Friday, June 8, 2007


Alice in Webland: Internet Trials and Tribulations

After her adventures in Wonderland, Alice heads off to college with a brand new computer. She is a relative newbie to the internet, and when she goes online she is subject to a myriad of influences. There are temptations, lures and come-ons on every page ... pop-ups and tantalizing links ... everything from ads promising a brilliant new product at rock bottom prices to flashing signs that announce she is visitor 1,000 and the soon-to-be recipient of a lap top computer.

On subsequent visits to the site Alice notices that the flashing 1,000th visitor sign lights up every time the page loads, erasing the "special me" rush she had first time in. She also notes that in order to obtain the lap top she has to respond to a marathon questionnaire. Twenty minutes later, after filling in the answers, she discovers there is a requirement to purchase one of the products before becoming eligible for the lap top. This legitimately annoys her because the sign announced that she had won the lap top fair and square without conditions. And that's just the beginning of the frustration and anxiety that sets in as she wonders deeper into the electronic rabbit hole where nothing is quite what it appears to be.

The psychological effect is not reassuring. Over time she develops a cynical tolerance for con games, email scams, advertising gimmicks and false personae. There are exceptions of course. Sites that are true to form and that actually deliver as promised. But nevertheless the dominant impression is that anything goes in this strange habitat, and unlike the real world where you can call 911 when danger lurks, you have to pretty much fend for yourself.

A friend recently remarked that everyone seems more paranoid and defensive these days. He puts it down to the "internet effect". It's true, the web can have a paranoia inducing effect, and its not far fetched to believe that the private anxieties of millions of users can build into a contagion of sorts.

For example a blogger using a pseudonym is likely to worry that the boss might figure out her identity, especially after the long gripe she posted about the lousy pension plan at work. An employee who has said something indiscreet about the boss in an office email wonders if it will go against her. All of this stuff tends to create a conspiratorial climate, with people wondering what A, B and C know about D, E and F. And the thing is, there is no cure-all. No magic bullet. If you are a determined surfer all you can do is develop survival skills and coping mechanisms.

The other challenge Alice faces as she wonders deeper into Webland, is the need for more and better security. Her first password "alice2" no longer offers the protection she thought it did, especially since she has been using it for twenty or so different accounts. A nosy room mate spotted it on her wordpad and gained easy access to her financial records. To make matters worse she even discovered Alice's user names and got access to even more accounts!

So Alice begins to dream up fiendishly long and complex passwords, such as Wh-i!Te-r+aB*biT6788450. So long and fiendish even she can't remember them. After the scare with the nosy associate she no longer keeps passwords on the computer. Now a little black book is required in which she religiously notes down user names and 16 letter passwords, just to be able to come and go out of the places she frequents in the electronic rabbit hole.

Is this a recipe for neurosis? Very possibly. Add to the complexity of passwords, all of the new fangled security devices she requires - the precisely configured firewall, spyware trasher, snoopfreedom ware, anti-keylogger detective and other programs designed to keep her safe, and paranoia is already beginning to build. She realizes that Webland has begun to take her over. Every escape route proves to be deceptive and she finally concedes there is no way out. This is her life. She has glimpsed the future and this is it - passwords, up-dates, virus checks, spyware scans, defrag drills, registry maintenance, spam elimination etc etc.

She thinks nostalgically back to the days when life was simple. Days when she was free, unshackled to a keyboard. Free to wonder in the park without a care in the world, without having to worry if someone was hacking into her financial files or reading her emails from Wendel, the romantic dentist in Barbados.

But it's too late, too late ... that very important date is no longer a flesh and blood escort who picks her up in his car. Now he arrives on a screen in the form of a batman avatar and addresses her in text. It could be worse. At least she knows if he turns out to be a jerk she can boot his avatar with a nifty program, send his details to rot in Iggy Land and pulverize his pics and messages with her super efficient Shreddermatic.

What a life!