The Internet and the Iceberg Whole

Item:  Ensign James “Peewee” Cobb, at 5’6”, 124 pounds, and 23 years old—in Pat Frank’s 1959 Cold War thriller Alas, Babylon—distinguishes himself as the only pilot in Fighting Forty-Four who never finds reason to request a night’s liberty ashore.  Cobb is intensely, painfully aware of his ineffectual awkwardness with women, in whose presence he is shy to the point of panic.

Once in the cockpit of his F-11F though, Peewee Cobb’s whole character changes. The instant his hands and feet are on the controls, he’s as fast as his aircraft and as powerful as its armament.  He has superb reactions and eyesight.  Is rated superior in rocketry and gunnery.  Can outfly anyone in his squadron, including the Lieutenant Commander who leads it.

Item:  An acquaintance reports that a woman he has worked with is in person quiet, charming, and sweet, yet also confusing.  Her signature quirk is a shrug which comes frequently but seems neither to punctuate anything in particular, nor to be in response to anyone or anything that’s been said.

Some of the work they’re involved in gets hashed out and coordinated not in person however but online, via text, in listserves.  “In a listserve,” her observer notes, “this woman is a predator that takes no prisoners.  The same person in a different medium becomes a different person.”  He interprets the shrug as “some sort of tip-of-the iceberg evidence of the turmoil underneath,” and goes on to speculate that without the “analog signal,” the nonverbal back-and-forth of which the shrug is a part, “Instead of the tip, we get the Iceberg Whole.”

Item:  Another woman, a friend of ten years, becomes my partner in a long-distance courtship which is conducted at first largely by email.  As would be expected, new dimensions of her personality become available to me, and yet in person some of them remain largely unavailable.  We recognize these dimensions as being a “text-only persona,” and speak of her as such.  This persona becomes a third person in our courtship, and later, in our marriage.

A decade on, we become part of a far-flung online posse that’s in touch throughout the day and finds the experience so valuable that it migrates to a new social software platform when the first becomes unreliable.  Occasional discussions arise around the novelty and the pleasure of relating to each other in real time, via text-only personae.  Some find socializing this way to be more compelling and rewarding than relationships away from the keyboard have been for them, ever.

For some, even “text-only persona” doesn’t seem adequate to describe the experience.  In part as an exercise in geek humor but also to some extent in earnest, the phrase “text-based life form” is floated as an alternative and retains some currency.  Many in this group identify in fact as misfits, but these are not underachievers.  They’re professionals, climbers and rising stars in their field, coalesced out of a pool of attendees and presenters at annual conferences.

These text-only personae and text-based life forms then, the unlikely inhabitants of the Iceberg Whole—have they been here, quiet beneath the surface, all along?  There’s now a means for them to converse with one another, at any rate, a means for forming communities and coming to self-awareness—for only the first time, arguably, since the invention of text 5,000 years ago.  Or were the Icebergs Whole present prior to the creation of the written word?  Were they perhaps responsible for the creation of the written word?  How about for the creation of the internet, this other-than-analog means of communication that’s bringing the written word on a par with the spoken word—in terms of interactivity and real-time involvement—for the first time, ever?

Sure, the first use of writing was for keeping tax records and warehouse inventories—much as the first use of computers and the internet was to facilitate the interests of the powerful.  Yet culturally, along with the rise of computers, we’ve seen such a turnaround in the fortunes of the “geek” that most people under forty have no awareness that as recently as the 1970’s, being labeled one was about as empowering as being outed as a homosexual in Eisenhower’s America.

And now?  Yea, though the verbally gifted, the extroverted, outgoing tips-of-the-icebergs have overrun Twitter and Facebook and the rest of the internet with incessant inane chattering, surely it’s still the geeks, the Aspergian Tribe, the text-based life forms who built the joint and maintain it, those who are native to it, sometimes more familiar with its hacks than with those of analog reality, who are the ones who need the internet’s other-than-analog means of expression in order to recognize one another, experience themselves as a community, and maintain this tide of good fortune so recently come their way.

He’s a cliché now but even three decades ago a shy, geeky, pencil-necked kid who turns predator when faced with a cockpit full of gauges, buttons, and switches was still little more than a figure of fun in a book about real men—at best only a bitter-comic promise of possibility.  Now we see he was a proto-video gamer, and millions of shy, awkward kids have not only torn up the scenery in first-person shooters from beyond Ensign Cobb’s wildest dreams; they’ve done so as part of a community—which as they transition into their working years forms the basis for a social network potentially every bit as useful as the sports- or fraternity-based Good Old Boys’ versions to which they might formerly have had limited access.

In doing so they are making good on their lineage—as a group—for perhaps the first time in human history.  The same goes for those leveraging their text-only personae for professional networking.  How far back this lineage goes is anybody’s guess; it may reach back well beyond the paleolithic.  It’s a point I keep coming back to, that these people represent the oldest and most secret of all secret societies; at least throughout recorded history, its members seem not to have even known one another.

While it’s always an iffy proposition to imagine that we, yes, we in our lifetimes, are straddling a cusp that marks an epochal change, it does seem that after what may have been millennia in complete or relative silence and isolation, the arrival of the internet may mark the beginning of a re-membering, a calling-home of the children for the sort of minds who brought it into being.

Such a homecoming could well take centuries more to play out, but something Icebergian may be rising.  Those who set their store by the tip-of-the-iceberg and the analog signal will find it easy to see this rising as some Rough Beast whose hour has come round at last; wars are fought over just such matters of perspective, and for those who are paying attention this war is already being waged—and on more than one front at that.  What we are likely to see most of, however, is more and more adults whose text-only personae have grown up with far more opportunities than ours did.  Where that leads us, we’ll just have to wait and see.

on 09/25/09 in Internet | No Comments | Read More

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