Though I wonder if people have forgotten, there was actually a time on this planet when there was no such thing as.. the Internet. In just a few short years, technology has taken such vast strides that it makes yer head spin. It's amazing to consider that not long ago we could only hook up to the Internet with a dial-up connection and an old slow-as-slugs modem.

With each year that passes, it seems that the Internet is being integrated more and more into our daily lives to the point that I wonder if people will soon have microchips in their heads that will connect them to the Internet in their brains so they can surf telepathically. Sounds funny, I know, but is it really far-fetched? People are walking around nowadays with cell phone devices sticking out of their ears like Lt. Uhura. A few years ago, we saw such a thing as science fiction. Times have changed, huh?

This is the first of a 4-part series of editorials about the Internet and how it has affected human behavior, communication, and the slipping grasp of reality. We will focus mostly on the chat room phenomena which is full of wacky characters both intriguing and disturbing. It's a cybernetic jungle out there full of criss-crossed wires, circuits and a whole lotta horseshit. Are you smart enough to know the difference between fantasy and reality? It is a line that the Internet continues to blur and distort to the point that it has become a breeding ground of individuals who can't function outside of their monitors and keyboards. Or, were you perhaps around when the Internet didn't exist, a time when you were forced to communicate with people directly, a time when you had to be creative about amusing yourself or had to go to a library to get information on any given topic. In those days, if you wanted to chat with someone, you picked up the telephone or went to a public place or to someone's home. You were dealing with real people in real time in real situations. We are rapidly moving in a direction in which few things are real and tangible. Ask yourself, do you live in a real world and interact with real people, or are all of your 'friends' inside a monitor?

I don't wish to denigrate the Internet on a full-scale basis. There is no question that it has some valuable uses. The Internet is wonderful for locating rare books or products of any kind. It has a wealth of information on all subjects (but don't forget to question the source; just 'cause you saw it on the Internet does not make it true). E-mail is marvelous in that it allows people to write letters to each other without having to wait for days or weeks as we do with the U.S. Postal Service. Now, people from all over the world can communicate with each other in written form easily and effectively. And hey, if you're a porn hound, there's no better place to locate any and all variations of porno that you could ever want, all at your fingertips in a snap! You can even order flowers online and have them delivered lickety-split! These are all practical and logical uses of the Internet and what it has to offer. It's a matter of convenience and cutting out a lot of hassle, and who can argue with that?

It is the human element or lack of it on the Internet that concerns me in regard to the fate of humanity's ability to communicate with each other, to demonstrate compassion, and to be truthful on all fronts. Chatting is clearly the most popular and frequently used feature of the Internet. It is not my intent to suggest that Internet chat rooms have no value. They do, in fact, have great value. Chatting is a great way to break the ice with people, to get to know someone in written form where you must make effort to express yourself 'cause not everyone's a writer or a typist. It is also a great avenue for people across the world to connect on shared subjects of interest. The Internet Movie Database is a prime example of a great use of electronic communication. At IMDB, fellow movie enthusiasts can post messages about their favorite films and interact with others. This is a great tool because it allows people from all walks of life to share something that they are passionate about and learn how others feel on the subject. The same is true for any discussion or news group that focuses on a topic and opens minds. In this regard, the Internet is a blessing. But if at any point the Internet replaces a human element, then you're in trouble, laddies.

What I mean by replacement is that a significant number of individuals use the Internet as their only link to the outside world. All of their 'friends' are online chat buddies, most of whom have never been met in person. They play video games online. They download illegally pirated movies. They download music. They shop. Basically, every need is satisfied by the Internet, and these people spend hours and hours each day in front of a monitor, living in another world that doesn't require them to be honest, to be forthright, or to even identify themselves at all. The Internet can be a hiding place for people who are afraid of real life or who don't know how to communicate effectively other than in a chat room window. This is a virus of sorts (a virus in the air, not on your computer, dummy). It can nail someone of any age, especially those who may not be grounded in reality to start. In particular danger are those who were born in the electronic age and grew up with all of these tools, people who were more-or-less raised by the Internet and Sega-Genesis because their parents plopped them in front of a machine, walked away and never bothered to check on Junior's progress. If they had been attentive, they might have been interested to know whether Junior was developing into a fully functional human being or just a brain dead waste of space who can't form a sentence with his mouth because he can only type his feelings.

Next time, we'll begin exploring a variety of chat room stereotypes that most of us have run into and often wonder what the fuck is wrong with them! Chat rooms are a petri dish of psychological profiles. If you have any perception skills at all, you can identify all sorts of tell-tale traits that make you wonder if some of these loonies are chatting from the nearest asylum. Stay tuned. There is much to dissect..

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