Yahoo for Hackers

Like so many big events of the digital age, the February shutdown of all those major e-commerce Web sites (Yahoo, E*TRADE, eBay, etc.) didn’t make much of a dent in my real life.

Yes, we have a computer and Internet access. But the computer is not in our house; it’s in an outbuilding we turned into an office. It’s only 20 feet from our back door, but those 20 feet, and a childproof lock on the door, are enough to separate our family’s real life from the virtual one. We unlock the door for specific work- or study-related purposes and lock it again when the job is done. The only exception is e-mail for far-flung family and friends.

As it happened, the day of the great Web meltdown was very cold, and I was out late with a night class. So I didn’t even walk those 20 feet to check the e-mail, much less fire up Yahoo in search of the latest TV and movie news. (Hey, for me that’s work-related!) When I finally did hear the news, the significance (dare I say justice?) of the event was plain.

Left historian Michael Kazin told The Village Voice that the e-commerce guerrillas are the direct descendants of Abbie Hoffman, and he was right. There has not been a more perfect symbolic, made-for-media political act since Hoffman and company dumped baskets of dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Let me pause here to note that I am not now, nor have I ever been, an anti-technological Luddite—not a consistent one anyhow. I love machines that are aesthetically pleasing and help enlarge the imagination. I certainly wouldn’t have stopped the march of progress anytime before the invention of color movies and electric guitars. I admit that I didn’t have much use for computers at first. Then I heard what Stevie Wonder could do with them. I finally got my hands on one in 1985 when Sojourners made the leap, and I was instantly smitten. That clunky old Kaypro with the tiny screen wasn’t much by today’s standards. But to me it was a machine that could transmute my thoughts into pure light. It fit the way I worked, and it helped me find my style as a writer.

THE INTERNET NEVER struck me at that gut level, but a culturally savvy communitarian had to notice the Net’s promises of open communication and free access to information. The new network had the potential to empower those outside the official opinion-making loop. Living in a small rural community for the past three years has deepened my appreciation of that potential. Unfortunately, I’m also old enough to have been through this all before. When I was a kid, TV was supposed to open the world to the isolated and ignorant. What we ended up with was "Petticoat Junction." Cable was supposed to bring us broad access to art and communication—self-produced and decentralized. When it reached critical mass in the early 1990s, we got the same couple of dozen cheesy commercial channels on every system.

The Internet is moving in the same direction. It began as a national defense system, then evolved into a network of university researchers. But the old utopia of free access and open communication cannot withstand the pressures of the market. The Internet was not meant to have things worth $50 billion on it, Web analyst Bruce Sterling told The Village Voice. In his estimation, the attack on e-commerce could be a pivotal event like the Seattle WTO protests. Suddenly, he said, "people were wandering around in pepper gas and people across the country started thinking, ‘gee, why would anyone possibly be against world trade as we know it?’ In this case it’s like, how could anyone possibly resent e-commerce, which is about a bunch of super-rich guys with stock options up the wazoo more or less taking over the Web?"

A global economy depends, among other things, upon a global flow of information. The people who took down E*TRADE et al. might have been a bunch of kids out for kicks, but—whether by design or not—they happened to hit one of the hottest buttons for our brave new century.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, lives and writes in Ripley, Mississippi.

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