypt (which may have been built with the help of enlightened extraterrestrials).
Never mind that most of the Internet's acreage has been staked and furrowed for such respectable activities as collaborating on the Human Genome Project or trading recipes for German chocolate cake.
In the public mind -- molded by news reports on the old media, which are still more powerful and pervasive than anything on line -- the Internet is starting to seem like a scary place, a labyrinth of electronic tunnels hiding activities and obsessions as disturbing and seedy as anything Thomas Pynchon has dreamed up.
Real or imagined, such feelings are ripe for political exploitation. This became clear when Congress debated and hastily passed the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which makes it a crime to leave indecent material out on the Net where children can find it. Earlier this month, the Clinton Administration -- the very same Adminstration that promised to put every child on line -- went before the Supreme Court to defend the act, which was held unconstitutional by lower courts. A lawyer for the Administration described the Internet as "a revolutionary means for displaying sexually explicit, patently offensive material to children in the privacy of their own homes," of giving "every child a free pass to every adult bookstore and video store."
As the now famous New Yorker cartoon put it, "On the Internet nobody knows that you're a dog" -- or an eight-year-old closing the window on the Sesame Street site to click over to alt.sex.necrophilia. Now the Justices are left to ponder whether the Internet should be treated like the telephone, on which you should be allowed to say anything, or like television, where content can be restricted for the public good.
In the meantime, the Heaven's Gate suicides can only amplify fears that, in some quarters, may be already bordering on hysteria. The Internet, it seems, might be used to lure children not only to shopping malls, where some sicko awaits, but into joining U.F.O. cults. From listening to some people's fears, one would think that Internet bandwidth had increased to the point where a distant evil hacker could download your mind.
As in the never-ending debates about television and violence, raised now to a new hyperactive plane, the question is this: Is the Internet a source of cultural sickness or just its reflection? And as with television, cause and effect cannot be so easily untwisted. A country where murder is frighteningly common naturally gives rise to TV dramas about violence. And exposing millions of minds to fictional killing night after night might help create a climate in which violence is more likely to occur. The effect is nonlinear, like the reverberative howl arising from a microphone held too close to a loudspeaker.
On the Net everyone can reach out and touch at random, in a way that's somewhat different from blindly dialing digits on a telephone pad. The Internet is the most efficient incubator yet of ideas both ennobling and debased. Each computer terminal is a shiny surface, reflecting not just things in the real world but things in the simulated reality of the Internet.
In this wilderness-of-mirrors, a single string of mutant thoughts can be replicated over and over, distorted in the Internet funhouse until the result is impossible to untangle. Somehow the slick design of Web pages -- so easily accomplished with a few dabs of Java and a cursory knowledge of the computer language called HTML -- adds credence to outlandish ideas.
Confusing medium and message in a way that might have made Marshall McLuhan sick, people don't want to remember the obvious: that all the alarming things on the Internet have been around forever.
In late February, when a Nobel prize-winning scientist, Dr. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, pleaded guilty to a charge of child molestation, news accounts zeroed in on the fact that he was snared in a Federal investigation of child pornography on the Internet. Dr. Gajdusek didn't meet the boy he admitted molesting in a cyberspace chat-room. But investigators apparently became suspicious of the scientist after they noticed Internet pedophiles discussing journals -- published by the National Institutes of Health -- in which he mentioned his sexual encounters with boys in Micronesia.
Bo, Peep and the Sheep
Slight as the Internet connection really was, it seemed to add to the seediness of the situation -- one more shred in an accumulating pile of evidence that there are networks of people lurking out there with alien values, and that anyone, any age, might stumble onto them with a mouse click.
Not all the connections are so thinly drawn. A month after the scientist's guilty plea, a man in Long Island was accused by the Suffolk County District Attorney of using the Internet to conspire with an accomplice in North Carolina to take turns raping, torturing and sodomizing a 14-year-old girl. The very next day a Minnesota prison inmate was indicted by a Federal grand jury for conspiring to traffic in child pornography over the Internet. Among the bytes on his disk was an annotated list of thousands of children from small towns in Minnesota: "latchkey kids," "cute," "Little Ms. pageant winner."
The Long Island case is horrible enough that it would have made news even if the accused men had talked on the telephone or exchanged postcards. But would the case of the Minnesota prisoner have seemed quite so sensational if he had kept his list in a spiral notebook? Corrections officials said at the time that there was no evidence that the children's names had actually been distributed over the Internet.
As early as 1975, the leaders of Heaven's Gate, Bo and Peep, were recruiting lost souls. And back then, the most powerful personal computers available were Texas Instrument pocket calculators.
"The Two," as they also called themselves, drew the curious to meetings by posting notices with thumbtacks on bulletin boards made the old-fashioned way, with cork and wood. Maybe the Internet, with its ability to rapidly and efficiently bring together a hodgepodge of miscreants, was an important part of the group's later devolution. But it may be just as reasonable to blame the phenobarb and vodka cocktails they sipped like wine from the chalice of their strange religion.
In the end, maybe the uneasy feelings about the Internet come from seeing all the old plagues and sins recast in an unfamiliar new form. An ancient accumulation of inchoate fears has become focused inside this high-profile medium, made more easily touchable -- and, it's tempting to believe, easier to control.