Touted as the first Net novel, Surfing on the Internet might have been called Hacker in the Rye:// in its way, it's a coming of age story for the digital era. It's also a hybrid of genres represented by Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater on the one hand and the Tibetan Book of the Dead //on the other: a tale of initiation, addiction and liberation, the growth and loss of faith and of navigating a strange domain (pun intended) somewhere between life as we know it and death as we imagine it.
The Net is, after all, a telecosm filled with cults. Notwithstanding big business's attempts to bust its way into the electronic highway it believes to be paved with gold, the dedicated netter, so this book would have us believe, is a solitary, visionary obsessive who worships at the altar of a personal fixation. J.C. Hertz, the Generation-Xer cum digital-riot-grrl-made-good who penned – or rather posted – Surfing, celebrates these obsessives for their attention to obscure detail, their pursuit of a digitised truth which, like religious ecstasy, is almost erotic in its intensity.
Hertz's tale corresponds to the traditional observances of religion. She suffers the deprivations of a pilgrimage (navigating through a complex electronic landscape) and is initiated into sacred rituals (or netiquette); she learns to speak in tongues (the bizarre net dialect); she moves with difficulty, as a woman, within the monastic confines of the male-dominated Net, like a lone Calamity Jane braving the lawless frontier towns of the Wild West. Among this vocal, masculine priesthood, there is a large silent (and therefore androgynous) congregation: the lurkers, those who gather on the Net to listen, but say nothing. There's an equivalent of the Holy Grail in this story: the sought-after blotto box, the mythic omnipotent phreaker box which will miraculously block or open any phone line. There are crusades and counter-crusades, savage wars of attrition confined within a news group. There is even digital voodoo, in the shape of muds: mud junkies... are the walking dead.
Although the Net is described in parts in this book as though it were a cyber-garden of Eden, with the snake in the grass being - what else? - corporatization in the form of direct e-mail marketing, the trope which eventually triumphs is the tabloid one of: (I was) Slave of Weird Brainwashing Cult Makes Lucky Escape.
Our heroine is initially euphoric to be part of the Net cult. Deprived of sleep, she sits before the pillar of fire of a glowing computer screen and communes with her god, her only sustenance the bowls of Count Chocula and Fruity Pebbles which appear, like disgusting manna, beside her terminal. Nowhere in this book does she describe going to get a bowl of cereal: it's just there, an apparition as miraculous as lines of text on a screen. And though she's at pains to remind us that she has a life in the real world, her accounts of it read more like net anecdotes - who could be convinced by the too-stereotypical tale of her getting a supermarket McJob as employee number 666?
The book mimics the plot – insofar as it has one – which it unfurls. The reader starts off like the author: intrigued, happy to tag along, responsive. But as the Net Odyssey goes round and round in cyber-cliché circles, enthusiasm fades fast. Not back to muds again, you think... not another reference to Seattle... not another slacker sob story... uncomfortable feelings of deja vu prevail. The transcriptions of Net dialogue, the descriptions of Net encounters and experiences, ultimately seem repetitive, cerebral and dull. Lacking the texture of life, the book becomes as numbing as a long session in front of a screen. The profile of sad Net case Kieran is interesting, but no more emotionally involving than hahahaha typed on a screen is. These bald, dry transcriptions are no more dialogue than :-) is a human smile. It's with relief that we witness the terminal junkie finally slit her cyber wrists and log out for good.
The real world really loses out in this book, although its heroine ultimately escapes the digital dharma. She has a book contract, friends, a real life to turn to. Real Net devotees, like Kieran, have nothing. Jobless, cashless, friendless, the Net is all they have to believe in.
The Net remains a paradox, a supremely communicative technology which keeps people apart, a global village which is, culturally speaking, Yankee Doodle Dandy through and through. Though at first it seems like Heaven, Hertz concludes, the Net is ultimately a Hades which its disembodied users haunt like 'ghosts'. The Net universe is counter-intuitive: within it, every man (and woman) is ultimately an island. Sometimes, this electronic loneliness seems godlike. At least, it lends delusions of godlikeness. I need to become part of a post-apocalyptic culture of neo-primitives who will worship me as a god, says one angst-ridden netter.
The role of faith in sustaining the Net and its culture is vital. Although it is riddled with as many fakes, pretenders, hoaxes and forgeries as ever beset the Catholic church in the middle ages, netters can still be inspired and united by true faith.
One story in Hertz's book stands out:'' According to Net legend, there is a coke machine in the computer center of Carnegie-Mellon University. Rather than walk up a flight of stairs only to find it empty, a few cmu students rigged the vending machine with an electronic surveillance mechanism and wired it to a server. From the comfort of their desks, they could check on the Coke machine, and it would tell them how many Cokes were in it and if they were cold... And that was all -- until the buildings computers were hooked into the Internet. Now it was possible for anyone in the world to finger the Carnegie-Mellon Coke machine. A New Zealander on the other side of the earth could check up on the cola stock just as easily as the cmu grad student fifty feet away. Of course, there wasn't much the New Zealander could do with this information, but that was beside the point. Hundreds, if not thousands of people all over the world kept tabs on the Carnegie-Mellon Coke machine as a sort of mental vacation.
Programmers at other schools even installed copycat mechanisms so that they too, could stake a patch of Netspace for their own caffeinated beverage dispenser. The computer science house at the Rochester Institute of Technology, for instance, has a machine that tells you how much Jolt, Mountain Dew, Coke Classic and 'Diet Stuff' is in it, as well as the number of cans in the 'Mystery Slot'. If you have a drink account there, you can even charge that frosty drink over the Net, and the machine will drop it from the appropriate slot. Of course, this is meant for rit students who live in the computer science house. But theoretically, someone in Finland could break into the server, and a cold can would clunk down from the mystery slot and find its way into the hands of a thirsty passer-by. The intersection between Net space and real life is tenuous here – there's an element of faith on the part of the Finnish hacker. He has to believe that the Coke machine exists, that it contains what it says it contains, and that his actions have a physical impact on it. But despite this (maybe because of it) the Coke machines on the Net have a kind of loony beauty...
I have never heard anyone express the slightest doubt that these plan files are connected to actual vending machines. I have never heard anyone express a desire to prove this hypothesis one way or the other. Without a sliver of physical evidence, they just believe that a coke machine that takes Net credit corresponds to a hunk of plastic and glass with a slot for quarters. There are people who don't believe in God who believe in the Carnegie-M coke machine. Faith is strange that way on the net.''